CES 2018 In The Rear View Mirror (Or, what a difference a decade makes…)

BACK IN THE DAY…

I’ve lost track of how many Consumer Electronic Shows I’ve been to over the years. While recently going through my photo archives, I found images from the 2008 show, and what an eye opener! Prominent TV brands from back then that are no longer with us included Mitsubishi, who had just launched their premium Laser DLP rear-projection TV sets, and Hitachi, who had the good sense to read the writing on the wall and bail out on the TV business shortly after.

Pioneer was another brand about to pull the plug on televisions, but they continued to showcase their ultra-thin Kuro plasma sets. Panasonic also featured plasma TVs in their booth, claiming their picture quality was every bit as good as Pioneer (it was) and dazzling visitors with a one-off 150-inch 4K (3840×2160) plasma monitor. No one could have predicted at the time that plasma display technology would disappear just five years later.

Over in the Samsung booth, there was a small tower of small OLED TVs out for inspection, along with a full array of plasma and LCD TVs, the latter featuring Full HD (1920×1080) resolution – a big deal at the time! JVC showed what they claimed to be the world’s thinnest LCD TV (about 2 inches thick) and Sony was offering an 11-inch AM OLED monitor for sale, the XEL-1 a/k/a “the torch.” It didn’t run very long before the brightness fell off dramatically.

FLASHBACK: Remember Mitsubishi’s Laser DLP rear projection TV? It was launched in 2008. Today, Mitsubishi is out of the TV business.

 

FLASHBACK: Ten years ago, OLED TVs were expensive, cutting edge (and small) displays. Today? A mainstream product.

Dolby was taking its first steps into high dynamic range imaging by its acquisition of Canadian tech startup Brightside Technologies. The latter pioneered and patented a technique for LCD local area dimming with white LEDs, ostensibly to improve LCD contrast and also to obtain much lower black levels. LG Philips (today’s LG Display) was demonstrating smooth motion on LCDs and reducing blur on fast-moving objects.

The first iPhone had just made its appearance and tablets didn’t exist yet. Netflix had just started a streaming service, while a company called Vudu launched at Pepcom’s Digital Experience and promised smooth downloads of HD movies and TV shows to the home. And of course, 2008 as the year that the HD DVD – Blu-ray wars came to an end as Warner Brothers was apparently convinced by Sony to go all in with the BD format. That was to prove the coup de grade for HD DVD – Toshiba pulled the plug on this format a couple years later. (I still have a player and about 20 HD DVD movies, many still in their shrink wrap.)

Televisions were of course the big news for most of us at the show, and they dominated the booths of Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba (remember Toshiba?), Sharp, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Philips, JVC, and a bunch of smaller brands – not to mention a handful of Chinese companies no one had ever heard of. Today, many of those manufacturers are out of the TV business altogether or have licensed their names to Japanese, Korean, or Chinese TV manufacturers. A notable example would be Hisense, which controls the Sharp and Toshiba TV brands (even though Hon Hai Precision Industries now owns Sharp).

THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW

LG will offer Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa in its 2018 TVs, like other manufacturers.

 

Samsung claims all of their products will be interconnected by 2020 – and 5G will be a key to making that happen.

This little detour down memory lane showed me just how much the show has changed in a decade. Perhaps the biggest change is the diminished importance of televisions: A quick check at Best Buy’s pre-Super Bowl TV sales shows that you can pick up a first-tier 55-inch 4K (Ultra HD) TV with “smart” functionality for about $500, and about $100 less for a 2nd-tier brand. Want high dynamic range? Add around $300 – $400 to the price. Compared to what a 1080 Kuro plasma cost back in 2008 (about $3,000 to $5,000, if my memory serves me correctly), that is an incomprehensible decline in pricing. And we’re talking about Ultra HDTVs here, not Full HD sets that can be had in the same screen size for as little as $399!

