Posts Tagged ‘CES’

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 "5K" resolution - and mathematically, it does (I guess!).

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 "digital health" products, like these LifeBand monitors.

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…)

CES 2012: ANOTHER OPENING, ANOTHER SHOW

Over the top? Nahhh, it's CES!

 

There’s still a debate about whether the U.S. economy has turned the corner and is on the rebound. As far as CES 2012 attendees were concerned, that ‘corner’ is way back in the rear-view mirror! According to official CES reports, over 140,000 people flocked to the Las Vegas Convention Center for the world’s second-largest annual gadget orgy (and at least 100,000 of them were constantly waiting on the South Hall cab lines).

 

The show was notable for several things. First, the expanding presence of Chinese CE brands, like TCL, Changhong, Haier, and Hisense. (Never heard of them? You’re not alone.) Second, this show was Microsoft’s curtain call, as they’ve decided to go the route of Apple and stage their own product intros in the future.

 

Third, there was a decided pull-back on 3D (aside from LG, who made it the focus of their booth) and a renewed emphasis on ‘connected’ TVs in all shapes and flavors. And fourth, gesture recognition made a well-deserved comeback this year after being mostly an afterthought in 2011.

 

Overall, the show had less of a “let’s build it because we can” feel, and more of a “let’s actually make a practical gadget that people will want to buy” buzz. Still, there were the usual surprises – some were telegraphed in advance, while others showed up quite unexpectedly.

LG's 55-inch OLED was a thing of beauty.

And Samsung's 55-inch OLED wasn't too shabby, either.

 

Here’s an example. Both LG and Samsung showed 55-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs at the show. LG’s unveiling had been common knowledge, while Samsung’s was only revealed to members of the press under embargo. But both showings attracted constant crowds, as OLEDs in this size are a rare sighting!

 

LG’s 55-incher is supposedly a production model and will come from a new Gen 8 fab in Korea. It uses Kodak’s white OLED technology (purchased by LG a couple of years ago), with discrete red, green, blue, and white filters applied. Samsung’s approach is a bit trickier and employs discrete red, green, and blue OLEDs. Both panels looked terrific, and thank goodness for LG Display’s separate, quieter and far less chaotic suite at the Bellagio, where I could examine the OLED TV more closely.

 

It’s hard to upstage a demo like that, but Sony almost pulled it off by showing 46-inch and 55-inch inorganic LED TVs. What’s an inorganic LED? It’s the same technology that powers those outdoor LED signs you see alongside highway and inside stadiums and arenas. Only Sony figured out a way to stuff 6.2 million small-pitch RGB LEDs into a TV, using an expensive and time-consuming wire bonding process that ensures (for now) that these products won’t come to market any time soon. But these TVs still looked spectacular and livened up what was otherwise a rather sedate Sony booth, compared to 2011 (remember that 92-foot passive 3D screen and the astronaut DJ?)

Sony's 46-inch Crystal LED (left) and a 46-inch Bravia LCD TV (right).

 

Just down the hall, Sharp left no doubts about its product marketing strategy for the next few years by showcasing a new 80-inch professional video display with touchscreen overlay. The Aquos Touch is adapted from Sharp’s 80-inch Aquos TV that launched in the fall of 2011, and complements the 70-inch product already in the line. Given that Sharp’s market share in TVs has inexplicably dwindled to the mid-single figures, this is an interesting approach – but the playing field is wide open. And the pro AV channel is very interested in large, self-contained displays that could replace traditional two-piece projector installations.

 

Sharp also tickled our fancy with several Freestyle “portable” LCD TVs, including models as large as 60 inches. These TVs have been designed to be as light as possible and use a WiFi-based solution to stream HD content, so you can pretty much pick ‘em up and move ‘em wherever there’s an AC outlet. (I guess that includes the garage if you want to watch a football game with your best buds and keep the noise level down…)

 

3D was around, but clearly took a back seat to other demos. Still, Toshiba showed several examples of 1080p and 4K autostereo 3D TVs in their booth. These demos once again required the viewer to stand in specific locations to receive the full autostereo effect, and Toshiba thoughtfully provided small green circles with arrows in them as visual cues – when both were seen, you were positioned in a ‘sweet spot.’ Toshiba has clearly walked away from active 3D and has a few passive 3D sets in their line, but it appears autostereo is their game plan for the near future. (And yes, the 4K TV looked spectacular.)

