Posts Tagged ‘CES’

CES 2019 In the Rear View Mirror

I’m not sure when I first started attending CES, but it was back around the turn of the century. My interests then lay primarily in display technologies – televisions, monitors, projectors, and all the gear that interfaced them to things like DVD players, HDTV set-top boxes, and early gaming consoles.

It wasn’t unusual to see manufacturers try to out-do each other in the race for the biggest display or the most pixels. We were wowed by 102-inch plasma TVs (a product that never came to market), 105-inch LCD monitors, “HD” projectors with 1280×720 resolution, upscaling DVD players, line quadruplers, and all kinds of external video signal processors that were designed to clean up standard-definition video, S-video, and analog component video.

Flash forward to 2019, and those times feel like early colonial America. Plasma is gone. “HD” in a front projector means at least 1920×1080 resolution, with an increasing number of home theater models offering 4K resolution. DVD players are fossils now and Blu-ray players have evolved with the times to support Ultra HD resolution.

Not that it matters much. More and more consumers are choosing to stream video content, thanks for faster, more reliable Internet and WiFi connections. Codecs have improved by several generations. The H.264 AVC format was just clearing the drawing board in 2002. Today, we have HEVC H.265, Google’s VP9, and now an even more efficient codec that promises to cut bit rates for 4K content by 50%.

Analog TV interfaces are all gone. It’s either HDMI or DisplayPort, or a streaming connection through WiFi or a Cat 6 cable. Those expensive video processing chips have multiplied in power so many times and shrunk accordingly that they are commonplace in Ultra HDTVs. At CES 2019, new “AI” processors can analyze multiple vectors and aspects of a frame of video and scale, color-correct, gamma-correct, and clean up compression artifacts in a flash.

LG’s got 8K TV covered with both LCD and OLED models.

 

Samsung’s Wall modular LED TV made an appearance again at CES. This time, it measures 219 inches diagonally.

I saw several demos of standard-definition video scaled up to 4K and even 8K TVs and was impressed at just how well these advanced chips work. Unfortunately, there’s lot of potential for mischief with these processors, such as changing the frame rate, gamma, black levels, and even color tone automatically without you asking. That’s progress for ya!

About the only thing that hasn’t changed since the early 2000s is the size of the largest LCD panels. If memory serves, Sharp held the record for many years with that 105-inch beast. Both Samsung and LG eventually wheeled out even larger panels and the record (so far as I can remember) was 120 inches for a VA LCD monitor, shown a few years back by Vizio and also by Samsung. Thing is, none of those products really took off: Today, the largest LCD TV you can buy is Samsung’s new 85-inch 8K offering, with 98-inch models lurking in the wings from LG, Samsung, Sony, and others.

The biggest change I’ve seen in the past decade is how televisions and related products have been de-emphasized at the show. No surprise there – TV prices have collapsed to the point where you can pick up a very nice 55-inch Ultra HD model with HDR support for about $6 per diagonal inch. There are plenty of 65-inch models priced below $1,000 and some 70-inch UHDTVs have dropped as low as $1,200 on sale.

TCL’s XESS “Living Window” TV is supposed to appear as if it’s floating in mid-air.

 

This 65-inch Skyworth UHDTV uses two LCD panels to improve black levels and contrast.

Price drops have been dramatic for both LCD and OLED models. LG just announced special pricing for the next two weeks on 55-inch Ultra HD B8-series TVs ($1500) and 65-inch B8s ($2300). Vizio announced during CES that their 2019 M-series and P-series UHDTV sets will incorporate quantum dots for high dynamic range video, and you can be sure they’ll have aggressive pricing on all models.

Also, not surprisingly, there’s less profit in selling televisions these days, which is why most of the big exhibitors at CES have reduced the footprint in their booths for showing off TVs, allocating more space for everything from refrigerators and washers to smartphones, tablets, small appliances, laptops, and even automotive electronics. Secondarily, many of us analysts and journalists have expanded our coverage to include video encoders, decoders, and signal management systems, video streaming, cloud storage and asset management, and peripheral markets like transportation.

Without further ado, here are some of my highlights from the show.

Sony will offer XBR-Z9G Master-series 85-inch and 98-inch 8K LCD TVs with HDR, complementing their OLED TV lineup.

 

Hisense claims its Adonis 8K display uses micro LEDs for backlights, but they’re more likely “mini” LEDs.

“Yes Virginia, there are 8K televisions!” And CES was awash in them, from LG’s 88-inch OLED to Samsung’s 85-inch QLED 8K. (LG also had 75-inch LCD sets using their NanoCell color filter technology.) Sony showed 85-inch and 98-inch 8K model in their booth to complement their line of 4K OLED TVs. Sharp, which is planning to re-enter the television business in the near future, will offer 60-inch, 70-inch, and 80-inch 8K TVs. TCL, Hisense, Konka, Skyworth, and Changhong also unveiled 8K TV prototypes.

I counted over a dozen different models, including more than a few showing next-generation backlight technology based on “mini” LED arrays. (A few of the demos referred to “micro” LED backlight arrays, but that’s unlikely at this date due to manufacturing challenges.) The advantage of “mini” backlights is more and smaller areas of local dimming, improving contrast and high dynamic range response.

Sharp’s planned re-entry into the television business is intriguing, considering the company’s near-bankruptcy a few years ago and the subsequent purchase of 66% of the company by Hon Hai Precision Industries (Foxconn). Instead of borrowing more money from Japanese banks to stay afloat, Sharp now has Terry Ghou’s huge bankroll to plan its product line and marketing, not to mention a complete line-up of 8K televisions, the BC-60A 8K broadcast camera, an 8K non-linear editing system, and an 8K asset storage and retrieval system (cloud based, of course).

Sharp wants back in to the premium TV business and showed wide range of 8K products, including content streaming.

 

Stream TV networks showed an 8K desktop monitor and his 65-inch autostereo 8K TV. 3D isn’t quite dead yet!