Sure, there were plenty of televisions to look at in Las Vegas. But the fact is that they just don’t matter that much anymore in the grand scheme of things. For perspective, my daughter’s brand-new Google Pixel 2 smartphone costs about as much money as a Sony XBR49X800E 49-inch “smart” Ultra HDTV with HDR and Dolby Digital Plus audio. (I don’t know if I’m more surprised that Sony would offer such a discount or that smartphones are still grossly overpriced!)

Sony demonstrated an 8K LCD monitor with micro LED backlighting that they claim can achieve a peak (specular) brightness level of 10,000 nits.

 

TCL has fully embraced quantum dot illumination for high dynamic range.

In any case, I spent three days at the show, wandering the LVCC and seeing a few surprises here and there (and getting caught in the Wednesday noontime blackout while in the Samsung booth). And the overwhelming emphasis was not on “what you got” but “what you do with it.” Being connected with voice commands is the thing nowadays. So is faster WiFi and 5G cellular, along with smart, connected appliances and smart, connected cars.

Think about this interesting paradox. Auto manufacturers, along with display giants Samsung and LG Display, are showing sophisticated dashboards and center consoles with audio, navigation, contacts, and adaptive machine learning. The goal is to provide an unparalleled, immersive driving experience, or as Samsung put it during their press conference, “to do anything in your car you can do with your TV.”

On the other hand, we’re seeing big advances in autonomous cars that wouldn’t need any of that stuff built into the dashboard and center console because there isn’t a driver to begin with. So, which is it? Immersive AI consoles, or smart self-driving cars? (I couldn’t get a feel one way or the other during the show.)

The Mercedes AMG Project 1 car mixes a conventional gas engine with multiple electric motors to achieve speeds in excess of 200 mph.

 

Talk about connecting everything: Continental showed a “smart” tire that can provide real-time performance data to drivers.

One thing I did notice was the proliferation of Amazon and Google voice command systems across everything from televisions to cars. If you had a bullhorn and walked through the convention center yelling “Hi, Alexa!” you’d have been a very unpopular person in short order. Speech recognition and control has come a long way since I first saw it implemented at the turn of this decade, and it works. And it’s cheap. And you can use it to control just about everything in your home, and likely your office.

In no particular order, here are ten products, trends, and/or demos I spotted in Vegas that are worth paying attention to over the next 12 months.

AI / Speech Recognition – Every TV manufacturer had at least one model at CES that supports Amazon, Google Home, or Google Assistant. (Some support both!) You can link your TV to your refrigerator, washer, dryer, and other appliances in your home and control just about anything or get status updates. Or you can just ask your assistant general questions, and depending on the question, the system can anticipate what you’re about to do and activate or deactivate devices.

LG has this feature in their 2018 TVs (ThinQ with Cloi), while Samsung claims that every product they make will be interconnected by 2020 and voice controlled using their Bixby system. While the Chinese brands are not quite up that level, they did show sample rooms with interconnected devices that all respond to voice prompts. (My personal favorite was Haier’s “conscious bathroom.” No idea what that means…)

Panasonic is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and emphasized design concepts and integrated projects in its booth over individual products.

 

LG Display pulled another surprise from its bag of tricks with this 65-inch rollable 4K OLED display.

Samsung’s purchase of Harman in 2016 gives them entry to the multi-billion-dollar car audio market, which appears to be doing just fine, thank you very much. And by extension, they can support voice recognition and control in cars, linking them back to homes and offices. On the TV side, both TiVo and Comcast have had voice control and search features for some time, using adaptive intelligence to hunt down and locate programs. (Who needs TV Guide, anyway?)

Flexible displays: LG Display stole part of the show by exhibiting a 65-inch roll-up 4K OLED TV in their technology suite. They also impressed with stacked 55-inch transparent OLEDs and p-OLED dashboards. But the fact that plastic displays have arrived means that just about any surface can be covered with a display. Need proof? Look at the latest crop of smartphones with wrap-around displays where a frame used to be.

And all of those hopped-up dashboards and center consoles I mentioned earlier are likely to take advantage of flexible OLEDs and even LCDs. (Yes, those are being developed now.) The key is to minimize the effects of vibration and G-forces, two things that can be fatal to displays. One big advantage of this approach is the use of virtual gauges and indicators: You’ll be able to create and recall multiple custom looks for your dashboard. (That would be helpful for those of us who need reading glasses.)