 

Next door, Panasonic anted up big time by showing a new line of LED-backlit LCD TVs that will be available in sizes to 55 inches, immediately casting doubts as to the company’s future plans for plasma TVs.  These ET-series sets employ Panasonic’s IPS-Alpha LCD panels and I have to admit, they looked doggone good, particularly at wide viewing angles. Still, the company had plenty of plasma announcements, including faster subfield drive for improved motion rendering and even lower power consumption from the 2011 plasma lineup. For my money, plasma is still the way to go – that is, until OLED prices drop low enough.

4K is a lotta pixels! Wonder where the content will come from...

Are Panasonic's new ET-series LCD TVs the 'writing on the wall' for plasma?

 

LG is head over heels in love with 3D. That’s the only conclusion anyone could make after cruising through their booth, which featured an enormous panoramic Cinema 3D videowall (passive, of course) at the Central Hall entrance. Inside, LG’s 55-inch OLED was shown with 3D and 2D content, and a nearby exhibit showcased an 84-inch 4K 3D LCD monitor. (Sorry, it’s not for sale – yet…) 3D popped up on so many LG products that I expected the ‘smart’ washer and dryers also located in the massive exhibit to be labeled ‘Cinema 3D’ as well. (Technically speaking, you could apply film patterned retarders to the front port of the washer – oh, never mind.)

 

As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming presence of numerous Chinese brands at the show clearly shows which way the wind’s blowing these days. Haier brought back their clever wireless LCD TV demo from two years ago, and this version builds the inductive coupling system into the pedestal. Yes, it is completely wireless, power and all. (Amazing what you can do with a big transformer!) Elsewhere in the Haier booth, you could find a “brain wave TV” demo that was supposed to allow you to “think” of changing channels and raising/lowering volume. (It kinda worked.)

 

Changhong and TCL both exhibited some really sharp-looking LCD TV designs, proving that Japan and Korea don’t have any special magic in this area. All of the companies had 3D sets out for inspection with the majority using passive 3D technology, while several of the models were ‘smart’ TVs with built-in WiFi Internet connections for streaming video. No content partnerships were announced or seen, however. It’s telling that the size of these booths is getting larger with each year, while some of the Japanese TV manufacturers are slowly shrinking.

Look Ma - no HDMI cables, no power cables, no USB cables, no cables period!

I don't know what it means, but the thought is intriguing...

 

Speaking of ‘smart’ TVs, everybody had them – Sharp, LG, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Panasonic, Haier, TCL, Hisense, you name it. That included connected Blu-ray players. Samsung’s Apps for TV seems to be growing by leaps and bounds, and Panasonic’s Viera Connect has also added content partners. LG’s ‘smart’ TV featured a demo of the new Google TV interface, which certainly looked a lot more user-friendly that the last implementation and presented a much more logical process for searching and finding video content on the Web.

 

Many of the companies exhibiting at CES used Rovi’s Total Guide EPG (or variations of it) to search out and find Web video content, as well as more traditional sources like cable, satellite, and even broadcast TV. Rovi has ported their guide to every possible platform and in their suite at Caesar’s Palace, showed implementations on set-top boxes, tablets, and a variety of TVs. The company is also into ad insertion and content delivery management systems. In short, they find it, stream it, and monetize it.

 

How about connecting all of this stuff together? Rainbow Fish had a small booth in the rear of the South Hall, but it was worth hunting down. They are selling direct HDMI-to-fiber optic connectivity kits that use multimode fiber and require only a separate USB connection at the TV to supply 5 volt phantom power to the lasers. Everything is built into the plugs, so there’s no need for separate converter boxes.

HDMI to fiber is here. Need a 300-foot extension? No problem!

DO try this at home. At least, 3M says so.

 

A few booths away, 3M was hawking a new ‘unbreakable’ HDMI cable design. Its super-flat and you can fold it, bend it, twist it – in short, pretty much abuse it any way you want. But you won’t screw up the signal, as 3M’s presentation showed. There are two types of cables – one for consumer applications, and one for computers (notebooks, I guess) and 3M offers plenty of options for color-coding the cable ends. They won’t be sold directly, but through OEM partners. Marry these with the drop-forged HDMI plugs I saw at a nearby booth, and you’ve got a ‘super’ HDMI connection.

 

Don’t want to plug anything in? Silicon Image has rejuvenated the Wireless HD standard with its acquisition of SiBeam, and was demonstrating 60 GHz wireless HDMI connectivity from tablets and notebook computers to large TVs. Wireless HD is a close range HDMI connectivity standard that is not WiFi based, and the chipsets and associated connections can now be manufactured in sizes small enough to build into a tablet. So, who will be the first to add it to their tablet? (My vote is for the next-generation iPad.)