“This will DEFINITELY be the year for 60 GHz wireless!” I’ve lost track of how many 60 GHz wireless video demos I’ve seen over the past decade from companies like Silicon Image and its successor Lattice Semiconductor, DVDO, Qualcomm, and Intel (not to mention the WiFi Alliance). Products come and go (remember the 15 different tri-band WiFi modems from 2016?), but the technology seems to be stuck in a rut.

Maybe 2019 will be different. Keyssa demonstrated near-field connectivity of everything from tablets to TVs and snap-on LED tiles using its KISS technology. The chips are about as big as a deer tick, but the principle is that of coupled energy over a maximum 10mm air gap to transport data in a half-duplex mode at up to 6 Gb/s per lane. To prove the weight-lifting capabilities of this tin titan, Keyssa also built a wireless backplane dock that uses 32 KISS channels to stream 8K video at 96 gigabits per second. (Yes, it IS that fast!)

Several floors up in The Westgate Hotel, Canadian fabless semiconductor company Peraso also has a few millimeter-wave tricks up its sleeve. In addition to 4K wireless USB links, Peraso also showed 60 GHz 802.11ad WiFi access points for high-speed in-room video streaming and super-fast data downloads. At this frequency, radio waves can’t penetrate solid objects, nor is it at all easy to intercept them. That combination provides very robust security, and I’m still puzzled why more manufacturers haven’t adopted the technology.

Did you know you can couple 60 GHz wireless 4K video signals over flexible plastic rods? Keyssa does.

 

This ready-to-buy 60 GHz wireless access point uses chipsets from Peraso.

On the show floor (near its ‘connected beer’ exhibit, I kid you not), Qualcomm had an intriguing demo of super-fast gaming using 60 GHz links from smartphones. There are six channels available in this band, each of which is a little over 2 GHz in size. With light compression, there is near zero latency for gamers. And with steerable antenna arrays, multiple players can work with different screens on the same channels and never interfere with each other.

“Interfaces will get faster. Believe me!” With 8K and HDR looming (not to mention high frame rate video), our display interfaces need to get a heckuva lot faster in a real hurry. Over in the HDMI pavilion, there was a demonstration of Samsung’s Q900R 85-inch 8K TV showing custom 8K video content through an HDMI 2.1 interface built by chip maker Invecas. Given that only Socionext is currently shipping v2.1 TX/RX sets, I had to grill the Invecas rep to verify that “no, you won’t find HDMI 2.1 on the Samsung set currently.” (It’s currently equipped with one HDMI 2.0 interface).

During its press conference on Tuesday, LG claimed that their 2019 8K TVs will “support HDMI 2.1.” Presumably, this means there is some sort of upgrade path for models released earlier in the year, inasmuch as there is still a lot of testing and compliance certification to be done before manufacturers can start rolling out version 2.1. Samsung, for their part, has an upgrade option on the 85-inch model.

Over in the DisplayPort booth, it was announced that DP 2.0 will begin rolling out later in the year. V2.0 raises the per-lane data rate from 8.1 Gb/s to an astounding 24 Gb/s for a total data rate across all four lanes of 96 Gb/s. (Subtract 20% for overhead bits to get the real rate). This is clearly optical fiber territory – I’m not aware of anyone transporting data at this speed over copper links. And while that may seem like a lot of horsepower, keep in mind that an 8K/60 signal with 10-bit RGB color will require about 85 Gb/s to travel.

Invecas demonstrated an 8K home theater, using HDMI 2.1 connections. It will be a while before you see v2.1 on any TVs, though.

 

DisplayPort 2.0 is coming! In the meantime, v1.4 can drive three monitors simultaneously – and with different 4K video on each.

“Taking displays to another level!” Skyworth showed a 65-inch 4K TV using a dual-panel LCD structure. One panel delivers the full-color HDR images while the second panel acts simply as a monochromatic light modulator. In effect, it’s another shutter, allowing the display to achieve OLED-like black levels and very high peak (specular) whites while maintaining a wide contrast ratio. Not a new trick – Panasonic showed a similar approach for a 31.5” HDR 4K monitor a couple of years ago – but this is the first time I’ve seen it in a consumer TV.

In the LG Display booth, among the curved and transparent OLEDs, I found LG’s In-Touch system. Unlike conventional touchscreen film overlays on displays, In-Touch places the touch sensors directly below the LCD glass surface. This results not only in a more sensitive touchscreen, but it’s also a lot more accurate as the gap between the surface and sensors is greatly reduced.

And it appears that the fascination with curved displays has gone the way of 3D. I spotted only one curved 65-inch Ultra HDTV, and that was in the TCL booth. Samsung won an award for its LG was more focused on its premium roll-up/down 4K OLED TVs, a concept first shown last year at CES by LG Display. These roll-up sets don’t have a price yet, but will be part of LG’s Signature OLED line.

Samsung’s 75-inch micro LED TV prototype might have been the only true “micro” shown at CES.

 

Lumens’ .57″ green micro LED display has Full HD resolution for near-to-eye displays. And it’s bright!

Samsung did show a 75-inch class micro LED TV prototype at their Sunday preview event, an interesting demo for a company that apparently wants to get out of the LCD manufacturing business and concentrate on purely emissive LED TVs and displays, going forward. Of all the demonstrations of micro LED, I have no doubt that Samsung’s prototype is the real thing. Keep in mind that we’re taking about tiny LED chips that measure less than 50 micrometers (µm), while “mini” LEDs are in the range of 100 µm to 200 µm.

Lumens demonstrated something a bit simpler but no less important: A .57” green (monochromatic) micro LED display, suitable for head-mounted displays. This device has Full HD (1920×1080) resolution and is capable of brightness levels in excess of 300 nits. Over in the Sands, Kopin showed its 2K OLED near-to-eye display, which is about the size of a quarter. And Vusix demonstrated its Blade AR glasses, which project a small color video image onto the lens surface that isn’t quite as detailed and contrasty a I expected.