Canadian chip manufacturer Peraso showed how you can play an immersive VR game without any cables to the console.

 

Call up a recipe using Whirlpool’s Yummly app and it will turn on your oven and set it to the correct temperature automatically.

“Smart” refrigerators: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen products like this, but they appear to be mainstream now. Just like the days of old where we taped or used magnets to attach every important piece of paper in our lives to the fridge, we can now access everything from recipes to personal schedules using a built-in touchscreen. On some models, it can even turn transparent so you can see what’s on the shelves.

Samsung and LG both demoed technology that would scan in food items and determine their useful shelf life, tell you that you needed to use up said items soon, and even suggest recipes to use up those items. You could even access your fridge from your television, and with some appliances shown by Whirlpool, have the oven set itself while the recipe was being called up. (George Jetson would be envious!)

Autonomous delivery vehicles: Understandably, there has been some pushback on unmanned cars by people who just can’t bring themselves to trust the technology. But the adoption curve could be a lot faster for autonomous delivery vehicles. Ford is testing just that in a partnership with Dominoes Pizza, with an unmanned car pulling up your driveway no long after you order that piping-hot 16” pie with sausage and peppers. (Who would care if a pizza gets hurt in a crash?)

Yes, Ford is testing autonomous delivery of Domino’s pizza.

 

Ethertronics is developing steerable TV antennas for off-air TV reception, something we’ve seen in the past. It may catch on this time.

Cutting the cord: No, not dropping cable TV, although some developments at the show may hasten that trend. I’m talking about cutting the cord for virtual reality game players by using a high-speed 60 GHz WiFi link. Peraso showed just how this would work in their Westgate suite, sending video and audio to a headset while back-channeling control signals from joysticks. The FCC opened up two more channels in the 60 GHz band last year and each channel is about 2 GHz wide – 100 times the width of 2.4 and 5 GHz WiFi channels.

This opens up a wealth of possibilities, such as wireless hard drives or SSDs connected by 802.11ad links. While millimeter-wave technology has not exactly burned up the marketplace, it is a practical solution for short-range, high-bandwidth video and audio links. Plus, the radio waves are so small that beam-steering antennas would allow multiple TX/RX links in the same room, on the same channel, with zero interference. Pretty cool!

Self-configuring IoT gadgets: We’ve been hearing a lot about the Internet of Things for several years, but it seemed like the dam broke this year. More and more CE gadgets come with some form of network interface and a WiFi connection, and large manufacturers like LG and Samsung claim that in the very near future, all you’ll have to do is plug ‘em in and turn ‘em on to link everything together.

This is a relatively new trend on the world of home theater and commercial AV, but make no mistake – it is the next wave. And this level of connectivity and control will require faster WiFi connections, most likely using dual-band WiFi routers to boot traffic to the 5 GHz band when coping with interference. Perhaps the most significant part of the trend is just how inexpensive the hardware will be. After all, you can buy the full-sized Echo for $100 and the stubby Dot for $50 – and those are basically your control interfaces.

Robots have gotten very good at smiling and blinking!

 

Bell Helicopter showed an autonomous chopper for city commuters.

High dynamic range TV – I haven’t talked about TVs very much, mostly because there isn’t much to say right now. The exception is HDR and its companion, wide color gamut (WCG), which were the main attraction in most TV exhibits. On the one hand, you have the current “hot” technology, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs from LG that can probably squeeze out 600 – 800 nits small area white, but oh! Those black levels!

On the other hand, you have LCD panels married to backlights that use quantum dot (QD) particles to generate intense, saturated greens and reds with blue LEDs filling in the rest.  Samsung is probably best known for using QDs in their premium LCD TVs (a/k/a Q-LEDS), but TCL and Hisense have them, too. LG goes a different route to get to HDR with their Nano Cell technology, and Sony has been experimenting with LED backlights to get more “oomph!” out of 4K images.

