CNET's Next Big Thing: What's next for hardware?

CNET's Next Big Thing at CES 2014 gets panelists from Misfit Wearables, Intel, Ford, and Microsoft to talk about challenges going forward for sensored devices and connected cars.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
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CNET's Brian Cooley and Tim Stevens sit alongside CNET's Next Big Thing panelists at CES 2014. Josh Miller/CNET

While the features and services offered by wearables and home tech are certainly abundant, hardware makers say the next big challenge for these products is an age-old one: getting people to actually use them.

This means making products that look good and are ridiculously easy to use, according to a panel of industry folks from Misfit Wearables, Intel, Ford, and Microsoft at CNET's Next Big Thing presentation on Tuesday.

A visually-pleasing design is the only way these types of products can go mainstream because people won't just use wearables simply because they perform well, said Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit Wearables. He used his background in the medical devices world to illustrate the issue.

"The top problem with many [medical] drugs is that you won't take them, not because they don't work...let's get people to wear stuff first and then let's force the innovation," he told the at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show audience.

It's not surprising that Vu's company is behind the wearable fitness tracker Misfit Shine, which CNET Editor Stephen Shankland dubbed one of the most beautiful products of 2013.

"We almost didn't have a sensor in it because we couldn't fit it it. It was going to light up every time you were active to inspire you," Vu said to emphasize the Misft's aesthetic-first approach to wearable technology.

Similarly, any type of experience created by adding technology to homes or cars has to be easy-to-use or users won't adopt the technology.

Jim Buczkowski, director of Electrical and Electronics Systems at Ford's Research and Innovation Center, said his company is working on several ways to incorporate sensors to make the driving experience better without distracting the driver. This includes accessing information without having to take your hands off the wheel, via voice commands or gaze projection. Automatic authentification would make it easier for people to receive their personalized settings, like seat and radio settings, when they get into a shared car.

"Anticipating what you want -- if we can anticipate the next next thing that you are going to need and present it to you in a simple way," he said.

CNET's Next Big Thing at CES 2014

For wearable tech, battery power is also a major factor. Vu said charging a device stops people from wanting to use the device. Mike Bell, the VP and GM of the New Devices Group at Intel, agreed that power is an issue. He said the computing power exists to help devices do many things, but better sensors and battery life is need. For example, a device that can run constantly, can gather more data.

"Once we get this data, once it comes back, how do you gather it and make sense of it?" he said, posing another challenge for devices. To answer that question, Vu said hardware needs to show the public some "killer use cases," including accessing your car or buying something at a store, all with a wearable device.

"I can't even remember when I couldn't make phone call from my car, or send e-mail on the go. But it was only 15 years ago. I'm interested in what other similar killer use cases will be. Which ones will be uncovered over the next few years...if I had a sensor that could predict a major heart attack four hours ahead of time, that would be a killer use case," he said. "OK, maybe I shouldn't say killer."

Read more about the presentation at CNET's Live Blog.

CNET's Next Big Thing discusses new tech at CES 2014 (pictures)

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