I’ll close out this report with a mention of the next-generation video codec for compressing 4K and 8K video. Fraunhofer had a small exhibit that was easy to miss, detailing the Versatile Video Codec (VVC). VVC builds on the coding tree block and unit structure of HEVC H.265 and makes analysis and compression decisions on a more granular level. This codec requires a considerable increase in computing power, but the target of the Joint Video Experts Team (JVET) is to achieve a 50%  bitrate reduction for comparable image quality over H.265. Look for the final standard in 2020.

The Versatile Video Codec can stream 4K content at 2.2 Mb/s that looks as good as H.265 at 5 Mb/s.

 

Audi’s been using red OLEDs in their tailights for some time now. (You didn’t know?)

 

Roll-up TVs are here, thanks to LG. Now you see them, now you don’t!

 

 

 

 

 

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!)…

 

 

 

 

On China, IoT, AI, and Trade Shows

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, it’s worth stepping off the technology express for a moment to consider some of the changes we’re seeing in our industry, in parallel industries, and in everyday life – changes that have been wrought by a combination of geographical, economical, and political factors.

It’s no secret that most of the electronics manufacturing (semiconductors, televisions, mobile phones, computers, tablets, appliances, wireless gear) in the world is moving to or has moved to mainland China and Taiwan, along with several southeastern Asia countries. Just 25 years ago, it was common to spot the words “Made in Japan” on your table radio, television, camera, and even your car.

Nowadays, “China” has been substituted for “Japan,” even for many products manufactured and sold by Korean companies like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, Daewoo, and Kia. That’s because labor costs are so much lower and the Chinese government as a so-called “silent” partner can easily clear land for (and even build) state-of-the-art factories. They also provide a large labor pool to fill the positions in those factories.

And the Chinese have made major investments of their own in new technology. One of the largest manufacturers of LCD panels in the world is TCL, who has a partnership with Samsung in a large LCD plant known as China Star Optoelectronic Technologies. Not only that, TCL manufactures and sells their own brand of televisions in the U.S. Both TCL and Hisense (another Chinese brand who also owns the Sharp brand name) have been selling 55-inch 4K (yes, 4K!) televisions for as little as $500, with some specials dropping below $400.

The Skyworth OLED TV booth at CES 2017.

The result of this shift to the Far East has been a dramatic drop in the price of not only televisions, but a host of other electronic gadgets. I recently bought a new Lenovo laptop with solid-state drive, 15” screen, a fast i7 Intel processor, tons of RAM for both the PC and video card, and the latest in 802.11ac channel-bonding WiFi tech. My cost was a just under $1300 with shipping and tax.

Because the world of professional electronics (including AV gear) is largely driven by the world of consumer electronics, we’re now seeing those same dramatic price drops in everything from HDMI switchers to pan/tilt/zoom cameras. And the U.S., Japanese, Korean, and European brands that sell that stuff have had to cut their prices as well.

Now, we’ve got the Internet of Things in town. Anything that can be fitted with a Media Access Control (MAC) port and has a WiFi connection can now be accessed, configured, and controlled from an Internet connection just about anywhere in the world. All of the gear you’d install in a conference room or classroom can be set up and operated with nothing more than a tablet and software equipped with simple drag-and-drop GUIs. And the software doesn’t cost all that much.

Throw in artificial intelligence (AI) and you now have an AV installation that can configure itself once powered up. That’s right – all of the displays, lighting, screens, audio mixers, thermostats, amplifiers, and switching equipment can talk to the control software, load the appropriate drivers, and create a touchscreen display without you having to lift a finger. And you can talk to an assistant like Siri or Alexa to walk through the process.

Add it all together – lower manufacturing costs, an increasing percentage of CE products (equipped with IoT functionality) finding their way into commercial AV installations, and artificial intelligence to handle the once-tedious job of writing control code and commands. More power in the products at lower costs to you.

That last part is what’s causing major headaches for manufacturers. Instead of price tags with 3 or 4 zeros following the first integer, a majority of products are being sold with two or three zeros. That has a direct impact on profitability, one which cannot be simply fixed by increasing the volume of sales – the availability of cheap electronics has spawned too many competitors, which is great news for price-sensitive consumers.

And that brings me to trade shows. Alert readers will notice that the once-mammoth booths and stands of Japanese and Korean manufacturers at NAB and InfoComm have gotten noticeably smaller as the Chinese booths have gotten larger. No surprise – if you are selling hardware and software with smaller price tags, you have less money to put into a trade show booth. And some of these well-known brands are pushing more and more of their products through distribution, not traditional dealers. (It’s that margin/profitability thing again.)

What’s more; the lines between residential and commercial gear and installations have been steadily blurring for over a decade. (Admit it – you’ve been installing regular TVs instead of commercial monitors most of the time, right? Not that there’s any real difference between them.) Many residential dealers who were once shoveling in the cash have started bidding on commercial work, and vice-versa.

It’s not surprising to see some of the hardware on view at the annual CES in January make repeat appearances at ISE, NAB, InfoComm, and CEDIA Expo as the year winds on. In fact, one prominent Japanese manufacturer (begins with “P”) has focused more commercial product at CES recently, having dropped out of the TV business altogether.

We’ll probably see some consolidation of trade shows in the next few years as attendees come to realize there isn’t a whole lot of difference from one show to the next. The increasing use of CE products for installations, along with improved AI and support for IoT, will actually deliver the promise of ‘plug and play’ (along with a new set of headaches from hackers and malware) to our industry, reducing the purchasing decisions to best price and warranty/reliability.

Some questions to think about: How long before Amazon starts selling commercial AV gear? Is it now practical to view a manufacturer’s product line using VR technology? (Some companies have already tried this.) Just how much education do you need to learn how to configure a room full of IoT hardware?

