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At Consumer Electronics Show, ‘smartphone revolution’ spreads from car to closet

January 6, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Internet is moving beyond computers and phones. From your toaster to your car to your socks, almost everything you touch can be wired for connectivity. Judy Woodruff talks to Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post about the technological breakthroughs featured at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  Finally tonight, a future where your home can act a little smarter, your car starts with just the sound of your voice, and your clothes can measure your heart rate and other personal data.  Those are just some of the possibilities being discussed at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  It’s a gathering to highlight some of the latest developments in technology, featuring plenty of high-end gadgets, and often a bit of hype as well. 

This year’s theme is about the so-called Internet of things. 

Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post joins us from Las Vegas to fill us in on that idea and more. 

Cecilia, welcome back to the program. 

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So, I’m almost afraid to ask.  What is the Internet of things?

CECILIA KANG, The Washington Post:  Well, the Internet of things really represents the idea that the Internet is moving beyond just smartphones and tablets, and has really become part of so many more aspects of our life, where so many more machines, so many more accessories and gadgets are connected to the Internet, everything from a toaster to a car, to a wristwatch to your stocks. 

So the idea is that so many more machines and parts of your lives can be connected to the Internet.  And this really is sort of the next step beyond the smartphone revolution.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  So what have you seen there that’s caught your attention? 

CECILIA KANG:  Well, cars will be a really big theme here, and the smart sort of Internet-connected car. 

There’s a lot of aspects to that.  The idea is that you’re in the car for a long time, and what carmakers and Silicon Valley hopes is that you will do some of the things that you do in front of your computer and over your smartphone in your car as well, which, of course, present some concerns about some questions about safety. 

But the idea is that to put 4G high-speed wireless Internet connections into cars.  Audi is going to announce that.  GM is announcing that this week.  And the — this will allow — say, for example, you’re in a minivan and you have four kids in the car and two parents, six people total. 

Everybody should be able to be listening to the music they want, watching the video, streaming the videos they want, playing with the apps and updating their Facebook status all at the same time in the car.  And carmakers really hope that this will be sort of the next stage of their industry, which is really trying to figure out a way to attract more and younger buyers. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Instead of looking out of the window. 

 (LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And we’re hoping — and we’re hoping the driver is paying attention to where he or she is going. 

CECILIA KANG:  That’s right. 

And there will be some big questions about safety.  And federal regulators will certainly look into this.  There are — there are so many concerns about distractions in the car.  And there was a huge effort over the last few years to get drivers to stop texting while driving.  And then suddenly we have this idea of so many more Internet distractions potentially while you’re driving. 

The solution that the companies hope — that the Web companies and the car companies hope to introduce would be voice-recognized commands, that that would hopefully avoid of the idea of people glancing too much at a screen and actually tapping on apps.  But a lot of that remains to be seen.  And it’s also an insurance question as well.  Who picks up the liability when there’s accidents?

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And, Cecilia, we have been hearing over the last year or so about driverless cars.  Does this mean we’re coming closer to that? 

CECILIA KANG:  It certainly does.  It certainly does, in the sense that there’s no reason why the technology and the way that it’s moving — sensors are so cheap, cameras are so cheap — there is no reason why your car can’t have loads of them all over the car to help prevent — and also connect to GPS connections and have this Internet connection — to sense when other cars are too close. 

And all that capability, all these technological advances are available today, or at least are conceptually available in labs.  And Google has introduced that two years ago.  Audi has talked about its own prototype for working on this.  Every carmaker is sort of interested in this idea about the idea of potentially having people in their cars doing things other than actually steering the car, and having more time to be on the Internet, if you will. 

But it will take some time, Judy.  It will probably take about five to 10 years is what the carmakers say.  There are regulatory concerns.  You have to get approval from your local and state highway patrol.  And you also have all these questions again about liability.  Who picks up the insurance plans and the burden of liability when there’s an accident?

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Now, there’s also — there are so many other devices and gadgets, as you mentioned.  Smarter TVs, tell us about that, and how much smarter are they than the TVs we have now?

CECILIA KANG:  Sure.

Well, I would love to state that they are so much smarter, Judy.  But it seems like they’re not that much smarter than last year’s and the year before that.  The problem with TVs, smart TVs, and the idea of smart Internet TV that it all sounds good, and most TVs actually that are sold today in retail stores do have Internet capabilities. 

And a lot of people are buying Apple boxes and Roku boxes to enable them to get on to apps like Netflix and Pandora and Amazon Prime online.  But the thing is, most people actually are also pretty happy with the TV, the hardware that they have itself.  And there’s — TVs have become so cheap.  So the idea of buying some of the TVs that are coming out at the CES show this week, which are in the tens of thousands of dollars and are huge, 105-inch screens and ultra-Heard — that means incredible resolution — the idea of spending that kind of money is really so far out of the budget of most consumers. 

But like most products here at CES, the — what your — the providers like the companies like Samsung and LG are trying to do is to pique your interest and sort of get you curious and fascinated with the possibility of what could be.  So it will be probably a small market size for those people who want to buy Internet-capable TVs.  It will grow slowly. 

But it’s probably not going to be the big hit for the consumer electronics market going forward. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And just in a few seconds, wearable gadgets, how far are they getting along with those? 

CECILIA KANG:  Well, there’s lots of — there’s a lot of interconnectivity activity trackers, like the Fitbit and the Nike FuelBand.

And those are getting smarter.  And you’re seeing the same kind of technology that those — that those wristbands have make its way into other parts of your clothing and accessories, from socks to shoes to headbands.  And there’s so many other things that people are measuring. 

The question is — I think what consumers want is a good price point, and they probably want a device that looks good and also has a few more capabilities than just tracking your steps and counting your calories.  They’re hoping for something that might have a little bit more incorporation of some of the smartphone functionality that you have in your wristband. 

But there is a lot that has to come together for a consumer to want to spend more than $200 on something like that. 

JUDY WOODRUFF:  And they also need to be able to understand it. 

CECILIA KANG:  Yes.

 (LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Cecilia Kang, The Washington Post, thanks very much. 

CECILIA KANG:  Thank you.