For one week a year, the attentions of the global technology industry are pulled away from Silicon Valley, and are dragged a few hundred miles east to Sin City.

Las Vegas, a city whose smoke-filled casinos and gaudy architecture make it seem frozen in time, may not seem the most obvious hotspot for innovation, but every January it aims to provide a window into the future.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a jamboree that goes back more than five decades, is the biggest tech show on earth.

This week, almost 200,000 people and 4,000 companies will squeeze into Vegas's hotels and conference centres in an attempt to set the tone for the year.

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"CES is the global stage for innovation, it's the largest and most influential global technology event," says Steve Koenig, the senior director of market research at the Consumer Technology Association, the body that runs the show.

For much of its life, the show has been a barometer of the tech industry itself.

Microsoft's original Xbox was first unveiled at the show, as were Blu-ray discs and, three decades ago, Tetris.

It was here in 2008 that Bill Gates announced he was stepping back from Microsoft. And for many companies, it is still the biggest showcase of the year.

But the mecca of technology has also come to reflect the industry in another way: defined by a lack of purpose in a world where new gadgets are not the draw they once were, and which is increasingly led by a few giants, such as Apple, Google and Amazon.

Smartphones and apps have come to dominate our relationship with tech, replacing the music players, computers and even televisions that have dominated CES, and much more focus is now on software and internet services than gadgets.

One could even make an argument that Apple's annual iPhone launch alone creates more waves than the entire Vegas show, given the breadth of the industry that orbits it.

CES, at which companies such as Samsung, LG and Sony queue up to deliver their greatest new inventions, can seem like a microcosm of the quest for relevance surrounding much of the industry.

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"It's still a massive event but it's a show with a bit of an identity crisis," says Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight.

In recent years, the most influential companies have reduced their presence at the show. Microsoft dropped out in 2012; Apple has never had a public presence.

What has been left has often felt like companies throwing darts in the dark: throwing new technologies out there to see what sticks, with invention driven more by what is technically possible than what consumers want.

A representative from New Zealand company StretchSense demonstrated at CES 2016. Photo/supplied
A representative from New Zealand company StretchSense demonstrated at CES 2016. Photo/supplied

A parade of new inventions has been touted as the next great leap, from virtual reality to wearable technology, robots and the "internet of things".

For many, the sense of aimlessness that can inhabit CES is summed up perfectly by the one technology that surfaces without fail every year: the "smart fridge" - a refrigerator packed with sensors and screens designed to tell you if you are running out of milk.

Each year, the likes of Samsung and LG unveil new designs for internet fridges, boasting modern features such as voice control and smartphone alerts. Each year, consumers go on surviving without owning one.

Internet fridges may sit at the barmy end of the spectrum, but many of the supposed trends that were due to follow the smartphone have not lived up to expectations.

Wearables - wristbands and watches that tracked users' activity - were once seen as the natural extension of the smartphone but have not taken off as many expected them to several years ago.

"It definitely feels like the enthusiasm for wearables has waned a bit, volumes have continued to rise but the big electronics makers have backed right away from the category," says Wood.

The same is true of virtual reality (VR), which arrived on the scene to great fanfare two to three years ago but has not lived up to expectations.

"They made promises they couldn't deliver on, and that's been borne out in the number of VR systems that have actually sold," says Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy.

There have been other flops, such as 3D televisions, and even advances that have stuck around, such as 4K screens, which are becoming popular more through default than because of consumer demand: it is becoming more difficult to buy televisions that do not support 4K.

Carmakers have steadily increased their presence, filling the hole left by the biggest tech companies, although the major advance they are promising - of vehicles that drive themselves - is still several years away.

Rinspeed presented its clever urban Oasis runabout at the CES in Las Vegas last year. Photo/supplied
Rinspeed presented its clever urban Oasis runabout at the CES in Las Vegas last year. Photo/supplied

But despite all this, there is a quietly growing feeling that the world's biggest tech show may once again be becoming more relevant.

That this year, a new optimism will be in the air, and that finally, many of the future-gazing promises made in recent years are coming true.

The most clear manifestation of this will be the smart home: everyday household objects that are connected to the internet and can be controlled remotely.

The idea has been met with scepticism for years, derided as a classic case of manufacturers putting microchips in things that do not need them, but the rise of voice-controlled assistants has changed the picture.

Virtual aides such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google Assistant have catalysed the smart home market, becoming operating systems for the home, and their competing interests have encouraged manufacturers that ideas such as the smart home have enough support from major players.

Analysts are expecting a new generation of voice-operated smart devices to be at the forefront this year.

"The one thing that will be pervasive throughout the show is connectivity," says Wood.

"We've shifted from the smartphone being connected to everything being connected."

Koenig says this will extend to smart cities and connected cars as 5G internet connections move from the laboratory to the field, bringing more reliable and faster connections.

"While we've learned a lot about 5G and what it is, nothing has materialised substantially; this show will change that," he says.

There are even signs that the tech giants are returning to the show.

Tech giant Google will have a booth at this year's CES event in Las Vegas. Photo/AP
Tech giant Google will have a booth at this year's CES event in Las Vegas. Photo/AP

Google will have an exhibition booth, the first time in years that the company has had a public presence, and though it is not matched by Amazon, Facebook and Apple, they will be feverishly wooing potential partners behind closed doors, as they try to convince makers of internet-connected appliances and gadgets to use their own smart home technology.

"They love to pretend they're not part of this technology conference, but hundreds of them are there," says Moorhead.

"Apple and Google and Amazon are meeting with people behind the scenes, with retailers who want to distribute the product or with vendors. From an ecosystem point of view they want every accessory maker on their side."

Moorhead describes this year's CES as "a fulfilment show".

"Vendors are actually going to fulfil the promises they made last year. [It's] a year where the products do what they say they're going to do."

Whether that means internet-connected fridges start entering our homes is another question.