And just how much of a difference is there between a video encoder made by “You never heard of us, we’re first-timers at this show” and “Buy from us, we’ve been selling into this industry for 40 years” – especially if both products are made in China, possibly at the same factory and using the same chip sets? (Not much, if any…)

CES 2014 In The Rear-View Mirror

Once again, CES has come and gone. It sneaks up on us right after a relaxing Christmas / New Year holiday. We’re jolted out of a quiet reverie and it’s back to the rush to board at the airport gate, walking the serpentine lines for taxis at McCarran Airport, and “late to bed, early to rise” as we scramble to make our booth and off-site appointments in Las Vegas.

We don’t make them all on time. Some we miss completely. But there’s a serendipity angle to it all: We might find, in our haste to get from one meeting to another, some amazing new gadget we didn’t know about as we take shortcuts through booths in the North, South, and Central Halls.

Or a colleague sends us a text or leaves a voicemail, emphatically stating “you have to see this!” Or a chance meeting leads to an ad hoc meeting, often off-site or over a hasty lunch in the convention center.

My point is this: You “find” as many cool things at the show as you “lose.” For every must-see product that you don’t see, there’s another one you trip over. Granted; many “must-see” products are yawners – you’ve figured it out 30 seconds into your carefully-staged meeting with PR people and company executives, and you’re getting fidgety.

LS Samsung Booth MCU 600p

My best CES discoveries involve products or demos where I can observe them anonymously, without PR folks hovering at my side or staring at my badge before they pounce like hungry mountain lions.

Unlike most of my colleagues in the consumer electronics press, I don’t need to break stories the instant I hear about them. There are already too many people doing that. What’s missing is the filter of analysis – some time spent to digest the significance of a press release, product demo, or concept demo.

And that’s what I enjoy the most: Waiting a few days – or even a week – after the show to think about what I saw and ultimately explain the significance of it all. What follows is my analysis of the 2014 International CES (as we are instructed to call it) and which products and demos I thought had real significance, as opposed to those which served no apparent purpose beyond generating daily headlines and “buzz.”

Curved TV screens: OK, I had to start with this one, since every TV manufacturer at the show (save Panasonic and Toshiba) exhibited one or more curved-screen OLED and LCD televisions. Is there something to the curved-screen concept? On first blush, you’d think so, given all of the PR hype that accompanied these products.

The truth is; really big TV screens do benefit a little from a curved surface, particularly if they are UHDTV models and you are sitting close to them. The effect is not unlike Cinerama movie screens from the 1950s and 1960s. (That’s how I saw Dr. Zhivago and 2001: A Space Odyssey back in the day.)

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having

Toshiba described their version of the 21:9 widescreen LCD TV as having “5K” resolution – and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

This wall of 56-inch curved OLEDs greeted visitors to the Panasonic booth.

Bear in mind I’m talking about BIG screens here – in the range of 80 inches and up. The super-widescreen (21:9 aspect ratio) LCD TVs shown by Samsung, LG, and Toshiba used the curve to great effect. But conventional 16:9 TVs didn’t seem to benefit as much, especially in side-by-side demos.

The facts show that worldwide TV shipments and sales have declined for two straight years, except in China where they grew by double digits each year. TV prices are also collapsing – you can buy a first-tier 55-inch “smart” 1080p LCD TV now for $600, and 60-inch “smart” sets are well under $800 – so manufacturers will try anything to stimulate sales.

Is that the reason why we’re seeing so many UHDTV (4K) TVs all of a sudden? Partially. Unfortunately, there’s just no money in manufacturing and selling 2K TVs anymore (ask the Japanese manufacturers how that’s been working for them), and the incremental cost to crank out 4K LCD panels isn’t that much.

Chinese panel and TV manufacturers have already figured this out and are shifting production to 4K in large panels while simultaneously dropping prices. You can already buy a 50-inch 4K LCD TV from TCL for $999. Vizio, who is a contract buyer much like Apple, announced at the show that they’d have a 55-inch 4K LCD TV for $1299 and a 65-inch model for well under $2,000.

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Hisense is building a factory in the U.S. to assemble TVs. And you wondered if they were serious about the North American TV business?

Vizio's 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Vizio’s 65-inch high dynamic range (HDR) 4K TV was very impressive.

Consider that the going price for a 55-inch 4K “smart” LCD TV from Samsung, LG, and Sony is sitting at $2,999 as of this writing and you can see where the industry is heading. My prediction is that all LCD TV screens 60 inches or larger will use 4K panels exclusively within three years. (4K scaling engines work much better than you might think!)

And don’t make the popular mistake of conflating 4K with 3D as ‘failed’ technologies. The latter was basically doomed from the start: Who wants to wear glasses to watch television? Not many people I know. Unfortunately, glasses-free (autostereo) TV is still not ready for prime time, so 3D (for now) is basically a freebie add-on to certain models of televisions.

4K, on the other hand, has legs. And those legs will get stronger and faster as the new High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC) chips start showing up in televisions and video encoders. HEVC, or H.265 encoding, can cut the required bit rate for 2K content delivery in half. That means it can also deliver 4K at the old 2K rates, somewhere in the ballpark of 10 – 20 Mb/s.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265  encoding and decoding into their products.

Toshiba (like many others) is moving quickly to adopt and integrate HEVC H.265 encoding and decoding into their products.

Nanotech's Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

Nanotech’s Nuvola 4K media player costs only $300 and delivers the goods.

While consumer demand for 4K is slowly ramping up, there is plenty of interest in UHDTV from the commercial AV sector. And Panasonic focused in on that sector almost exclusively in their CES booth. I’m not sure why – there are plenty of inferences here; most significantly, it would appear that Panasonic is exiting the money-losing television business entirely. (Ditto nearby Toshiba, which had similar 4K “applications” showcased and which also did not exhibit a line of 2014 televisions.)

Long story short; you may be buying 4K televisions in the near future whether you want ‘em or not. It’s a manufacturing and plant utilization issue, and if commercial demand for 4K picks up as expected, that will drive the changeover even faster.

