CES is glitzy hardware, but software may be the best investment opportunity

Imagine a self-piloting drone that takes off on its own? Or a smart mirror from Panasonic that lets you see yourself with a mustache?

What about an electric unicycle about the size of a spare tire?

These and other novel products were on display at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. But they may not represent the best investment ideas for the venture capitalists who look to the show for fresh inspiration.

The most sensible investment themes may be the software applications that make sense of the data, deliver the content and manage the myriad devices bringing consumers into the “smart” world of tomorrow.

This year’s show advanced several key trends gaining steam over the past couple years. A second generation of more capable wearable devices was on display with sleeker appearances and heart rate monitoring.

Improved smart home gear was everywhere, including networked LED bulbs, grill-cleaning robots and hubs meant to connect devices not yet embedded with smarts.

Electronics makers talked up connected TVs that promise new programming and integration with the second screen, and carmakers made strides in creating an environment where smartphone apps designed for iOS, Android or other operating systems work in a connected vehicle.

Each one of these developments opens the door to new applications.

In the world of the connected car, for instance, the ability to link to the cloud brings the opportunity for extra music, entertainment and also info, said Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing at Pioneer Electronics. This layer of information might include traffic reports, weather, accident updates, email alerts, arrival times and other details not yet imagined.

The community of connected-car developers “will go from being a community of a couple hundred to a huge community,” Cardenas said. “The potential is exponential.”

The same may be true for connected TVs. Samsung announced at this year’s show its new Tizen-based service with apps listed in a Google TV-like format and premium content for sporting events, such as small windows with player stats and game analysis. As part of its push, the company is encouraging an app ecosystem of third-party developers.

The smart home market will undergo a transition of its own, said Radek Tadajewski at OORT, a maker of smart home gear.

In next 12 to 24 months, the smart home market will transform from an appliance, or hardware, business into a services business, where consumers will get smart home systems from providers who will sell premium services, Tadajewski said.

For the right kind of service provider, the opportunity could be attractive.