Shape the Future

At CES, in search of the next big thing

January 6, 2014: 2:34 PM ET

I've looked high and low in Las Vegas, but so far, there's no savior for an industry facing decline.

By Cyrus Sanati

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Attendees geeking out at last year's Consumer Electronics Show.

FORTUNE -- This year's Consumer Electronics Show, as it is every year, is typically a celebration of technology and all things nerdy. But the Las Vegas mega-conference also presents a choice opportunity for investors and Wall Street to take the pulse of a $1 trillion-a-year business.

In 2014, the industry's baseline heart rate matters more than ever. Technology revenue is expected to decline in the coming months -- down 1% year over year to $1.055 trillion, according to economist Shawn DuBravac, who works for the association that puts on the show -- a burden that could weigh heavily on growth prospects. (DuBravac noted that the fall-off in revenue came thanks to a decrease in the average selling price of tablets and smartphones, and not due to some global pull-back in overall technology spending. The caveat: Tablets and smartphones now represent 43% of global technology sales.)

It's safe to say that this year, innovative ideas for new lines of business are in especially high demand.

The trade show officially opens on Tuesday, but on Sunday members of the press were given a sneak preview of things to come. The gadgets glimmered as usual, but there lacked a clear way forward for the industry. The hot gadget at this year's show? So far it's unclear, a departure from years past.

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That's not to say that the gadgets I saw weren't cool. Schwinn's bike CycleNav "Smart Bike" Navigator was a departure for the longstanding American company. WakaWaka's solar-powered gadgets were novel. And Clear View Audio's "invisible" audio speaker certainly left an impression. On the whole, though, nothing on display promised to change the course of the industry.

The buzz this year is centered on the "wearables" market, which encompasses connected watches, digital health monitoring devices, and similar "smart" items. (Look, there's the Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern with a Bluetooth toothbrush!) But this budding market is rather disjointed and fairly undefined -- what is a smartwatch, exactly, and what is one supposed to do with it? -- and it's unclear how this year will be any different. For years, Sony (SNE) and other electronics manufacturers have offered such devices, but none of them took hold with consumers.

I did spot several interesting (and surprisingly fashionable) wearables, but none were particularly innovative. All of them connect to your smartphone via Bluetooth and spout out data about some aspect of your health. That's desirable if you are a hypochondriac, but it's more challenging to make the case for the broader market.

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At CES Monday, many of technology's largest companies will hold their own press conferences, in a back-to-back format known as "Press Day." For example, LG and Samsung are set to reveal a bunch of "ultra high definition," or 4K, televisions. (Soooo 2013.) Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic will no doubt return the volley, and perhaps reveal how they plan to recapture lost glory days. (Ahem.)

In the meantime, I will keep searching for this year's golden fleece. From what I have seen and heard so far, though, I may have to wait till 2015.

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