The Consumer Electronics Show offers a peek at what the big box retailers may already be putting on shelves for you.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- And so we begin again with the 2013 International CES.
There was a time the consumer electronics business was simple. Products were sold at actual retail stores. Store owners would need to choose their lines. So they headed out to Las Vegas in early January to meet vendors at a trade show called, not surprisingly, the Consumer Electronics Show. There retailers would test product, check out the competition and schmooze -- all the while doing the "What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas" thing.
Then everyone sobered up and headed home to see what would actually sell with customers.
By modern standards, of course, this is almost laughable. Today, maybe a dozen big-scale retail buyers from the likes of Wal-Mart (:WMT), Amazon (:AMZN) and Target (:TGT) control consumer tech -- and most probably don't even bother going to CES. Sadly, the story told by journalists and investors about tech products often overwhelms the products themselves.
But still, I go. Each and every year -- on my own nickel -- I head out to the Mojave Desert to walk the CES show floor in the traditional style. Over a full week, I log the miles strolling up and down the long aisles, sniffing out trends, touching product and otherwise looking as many real people in the eye as I can.
Based on the past several months of prep for the trip next week, here's what I will be looking at most closely for some much-needed upside in consumer electronics.
The "hybrid" display
Between absurdly expensive movies, retailers struggling to make the technology's value clear and on-and-off-again support for custom content from cable companies, it's clear 3-D will continue to be a non-event this year. Investors can also count on emerging so-called Ultra High-Definition TV standards, often called 4K and 8K, to be similarly non-eventful. That makes it easy to assume that the only display news at this CES will be overhyped advancements in portable screen technologies such as AMOLED. (It's what makes iPhones, iPads and Droids look so cool.)
But from what I am seeing there should be some fresh love for so-called hybrid screens and projectors. These displays mix imaging technologies in single devices to improve performance. Take the ViewSonic Pro9000 projector ($3,999). This unit cleverly splits the rendering duties between an LED light engine and several lasers to create a projector with solid resolution, good color balance and almost no heat or distracting fan noise. It doesn't hurt that lamp life is in the stunning 20,000-hour range. ViewSonic is not alone in exploring hybrid displays; Casio and Acer ship similar projectors. In 2011, Apple (:AAPL) filed a patent for an e-Ink/LCD hybrid. Mitsubishi has announced a hybrid LED/laser TV.
Once prices drop, my gut says hybrids will be hot.
The "smarter" credit card
With all due respect to Apple bashers, Tim Cook may have had a perfectly good reason for leaving out near-field communications and e-commerce from the iPhone 5. Folks already have a excellent way to shop on the go: the credit card. And from what I am hearing, credit and debit cards are getting smarter right along with phones.
Take Pittsburgh-based Dynamics. The company struck a deal last year with MasterCard (:MA) to become a certified next-gen card production vendor for the credit card giant. Its ePlate technology, for example, shows what is possible with this deal. Users can control the data held in cards, including installing multiple loyalty programs that can assigned to different purchases as needed.
Keep in mind: Third-party peripheral makers are also getting smart about injecting smart cards into modern consumers' lives. I, along with everyone else who has seen it, loves what Sunnyvale, Calif.-based CardNinja is doing with a simple credit card pouch that attaches to a smartphone, often replacing the need for a wallet. With a little bit of tech TLC, the smarter card could be as cool as the smarter phone pretty darn quick.
Sleeper CES product pick: The Dropcam
I get it. Dropcam is nothing more than an idiot-proof home monitoring camera. And at this year's CES, there will be way flashier tech innovations, including portable scanners that fit in your pocket and monitors that both bend and act like windows. But between the $149 retail price, its ease of use and the growing market around remote video devices -- no less than retail giant Lowe's (:LOW) sells a much dorkier remote video system called the Iris -- I can see this being the year consumers finally see the value of being able to monitor their homes or offices. And Dropcam is just the right kind of useful gizmo in that market for folks to actually buy.
At the end of the day, that's what we are all looking for at CES.