As for sources of 4K content; Samsung announced a partnership with Paramount and Fox to get it into the home via the M-Go platform. Comcast had an Xfinity demo for connected set-top-boxes to stream 4K, and of course Netflix plans to roll out 4K delivery this year direct to subscribers.

I’m not sure how they’ll pull that off. My broadband speeds vary widely, depending on time of day: I’m writing this at noontime and according to CNET’s Broadband Speed Test, my downstream bit rate is about 22 megabits per second (Mb/s). Yet, I’ve seen that drop to as low as 2 – 3 Mb/s during late evening hours, when many neighbors are no doubt streaming Netflix movies.

Even so, HEVC will definitely help that problem. I spoke to a couple of Comcast folks on my flights out to and back from CES, and they’re all focused on the bandwidth and bit rate challenges of 2K streaming, let alone 4K. More 4K streaming interface products are needed, such as Nanotech’s $300 Nuvola NP-H1, which is about the size of an Apple TV box and ridiculously simple to connect and operate.

LG's got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don't know...)

LG’s got a 77-inch curved OLED TV that can also flex. (Why, I don’t know…)

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

nVidia built an impressive 3D heads-up display into the dash of a BMW i3 electric car.

Oh, yeah. I should have mentioned organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays earlier. There were lots of OLED displays at CES, ranging from the cool, curved 6-inch OLED screen used in the new LG G-Flex curved smartphone to prototype 30-inch OLED TVs and workstation monitors in the TCL booth and on to the 55-inch, 65-iunch, and even 77-inch OLED TVs seen around the floor. (LG’s 77-inch offering is current the world’s largest OLED TV, and of course, it’s curved.)

OLEDs are tricky beasts to manufacture. Yields are usually on the low side (less than 25% per manufacturing run) and that number goes down as screen sizes increase, which explains the high prices for these TVs.

And there’s the unresolved issue of differential color aging, most notably in dark blue emitters. With current OLED science, you can expect dark blue emitters to reach half-brightness at about 5,000 hours of operation with a maximum brightness of 200 nits. Samsung addresses this quandary by employing two blue emitters for every red and green pixel on their OLED TVs, while LG has the more difficult task of managing blue aging in their white OLED emitters.

Several studies over the past three years consistently show people hanging on to their flat screen TVs for 5 to 7 years, which is likely to be a lot longer than 5,000 hours of operation. Will differential color aging rear its ugly head as early adopters shell out close to $10K for a 55-inch OLED TV? Bet on it.

Turns out, there’s another way to get wide color gamuts and saturated colors: Quantum dots. QDs, as we call them, are inorganic compounds that exhibit piezoelectric behavior when bombarded with photons. They emit stable, narrow-bandwidth colors with no drift, and can do so for long periods of time – long enough to work in a consumer television.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

3M featured its quantum dot film (QDF) in several demos. An LCD TV equipped with it is at the top of the picture.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

This prototype WiHD dongle turns any smartphone or tablet equipped with MHL or Micro HDMI interfaces into a 60 GHz wireless playback system.

QDs are manufactured by numerous companies, most notably Nanosys and QD Vision in the United States.  The former company has partnered with 3M to manufacture an optical film that goes on the backside of LCD panels, while the latter offers Color IQ optical components that interface with the entire LED illumination system in edge-lit TVs.

Sony is already selling 55-inch and 65-inch 4K LCD TVs using the Color IQ technology, and I can tell you that the difference in color is remarkable. Red – perhaps the most difficult color to reproduce accurately in any flat-screen TV – really looks like red when viewed with a QD backlight. And it’s possible to show many subtle shades of red with this technology.

All you need is a QD film or emitter with arrays of red and green dots, plus a backlight made up of blue LEDs. The blue passes through, while the blue photons “tickle” the red and green dots, causing them to emit their respective colors. It’s also possible to build a direct-illumination display out of quantum dots that would rival OLED TVs.

How about 4K display interfaces? By now, you’ve probably heard that HDMI has “upgraded” to version 2.0 and can support a maximum data rate of 18 gigabits per second (GB/s).  Practically speaking; because of the way display data is transmitted, only 16 Gb/s of that is really available for a display connection. Still, that’s fast enough to show 4K content (3840×2160, or Quad HD) with a 60 Hz frame rate, using 8-bit color.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here's an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

DisplayPort can now carry USB 3.0 on its physical layer. Here’s an Accell DockPort breakout box with Mini DisplayPort and USB connections.

Epson's Moverio glasses aren't as sexy as Google Glass - but then, they can do more things.

Epson’s Moverio glasses aren’t as sexy as Google Glass – but then, they can do more things.

Over at the DisplayPort booth, I heard stories of version 1.3 looming later this spring. DisplayPort 1.2, unlike HDMI, uses a packet structure to stream display, audio, and other data across four scalable lanes, and has a maximum rate of 21.6 Gb/s – much faster than HDMI. Applying the “20 percent” rule, that leaves about 17.3 Gb/s to actually carry 4K signals. And the extra bits over HDMI means that DP can transport 3840×2160 video with a frame rate of 60 Hz, but with 10-bit color.

Don’t underestimate the value of higher data rates: 4K could turn out to be a revolutionary shift in the way we watch TV, adding much wide color gamuts, higher frame rates, and high dynamic range (HDR) to the equation. HDMI clearly isn’t fast enough to play on that field; DP barely is. Both interfaces still have a long way to go.

So – why not make a wireless 4K connection? There were plenty of demos of wireless connectivity at the show, and I’m not just talking about Wi-Fi. Perhaps the most impressive was in the Silicon Image meeting room, all the way at the back of the lower South Hall, near the Arizona border.

SI, which bought out wireless manufacturer SiBEAM a few years ago, demonstrated super-compact 60 GHz wireless HDMI and MHL links using their UltraGig silicon. A variety of prototype cradles for phones and tablets were available for the demo: Simply plug in your handheld device and start streaming 1080p/60 video to a nearby 55-inch LCD TV screen.

