CES 2017: Afterthoughts and Second Thoughts

It’s been a few weeks since the annual extravaganza of consumer electronics in Las Vegas. As usual, it’s difficult to process everything one sees and produce a coherent show review within a few days. There are always products, trends, and demos that one winds up dwelling on for a few weeks. (Sometimes it’s better not to be the first to report on something!)

Overall, the show was busy and loaded with gadgets. Mind you; a good part of those gadgets were “shiny, sparkly” things, such as mobile phone cases with glitter and mirrors. Or must-have accessories, none of which really cost all that much. Numerous booths in the upper and lower South Hall were filled with exactly that, showcased by numerous Chinese/Korean/Taiwanese trading companies you’ve never heard of.

Add in a scattering of U.S. audio companies toward the front of the hall, plus the large areas reserved for AR/VR demos and the drone cages, and that pretty much sums up the South Hall experience. (A continuing puzzler is the presence of the United States Postal Service in the middle of all of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers.)

In the Central Hall, the show continues to be dominated by the big CE brands – LG, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm, Casio, Canon, Nikon, and relative newcomers TCL, Hisense, and Haier (who now owns the GE appliances business and made it a focal point of their booth). And the North Hall is basically divided between audio companies and automobile manufacturers, with the lines often blurring between them.

Much of the new tech appears in the Sands Expo Center, which due to the challenging logistics of travel, I don’t focus on much. There’s another crop of audio companies set up on the upper floors of the Venetian Hotel, and other venues host a variety of small, table top expos like Digital Experience and ShowStoppers.

So the first trend that jumped out at me is just how many of these Asian manufacturers and wholesalers have taken over the show. In the past, I’ve joked about large parts of the South Hall becoming the “Chinese Electronics Show,” but that’s a pretty good description of what you see there.

Shiny, sparkly stuff everywhere!

Another trend you couldn’t miss is just how important appliances have become to the product lines of companies like Panasonic, LG, and Samsung (not to mention Haier and Hisense). That shouldn’t come as a surprise – there’s much more profit in refrigerators, washers, dryers, and even things like the induction oven Panasonic showed this year when you compare appliances to the former kings of CES, televisions.

That’s not to say television isn’t important anymore. But when the amount of booth space devoted to TVs continues to shrink while the square footage given to appliances is growing, it doesn’t take long to connect the dots. In fact, more of the TV demos focused on the underlying technology than on specific lines or models. And right now (while this is being written), I can walk into Best Buy and pick up with a 55-inch LG Ultra HDTV with Web OS for all of $500 – or walk out with a 55-inch Hisense version with basic HDR support for the same price.  (Remember the good old days, when a 50-inch 1080p plasma TV cost $5,000?)

So it doesn’t make as much sense for manufacturers to invest a lot of time and money into promoting a category of products which has slim profit margins to begin with. But those ‘connected’ refrigerators? Dual-chamber washing machines? Cool kitchen gadgets? Now, there’s where a decent profit can be made, especially when you can sell a swath of these products in a bundle for consumers who are remodeling kitchens.

Never heard of Skyworth? Don’t worry, you will…

 

Appliances are where the action (and money) is these days.

One area that was disappointing was wireless connectivity – specifically, 60 GHz WiFi and wireless USB. Although I did mention some impressive demos from Peraso in my post-show coverage, I was surprised to see little space Qualcomm gave to 802.11ad products, particularly after the impressive demos shown last year. Despite the unique advantages of wireless operation in this band – limited, secure in-room connectivity with high bit rates over large channels – we’re still not seeing enough in the way of finished products.

Although other press accounts have talked about voice recognition being a big deal at the show (mostly with the autonomous car demonstrations), I didn’t see much that really wowed me. In past years, Conexant had excellent demos of voice recognition in noisy environments, but either they didn’t exhibit or didn’t reach out to me as they have in the past. The same observation applies to gesture recognition – there were some interesting products here and there that used a basic implementation, but nothing earth-shaking.

I mentioned augmented reality and virtual reality. From my view, the biggest problem with VR taking off in a big way is the size and weight of the headsets. Sure, we’ve all seen the Samsung Galaxy VR TV commercial where everyone is “thrilled” to get a VR (Oculus Rift) headset for Christmas, and they all “ooh!” and “ahhh!” at the VR experience.

Wearing VR headsets isn’t as comfortable as it looks…

What we don’t see is people taking these headsets off and putting them aside after the initial VR novelty wears off and sore necks start to manifest – not to mention possible problems with nausea due to a disconnect in the brain between perceived motion and actual motion. The latter is a real problem, similar to the issues with failed stereoscopic perception revealed by the roll-out of 3D seven years ago.

That’s not to say there isn’t a market for VR. There definitely is, but by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, we will need about 8K pixel resolution per eye to make it really work. (Some VR manufacturers and users are advocating for 11K per eye, refreshed as fast as 120 Hz to eliminate flicker.) With AR, on the other hand, things are much farther along, as Kopin demonstrated with its 2K x 2K near-to-eye OLED microdisplay fitted to a firefighter’s oxygen mask for search and rescue.

I may have said this before, but it’s worth repeating: LEDs are simply dominating the display sector. From the white LEDs with color filters used in conventional LCD TVs and the blue LEDs combined with quantum dots in HDR/WCG UHDTV models to organic white OLEDs with color filters in Ultra HDTVs, RGB OLEDs in smartphones and tablets, and the new super-small “micro” LEDs that make up the building blocks of super-bright, colorful videowalls with as much as 8K resolution…LEDs are basically taking over the world. (And I left out automotive displays and lights, appliances, indoor and outdoor lighting, and indicator lamps.)

How’s this for a cool keyboard design, which each key illuminated by a micro LED?

About the only area left to mention is the ever-growing Internet of Things trend. It was impossible to keep tabs on all of the IoT products at the show – remote pet food dispenser monitors, heart monitors, water quality monitors, connected TVs, massage chairs, doorbell cameras, connected appliances, home security systems, teenage driver monitors, control systems, and of course a slew of connected sensors in the most advanced car designs.

Memo to those readers in the commercial AV industry: If you haven’t figured out that room control systems for AV gear, lighting, shades, thermostats, audio, screens, and projectors are all entering the IoT world and leaving behind clunky, proprietary and expensive programming systems – well, that train is leaving the station, and you’d better not miss it.

As for interfacing all of this gear, we’re seeing a slow and steady move to the next-generation USB connector (version 3.0 Type-C) for new laptops and eventually, tablets and smartphones. Given that USB Type-C can also support display connections like HDMI and DisplayPort, that’s one or two less connectors to deal with. And given a move to AV-over-IT connectivity, we may be more concerned with USB-based switching and distribution equipment – or we’ll just encode all of our video and audio to JPEG2000, M-JPEG, H.264, or H.265 and use conventional fast network switches to do the job.

See you in Vegas next year?