 

Some signs just can't be explained. Your guess is as good as mine...

Over in the Hilton, the WHDI Consortium had their demos of 5 GHz wireless HDMI interfaces running on professional camcorders, tablets, notebooks (including wireless DisplayPort and wireless VGA, for some unknown reason), and TVs. Asus showed a production notebook computer with WHDI connectivity built-in, and HP is now selling a WHDI connectivity kit for computers and TVs. Atlona won a Best of CES award for its WHDI-based LinkCast wireless HDMI package. Can WHDI compete with Wireless HD? We’ll see as 2012 unfolds.

I know a few people who could use waterproofed smart phones. (No, the iTunes clip wasn't "Splish Splash!")

Fish need camcorders?

 

Have you ever dropped your cell phone in a pool, or in the toilet? HzO had a demonstration of their proprietary waterproofing system for handheld CE devices that showcased an iPhone merrily playing away a selection of iTunes while dunked in a fish tank for several hours. Other phones that had been ‘treated’ also took a dive. Waterproofing was a big thing at CES, as I spotted several tanks full of phones, camcorders, and still cameras.

 

I mentioned gesture recognition earlier. PrimeSense, the company behind Microsoft’s Kinect Xbox motion recognition system, had an impressive demo of gesture recognition in the South Hall, and has licensed an add-on MS package to Asus called Xtion. A dancer in the booth kept things hopping with a ‘60s psychedelic imaging sequence that triggered all kinds of ‘trippy’ graphics and was fun to watch for a few minutes.

 

Over in the Samsung booth, crowds lined up for the most impressive MS demo. Samsung’s implementation also incorporates voice and facial recognition, taking and storing a picture of each user with a top-mounted camera. The command “Hi, TV!” activates a menu bar along the bottom of the screen, and the user can then command channel and volume changes on the TV as well as navigate menus and delve into Samsung’s ‘smart’ TV system. Hand gestures are also used to raise and lower volume and navigate up/down through channels.

 

Variations of gesture recognition were also seen in the LG and Haier booths, as well as by specialty manufacturers. Some systems require the use of a wand to control the TV; others simply rely on broad gestures – Haier’s demo had a fellow actually boxing in sync with the video game, and I was afraid he was going to deck himself at some point!

Seriously? A USB emergency in the field? Victorinox' has 16GB to go.

 

Impressive car. Now, how exactly do you drive it? From the cloud? (Don't laugh...)

Other cool products at the show included Sharp’s 8K-resolution LCD TV, Victorinox’ 16 GB USB Swiss Army Knife (I kid you not), Belkin’s four-port ScreenCast wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver, Duracell’s cordless smart phone charging system (yes, it really works), Ford’s cloud-connected EVO concept car with personal health sensor monitoring, LG Display’s Art TV concept design, JVC’s new 4K camcorder for $4,000, BenQ’s new LCD monitors for gamers with instant picture setting changes, and Silicon Images’ demo of 3D mobile high-definition link (MHL) connectivity that resulted in the first TV screen I’ve ever seen with “airplane mode” on it.

 

I’d be remiss by not commenting on one legendary company’s presence at the show. As many readers know, Kodak has been in a death spiral for the past decade as its core film business fades away and digital imaging takes over. The company recently received a warning from the New York Stock Exchange that it might be delisted (last time I checked, shares were selling at about 61 cents) and it is about to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to auction off its patents in digital imaging.

 

So what the heck was the Great Yellow Father showing in that enormous booth in the upper South Hall? Why, its line of color inkjet printers, of course! Supposedly, color inkjets will be the salvation of Kodak, or at least that’s what the current management (ex-HP) tells us. Only problem is, Kodak’s market share in inkjet printers for 2011 was less than 5%, and they’re fast running out of cash for day-to-day operations.

OK, what's wrong with THIS picture?

 

Somehow, Kodak’s long-time competitor Fuji managed to support both film-based and digital imaging and not drive over a cliff. At CES, they showed a new 16-megapixel digital camera system with interchangeable lenses, upgraded their line of point-and-shoots, expanded the FinePix digital camera offerings, and continue to market a clever 3D digital camera. (Maybe Kodak ought to hire some of the Fuji guys…)

 

I’ll have more coverage of CES 2012 during my annual Super Tuesday Technology Trends presentation at InfoComm 2012 this coming June in Las Vegas. See you there!

InfoComm 2010 Seminar: Display Technology Trends

Session IST3

Tuesday, June 8

8:00 AM – 3:30 PM

Rooms N252-N254

Las Vegas Convention Center

Las Vegas, NV