Granted, the 60 GHz tech is a bit exotic. But it works quite well in small rooms and can take advantage of signal multipath “bounces” by using multiple, steerable antenna arrays built-in to each chip. And it can handle 4K, too – as long as the bit rate doesn’t exceed the HDMI 2.0 specification, the resolution, color bit depth, and frame rate are irrelevant.

This sort of product is a “holy grail” item for meeting rooms and education. Indeed; I field numerous questions every year during my InfoComm wireless AV classes along these lines: “Where can I buy a wireless tablet dongle?” Patience, my friends. Patience…

LG was one of many companies showing

LG was one of many companies showing “digital health” products, like these LifeBand monitors.

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But I don't think you'll see any of these in the near future...

You can now buy the concave-surface LG G-Flex smartphone. But you won’t see any of these in the near future…

The decline in TV shipments and sales seems to be offset by a boom in connected personal lifestyle and health gadgets, most notably wristbands that monitor your pulse and workouts. There were plenty of these trinkets at the show and an entire booth in the lower South Hall devoted to “digital health.”

Of course, the big name brands had these products – LG’s LifeBand was a good example. But so did the Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. “Digital health” was like tablets a few years back – so many products were introduced at the show that they went from “wow!” to “ho-hum” in one day.

This boom in personal connectivity extends to appliances, beds (Sleep Number had a model that can elevate the head of the bed automatically with a voice command), cars (BMW’s i3 connected electric car was ubiquitous), and even your home. Combine it with short-range Bluetooth or ZigBee wireless connectivity and you can control and monitor just about anything on your smartphone and tablet.

Granted; there isn’t the money in these small products like there used to be in televisions. But consumers do want to connect, monitor, and control everything in their lives, and their refrigerators, cars, beds, televisions, percolators, and toasters will be able to comply. (And in 4K resolution, too!)

PointGrab can mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

PointGrab lets you mute a TV simply by raising a finger to your lips!

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Panasonic downplayed TVs at CES, but had a functioning beauty salon in their booth (by appointment only..)

Obviously, I didn’t visit the subjects of gesture and voice control. There were several good demos at the show of each, and two of the leading companies I showcased last year – Omek and Prime Sense – have been subsequently acquired by Intel and Apple. Hillcrest Labs, PointGrab, and other had compelling demos of gesture control in Las Vegas – a subject for a later time.

Summing up, let’s first revisit my mantra: Hardware is cheap, and anyone can make it. Televisions and optical disc media storage are clearly on the decline, while streaming, 4K, health monitoring, and wireless are hot. The television manufacturing business is slowly and inexorably moving to China as prices continue their free-fall.

The consumer is shifting his and her focus to all the devices in the home they use every days; not just television. Connectivity is everything, and the television is evolving from an entertainment device into a control center or “hub” of connectivity. The more those connections are made with wireless, the better – and that includes high-definition video from tablets and phones.

It’s going to be an interesting year…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CES 2013: From Hype to Ho-Hum in Minutes

Here we go again ! (Sigh…)

Here we go again ! (Sigh…)

Things are booming in the world of consumer electronics, regardless of the state of the world’s economy. You needed no additional proof beyond the enormous turnout at last week’s International CES, which was in excess of 150,000, according to official press releases. Even if you apply the Kell factor, that’s still a huge turnout – at least 120,000.

I’ve used an easy rule to determine attendance: How long it takes to catch a cab at the end of the first two days of the show. 10 minutes? Light turnout. 20 minutes? Respectable turnout. 40 minutes or more? Now, that’s a crowd!

I spent the equivalent of three full days at the show, scrambling back and forth between strip hotels and the convention center, capturing over 1200 videos and photos along the way. After a while, it all started to blur together. I mean; how many 110-inch TVs do you have to see before the “awe” wears off? How many tablets will you run across before you swear never to touch another one?

This year’s edition of show was characterized by a level playing field across many technologies. No longer do the Japanese and Koreans have an exclusive right to “first to market.” Their neighbors across the sea are now just as technically competent, if not more so.

hisense

Hisense’s “Big Bertha” uses the same glass as TVs shown by TCL, Samsung, and Westinghouse Digital.

syyworth

Everybody (and their brother) had an 84-inch 4K TV at the show. (Yawn…)

Case in point: The 110-inch 4K LCD TVs shown at CES (I counted four of them, including one in the Samsung booth) all use glass from a Chinese LCD fab known as China Star Optoelectronics Technology, which is a three-year old joint venture between TCL, Samsung, and the local government of Shenzen.

Never heard of them? You will. What’s even more amazing is that their Gen 8.5 LCD fab is (according to an industry insider I spoke to) more efficiently used when cutting two 98-inch LCD panels at the same time. Those are huge cuts, and given China’s predilection for market dominance, we may see rapid price drops in 4K TVs across all sizes by the end of 2013.

Speaking of 4K (UHDTV); everyone had it. And I mean everyone! Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung, Toshiba, Sharp, Westinghouse, Skyworth, TCL, Hisense, Haier – wait! You never heard of those last four companies? The last three had enormous booths at the show, and Hisense showed five different models of 4K TVs – 50, 58, 65, 84, and 100 inches. That’s more than anyone else had.

In a significant marketing and PR coup, TCL managed to get their 110-inch 4K TV featured in Iron Man III, which debuts in May. That’s the sort of promotional genius that Sony and Panasonic used to pull off. But there are new guys on the block now, and they’re playing for keeps. The steady decline of the Japanese TV industry and continuing financial woes of its major players are all the proof you need.

4koled tv

So – who was REALLY “first” to show a 4K 56-inch OLED TV? Sony, or…

panasonic

…Panasonic, who also claimed they were the “first?” (Maybe it was a matter of minutes?)

Interestingly, Sony’s booth signs identified this display as the “world’s first and largest OLED TV.” Puzzling, as it clearly wasn’t the first OLED TV ever shown, and just down the hall, Panasonic was showing its 56-inch OLED TV, the “world’s largest 4K OLED created by printing technology.” Both companies need to get out of their booths more often!

