Making the virtual a reality at CES 2013

Microsoft's decision to drop out of CES prompted a lot of questions with regards to the future relevance of CES, not the least of which was how much the industry really needed an in-person tech trade show in an age where business is primarily done online. Of course, there's still a fair amount of value in offering members of the media and buyers the opportunity to actually interact with the technology in person. And while software companies have long been a staple of the show, their presence is most often an acknowledgement of hardware partners.

It's fitting, then, that many of the show's offbeat highlights came in the form of companies looking to offer hardware solutions to our increasingly virtual world. Parrot's always-amusing CEO, Henri Seydoux said it best while showing off the latest additions to the company's AR.Drone on our stage. "Today, the kids have video games," he told us. "They've replaced toys, because it's a much more interesting experience. With the drone, we've tried to make toys as fun as video games." And it's easy to see how such a product can be taken as a real-world answer to smartphone gaming, with video from the built-in camera being overlaid with AR content.

Orbotix's Sphero takes a similar route, allowing users to control the little robotic ball via tablet and smartphone. The latest addition to the device's roster of apps fully immerses it in casual games in which players can use the ball to perform such favorite mobile activities as zombie hunting. Ditto on the newly refreshed Romo, which turns your iPhone into a remote-controlled device. Both products certainly seem to adhere to the aforementioned mission statement of updating toys for a generation weaned on smartphones and game consoles.

A more literal interpretation of this concept can be seen in the form of the mini-3D printer explosion that occurred this year. Last year's Replicator debut made way for high-profile appearances by a number of companies, including 3D Systems, FormLabs and, of course, MakerBot. At its core, the appeal of these devices is the concept of turning the virtual into the real, transforming onscreen 3D renderings into real-world objects. It's a technology that's existed for decades, sure, but it's one that's finally working its way to our living rooms, thanks to a big push from the companies mentioned above.

Tactus, meanwhile, is approaching the concept of turning the virtual into reality from a very different angle. The small company's taking back the keyboard, creating a popup overlay of the on-screen version we've come accustomed to over the past decade. It's an interesting solution to the problem of typing on a tablet that still forgoes the physical keyboard. Here, the problem is clear -- as much as most of us have grown used to typing on displays, the input method is still lacking compared to the physical keyboards that most of us learned to type on.

The question, then, is if these technologies mark some larger trend -- a backlash against the push over the last few decades that has seen us increasingly living our lives through our devices. At the very least, it highlights a slew of companies ready to cater to those individuals looking for something a little more tangible in their devices. It's a move that, perhaps somewhat ironically, is facilitated by technology in the above cases.

It's also seeing a boon with some lower-tech companies. Stern Pinball CEO Gary Stern cites the popularity of pinball mobile apps as a contributing factor in a recent resurgence of interest in the game. This year at the show, Stern showed off its smaller Pin games, miniaturized versions of full-sized silver ball machines meant to capitalize on this renewed interest by targeting them at the living rooms of interested parties. And then there's ThinkGeek, who had a parade of goods to show off, continuing its longstanding trend of making the fantastic real through its Iris (Read: Hal) 5000 Siri dock.

It's an interesting phenomenon to watch, and one that's certainly injecting some innovation into a show that, in recent years, has run the risk of going stale by centering on minor refreshes to product lines. It also leverages precisely what CES is best at: getting hardware into the hands of journalists and industry professionals.