At the show, Samsung showed “The Wall,” a 146-inch modular display using micro LED emissive technology to achieve HDR and wider colors. Micro LEDs are a relatively new technology and can create red, green, and blue light, so it is possible (but expensive) to build an emissive display with them. Sony showed a similar prototype several years ago, and it looked amazing – but was hand-wired and probably cost over a hundred grand to build.

Samsung’s 146-inch micro LED “wall” attracted a ton of viewers…

 

…that is, until the power went out in the Central Hall just before noon on Wednesday! (Ooops…)

Speaking of Sony, they had an impressive if somewhat confusing demo of an 8K LCD TV that could supposedly hit a brightness level of 10,000 nits with intense specular highlights. But they weren’t discussing how that was actually happening, only to say that “there are hundreds of LED arrays” in the backlight. The claim was that a true HDR 10,000 video image could be viewed without clipping, although most of what I saw was in the 200 – 400 nits range.

Robots and drones: There were plenty of them in Vegas, but the vast majority are only capable of simple functions like blinking (this is something all robots do constantly) and responding to your voice commands. LG showed valet, guide, and shopping robots that can roll around and talk to you. Other exhibitors had robots that can sing, read to your kids, and wave their arms a lot (something else robots are really good at).

But it’s still early in the game. Keep in mind an autonomous car is a robot, after all. Yamaha took that concept a step further and created a robotic motorcycle rider, putting it on a test track against one of the world’s fastest (human) riders. Needless to say, Yamaha’s robot didn’t crash, nor did it set any speed records. An extension of that research is a motorcycle that rolls up to or away from you, depending on your hand gesture. (Shades of the Twilight Zone.)

As for drones, they were everywhere like a cloud of annoying mosquitoes. Surprisingly, Bell Helicopter showed a prototype of an autonomous drone copter for intra-city commuting. I’m not sure how many people would be willing to test fly it, but the concept is solid and not far off.

Panasonic announced a new line of OLED TVs in 55-inch and 65-inch sizes for the U.S. market.

 

Canon demonstrated an inventory scanning robot.

Steerable TV antennas: The statistics don’t lie. More and more people are dumping pay TV channel packages in favor of streaming, adding free off-air television along the way. I’ve been a big advocate for this going back to the DTV transition almost 20 years ago, but it’s easy for me – my house has two outdoor TV antennas and one indoor to feed all of my sets.

But the average homeowner doesn’t have an antenna, nor do they know much about installing one. Ethertronics showed a prototype steerable antenna for window or wall mounting that’s based on their steerable technology for WiFi. You install the flat antenna, connect power to it, and push a button on the housing. The antenna then scans for channels several times, trying different antenna patterns. The pattern that results in the most signals is then set as the default (it can be overridden). This is another great example of artificial intelligence and machine learning at work.

Analog is back: Okay, a weird one, but Polaroid and Kodak both showed instant print cameras as the show. Polaroid went so far as to bring back their 40+ year-old One Step as the One Step 2 (that’s confusing). Apparently, Millennials and Generations Y and Z love instant prints, and why not? While you can easily share digital photos via Instagram and Facebook, there’s just something different about having a physical print in your hand.

Polaroid has resurrected the OneStep instant camera – and it’s wildly popular (although not really this big)!

Add that to the list of “retro” things like vinyl records, Kodak’s 8mm movie camera (didn’t see that this year), and even audiocassettes that have come back from the grave. Some of this desire for the past may be a reaction to the blinding speed of technological change: I know people that prefer older wristwatches to the “connected” models that monitor everything about you. (And yes, some of us still write checks to pay our bills, putting them in stamped envelopes and mailing them. Imagine that.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the welcome fact that Panasonic is fully back in the U.S. TV game, introducing two new 4K OLED TV models (FZ 950 and FZ 800) at the show. They also announced a new line of Blu-ray players and it will be considerably easier to sell those if they have a TV to add to the package. (LG Display is happy too, since they make the OLED panels for both Sony and Panasonic.)  Yes, we’ll all miss those beautiful Viera plasma TVs (but we won’t miss those high electricity bills!)…