Panasonic, who emphatically renewed their commitment to plasma at CES (despite a continued decline in plasma TV sales worldwide), clearly wanted to show they had a second act ready when plasma eventually bites the bullet. The company is also a major player in IPS LCD, manufacturing LCD TVs in sizes to 65 inches that are every bit as good anything LG cranks out.

Speaking of LG…the heavy emphasis on 3D found in last year’s booth was all but gone this year. Yes, the enormous passive 3DTV wall that greeted visitors at the entrance was still there. And there were a few passive 3D demos scattered throughout the booth. But the more impressive exhibit featured a wall of curved 55-inch OLED TVs. (Why would anyone need a curved TV? You’re probably asking. Well, why would anyone need most of the stuff you see at CES?)

LG also showcased a unique product – a 100” projector screen illuminated by an ultra-short-throw laser projector. LG billed it as the world’s largest wall-mount TV (for now) and it’s known as “Hecto.” The projector uses laser diodes (presumably with DLP technology; that wasn’t mentioned) to illuminate that screen at a distance of just 22 inches.

lg oled tv

It’s bad enough that LG shows 55-inch OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. Now, they have curved OLED TVs we can’t buy yet. (Drool…)

3d tv

Got two people who want to watch two different 3D TV programs at the same time? No problem for Samsung!

Back down the hall, LG’s neighbor Samsung also showed a 55-inch curved OLED TV (just one) and a couple of company representatives were surprised to hear that LG had a bevy of them. (I repeat my observation about booth personnel who need to get out more.) Samsung did have a clever demo of an OLED TV showing simultaneous 2K programming – simply change a setting on the 3D glasses and you could watch one or the other show. (TI showed this same trick years ago with DLP RPTVs by switching left eye and right information.)

Samsung did have an 85-inch 4K LCD TV that wasn’t duplicated anywhere else on the show floor, and as far as I can tell, it’s a home-grown product. But given the company’s investment in China Star and its shifting emphasis on AM OLED production, I would not be surprised to see Samsung sourcing more of its LCD glass from China in the near future.

Sharp’s booth intrigued me. Here’s a company on the verge of bankruptcy that was showing a full line of new Quattron LCD TVs, along with “Moth Eye” anti-glare first surface glass. Moth Eye glass preserves high contrast and color saturation, but minimizes reflections in a similar way to a moth’s eye; hence the name. Sharp also had impressive demos of flexible OLEDs and a gorgeous 32-inch 4K LCD monitor.

IGZO was also heralded all around the booth. Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide is a new type of semiconductor layer for switching LCD pixels that consumes less power, passes more light, and switches at faster speeds. Many LCD manufacturers (and OLED manufacturers, too) are working on IGZO, but Sharp is closer to the finish line than anyone else – and that may be the salvation of the company, along with an almost-inevitable orderly bankruptcy.

IGZO is why Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industries, wants to buy a piece of Sharp – about 10%, to be exact. He’s looking for a source of VA glass for Apple’s tablets and phones (Hon Hai owns Foxconn, who manufactures these products.) And if Sharp can’t get its financial house in order, he might wind up making a bid for the entire company. (“Never happen!” you say. “The Japanese government wouldn’t allow it.” Well, these are different times we live in, so never say “never!”)

igzo

Sharp may not be able to balance their books, but they still know how to manufacture some beautiful displays.

tlc

It goes without saying that Tony Stark would have a 110-inch TV, right?

On to the Chinese. They showed 4K, 84-inch and 110-inch LCD glass cuts, gesture recognition, clever LED illumination systems, 3D, smart TVs – basically, everything the Japanese and Koreans were showing. Hisense had a spectacular demo of a transparent 3D LCD TV, along with something called U-LED TV. The explanation of this by the booth representative was so ambiguous that I’ll leave it at an enhanced method of controlling the backlight for improved contrast.

I had heard from an industry colleague that Hisense’s XT880-series 4K TV would have rock-bottom retail prices, but couldn’t confirm this from booth personnel. (Think of $2,000 for a 50-inch 4K TV.) The company’s gesture recognition demo wasn’t nearly as impressive – it’s powered by Israel-based EyeSight – but clearly shows that Hisense is just as far along in refining this feature as anyone else.

TCL had demonstrations of high-contrast 4K TVs with amazingly deep blacks; as good as anything I’ve seen from LG and Samsung. They also had a demonstration of autostereo 3D at the back of their booth, very close to Toshiba (who was showing the same thing). Haier had that now-ubiquitous 4K LCD TV prominently featured in their booth, along with smart TVs and what must have been several dozen tablets. Meanwhile, Skyworth’s booth in the lower south hall showcased yet another 84-inch 4K TV.

rca

RCA’s got the first tablet with an integrated ATSC/MH tuner, and it runs Windows 8.

tv antennas

TV antennas are passe? NOT!

celluons

Celluon’s laser-powered virtual keyboard works on any surface. TI had a pair connected to picoprojectors in their suite.

Vizio’s suite at the Wynn featured 80-inch, 70-inch, and 60-inch LCD TVs using the Sharp Gen 10 glass, and they looked impressive. One version of the 70-inch set is already selling below $2,000, and the 80-incher will come in (for now) at just under $4,500. Vizio also had three new 4K TVs in 55-inch, 65-inch, and 70-inch sizes, but no pricing was announced yet. (Everyone is sitting on their hands waiting for the other guy to price his 4K TVs!)

There was obviously a lot more to CES than televisions. Vizio has a new 11.6” tablet with 1920×1080 resolution that runs Windows 8 with a AMD Z-60 processor. Panasonic showed a prototype 20-inch 4K (3840×2560) tablet using IPS-alpha glass. It also runs Windows 8 with an Intel Corei5 CPU and has multi-touch and stylus input. And RCA had a cool 8-inch tablet (Win 8 OS) that incorporates an ATSC receiver and small antenna. It can play back both conventional 8VSB and MH broadcasts.

