It’s still not here, but Apple’s Watch will loom large over competitors at CES 2015

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Apple loves few things more than making itself the center of attention. And while it hasn’t attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas for more than two decades, Apple has always liked to steal some spotlight from afar.

Several years back, that meddling came in the form of Mac World, a weeklong event that often overlapped with CES, giving the company a separate convention to call its own. This year, Apple preempted a fair share of the CES wearable excitement this year by announcing its maiden entry into the space months in advance.

Listen, it brings me no great pleasure to kick off a column about CES with a few paragraphs a about months-old Apple announcement. But with the Apple Watch, Cupertino threw down the gauntlet for wearables in 2015. Like it or not, this is the yard stick by which all other wearables will be judged in the coming year, and as such, it’s really the best place to begin a piece of CES 2015 wearable predictions.

With the Apple Watch, Cupertino threw down the gauntlet for wearables in 2015.

With Apple’s product in sight, expect the wrist to continue to be the battleground on which much of CES 2015’s wearable war is waged — particularly for those companies who, quite frankly, have just about everything to lose. Namely: the fine people at Pebble.

Last year the company was a CES darling with the Pebble Steel, a well-designed product that presented a sort of coming of age for the Kickstarter-birthed startup. The product was designed to demonstrate that wearables could be fashion accessories in their own right, and it did so with panache. However, the Steel was more of a prettifying of existing hardware than a whole new take on the space.

I’d spoken to Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky ahead of last year’s conference, and he’d insisted that the company was more focused on software. That made sense at the time, when Pebble was the perceived leader in smart watches, but in the intervening months, the space has become one of the most hotly contested in all of consumer electronics. And while Pebble got a headstart on much of the competition, the name recognition from a tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign still pales in comparison to what Apple or Samsung bring to the table.

Pebble might not be there quite yet, but I suspect we’re close to Hail Mary time for the company. While it doesn’t have the broad reach of one of those larger brands, the company’s diminutive size affords it the potential to take the risks that can lead to true product innovations. At the very least, the company will need to demonstrate that its products are every bit as capable as the competition. To remain truly competitive, however, Pebble with have to demonstrate that it can do more.

PebbleSteel_

That will become a tall order as Google’s many Android Wear partners step up their game. Granted, Google’s wearable initiative hasn’t exactly been a tremendous success out of the gate, but if we’re not drowning in new wrist-worn devices from Samsung, Sony, LG, Motorola, HTC, Asus, and the like, I’ll be shocked.

Like Apple, Google hasn’t traditionally been a major direct player at CES, but Android Wear may well afford the company the opportunity to play a larger role in the event. At the very least, CES can reaffirm Google’s commitment to wearables as the Apple Watch’s true launch looms closer.

Watchmakers looking to hop on this bullet train may well follow Fossil’s example and join up with Wear. At very least, you can expect a much more pronounced smart-device push from companies like Casio, which already have a history of exhibiting at the show. The wristwatch is, after all, making a comeback of sorts, with or without the participation of the names we traditionally associate with it.

Pebble might not be there quite yet, but I suspect we’re get-ting pretty close to Hail Mary time for the company.

Expect to see a lot more non-tech companies eager to smarten up their products through partnerships, helping the wearable space continue to branch out from the wrist. As it has in past year, health monitoring will no doubt play a central role in that continued growth.

VR will certainly play a big part as well. If not a new device, at least expect some big announcements from Oculus. And as always, expect lots and lots from Samsung: VR, watches, fitness bands and probably even a new category or two. That’s just how Samsung rolls, after all. Sony’s certainly due for a solid upgrade to its head-mounted display and smartwatch offerings.

If the past couple of years have been any indication, smaller companies will continue to steal headlines, too. As the big dogs have followed Apple in announcing products at their own events, room has opened up at CES for smaller hardware startups. With all eyes trained on the event, it’s the perfect opportunity for them to make a really big splash. Here’s hoping for one or two plucky little products that truly cause of to rethink the world of wearables.

It’s probably a bit too early to see actual products, but I suspect we’ll be getting plenty of prototypes utilizing flexible displays and other emerging technologies discussed in last week’s column. The time might even be just right to see some true convergence between the wearable and 3D printing spaces. Both are ready for the next big step — perhaps it’s one they’ll end up taking together.

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