Silicon Image had a kit-bashed 7” Kindle tablet running their new UltraGig 6400 60 GHz transmitter, delivering 2K video to a bevy of LCD TVs. They also showed a new image scaling chip to convert 2K to 4K, along with the latest version of InstaPrevue. The latter technology lets you see what’s on any connected HDMI input with I-frame thumbnails of video and still images.

sillcon

Silicon Image’s new UltraGig 6400 TX chip connects this full HD Kindle tablet to an HDTV at 60 GHz.

speech

Conexant’s powerful speech processing chips can filter out any background noise while you “command” your smart TV.

omeks

Omek’s gesture control demo was easily the most impressive at the show.

Over in the LV Hotel, Conexant dazzled with a demonstration of adaptive background noise filtering to improve the reliability of voice control systems for televisions. The demo consisted of a nearby loudspeaker playing back an art lecture while commands for TV operation were spoken. A graphical representation showed how effectively the background noise was filtered out completely. The second demo had a Skype conversation running with a TV on in the background and the remote caller walking around the room. I never heard one peep from the TV, and the remote caller was always intelligible.

A few floors down, Omek (yet another Israel-based gesture recognition startup) had perhaps the best demo of gesture control at the show. Their system captures 22 points of reference along your hands, allowing complex gesture control using simple, intuitive finger and wrist movement. (No flailing of arms was necessary). I watched as an operator at a small computer monitor pulled a virtual book from a shelf and flipped through its pages, and also selected a record album, removed the record from its sleeve, and placed it on a virtual turntable. I was even treated to a small marionette show!

At the Renaissance, Prime Sense had numerous exhibits that all revolved around their new, ultra-compact 3D camera design. One demo by Shopperception involved boxes of cereal on a shelf. As you picked one up, the sensors would flash a coupon offer for that cereal to your tablet or phone, or suggest you buy a larger, more economical size instead of two boxes.

Nearby, Covii had one of those “You Are Here” shopping mall locator maps that operated with touchless sensing to expand and provide more detail about any store you were interested in, including sales and promotions. And Matterport had a nifty 3D 360-degree camera that could scan and provide a 3D representation of any room in about one minute. You could then rotate and turn the views in any direction.

hzo

Do not – repeat, DO NOT try this at home with your tablet!

hybird

A hybrid low rider? With a 500-watt sound system? Who’d a thunk it?

gps

Wear this Garmin GPS watch and nobody can ever tell you to “get lost!”

HzO was back with another amazing demo of their WaterBlock waterproofing system. They had a tablet computer sitting in a continuous shower, and also dunked it in a fish tank. Additional demos included dropping smart phones in a bowl of beer and other mysterious liquids. The water infiltrates all spaces but has no effect on operation – you just drip-dry the device once extracted from water. (How do you get rid of the beer smell, though?)

There was an HDMI pavilion at the show, but I was more interested in the goings-on at the DisplayPort exhibit. VESA representatives showed me a single-channel DP connection from a smart phone to a TV for gaming and playing back video, all over a super-thin connecting cable. The powers that be at VESA are also talking about upping the data rates for DisplayPort (currently about 18 Gb/s) to accommodate higher-resolution TVs.

Right now, DP uses an uncompressed data coding method. But there is now discussion of applying a light compression algorithm (tentatively called DisplayStream) that would enable data rates to go much higher – more like 25 Gb/s. (DisplayPort can currently handle 3840×2160 pixels with 10-bit color and a 60-Hz refresh rate.)

I was surprised at the number of devices at the show that support HDMI, and expected more support for DP given its ability to handle higher data rates and its Thunderbolt data layer overlay. It may still be early in the game – the venerable VGA connector is on its way out starting this year, and manufacturers of laptops, tablets, and phones are still debating which digital interface to hitch their horses to.

ces

No, this is not a typical CES attendee. But it’s how all of us feel after three days at the show.

panasonic

Panasonic’s 20-inch 4K offering is the Rolls-Royce of tablets. (So who needs a notebook!)

inada

Suffice it to say that this was a VERY popular booth at CES…

mattress

…as was this one. Sealy lets you control your mattress settings from your iPad. (Hey, it’s CES!)

Let’s wrap things up with a discussion of ultrabooks. Intel’s booth prominently featured a full line of these next-gen notebooks, although several of the models on display weren’t nearly as thin as I’d expect an ultrabook to be. Shipments of “ultras” in 2012 were only about half of what was forecast.

The reason? Tablets. Vizio’s new tablet is one of the larger models at nearly 12 inches, but Panasonic showed you can go even larger and make it work. At that point, why would you need a notebook? I left mine at home this time and used a Nook HD+ instead. Fitted with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and loaded with Office-compatible programs, it did everything I needed it to do while in Vegas.

Needless to say, the Intel booth representative wasn’t too happy when I pointed this out to him. But that’s the thing about CES: There’s always some other guy at the show that has the same or better product than you. There’s always a better mousetrap or waffle-maker lurking in the South Hall. Very few companies have much of an edge in technology these days (the Chinese brands proved that in spades), and so many of these “wow, gotta have it!” items become commodities in rapid order.

The plethora of 4K and ultra-large LCD TVs found at CES proved this conclusively, as they went from hype to ho-hum in a matter of minutes. So did tablets, smart phones, and other connectivity gadgets. What CES 2013 was really about was the shift in manufacturing prowess and power to China from Japan and Korea; a shift that will only accelerate with time. And that is definitely NOT ho-hum!

Editor’s note: Many thanks and a tip of the hat to Nikon booth personnel, who were apparently charging and swapping out batteries for journalists who (like me) inadvertently ran out of power during the show. They saved me more than once!

marilyn

Marilyn says, “Gentlemen prefer 4K 3D curved wireless multi-touch OLED IGZO cloud-based voice controlled tablets!” (See you next year…)