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The Consumer Electronics Show

Today I embarked on my annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of gadgets: The Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas. This year I decided to blog my notes and observations.

These are my personal comments and I’ve written them in haste on the flight back to Seattle. I apologize in advance for any fact-check errors that have slipped in. It’s also a huge show, and it's not possible to see everything in just a few hours; there will be omissions in my coverage.

I’ve been fortunate to attend quite a lot of CES shows (I’ve even done booth duty there in a past life), and each year I try to pick a theme.

Some themes in the past have been “The battle between Blu-ray and HD DVD”, “The year of 3D”, “E-readers ‘r’ Us”

This year I struggled to find a theme, but I eventually settled with “Evolution, not revolution” (The runner-up was "pixel wars")

TV’s are getting bigger, smart phones are getting smarter, mega-pixels are getting more mega … but there were no jump-out-at-you announcements.

This is the first year in living memory when there was a lack of presence by Microsoft at the show. This is not much of a surprise; there are only a certain number of years in a row you can roll out Kinect and call it “new”, and they passed that threshold last year.

Microsoft joins a select bunch of significantly-sized players who did not have a show-floor presence at CES. The other big boys and girls missing are: Apple (who are too cool, and carry enough power to host their own exclusive events), Amazon, Google and facebook. The later three don’t really make tangible consumer goods you buy in stores, so their absence is understandable. (OK, I changed my mind, Amazon you have your Kindles, shame on you for not being there!)

Televisions, televisions, televisions …

CES is not CES without acres and acres of flat screen TVs on display. This year did not disappoint.

TV’s are getting bigger and thinner. Each year there seems to be a competition for who can display the biggest flat screen TV.

This year it got even more confussing. Every stand seemed to have some private claim of “World's biggest %s TV”.

At first it looked like poor fact checking, but each claim was subtly different (biggest TV, biggest OLED TV, biggest 3D TV, biggest Ultra HD, biggest Ultra HD 3D …)

What's new in TV land?

The two common melodies sung about TV this year were OLED and Ultra HD.

Ultra HD is the next step-up in TV resolution. Current technology for top end TVs is described as 1080P (having a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels in a 16:9 aspect ratio screen).

Ultra HD (formerly known as 4k, and still, confussingly, referenced this way in some booths), is essentially four of these 1080P images tiled together into one image. That’s an immense number of pixels (even with compression, I’ve heard it mentioned that it takes a solid 1GB/second connection for reliable video playback at this resolution). It is the same resolution you might have experienced in some high-end movie theatres who offer digitally projected movies.

You can see how this pixel area compares to current HD, and other broadcast formats, from the diagram above which shows the relative sizes.

The largest Ultra HD display I saw at the show was an impressive 110" (I really should have taken this picture with a person next to it for scale!)

Does this super-high-resolution have a place on your living room wall? If you can’t make out individual pixels at the movie theatre when the screen size is measured in many meters, how can you possibly justify shrinking this image down and argue you can tell the difference when the same image is displayed on your wall a few feet away, isn’t it just a waste? Can you really tell the difference?

Maybe it’s in my mind, or maybe I was suffering from mass hysteria, or show hypnosis, or maybe they were tricking me by degrading the quality of the ‘vanilla 1080p’ pictures in close proximity, but whatever the reasons, the Ultra HD pictures really did look great, and were noticeably crisper compared to a 1080P image. It really is like looking through a window. Think of it as though you were looking at a giant retina display on a Hagrid size iPad.

YES! You can tell the difference between at Ultra HD image and regular HD at normal viewing distances. (I'll go even further and say that, because the resolution is so high, regular 2D images seems to have a slight pseudo-3D feel to them; they give the perception of depth. It's slight and it's a little weird at first).

Various Ultra HD devices were on display being driven from various sources. Top of the pile were displays being powered directly from native 4k sources. As you can imagine, these looked fantasitc.

Many of the others displays were being driven from regular Blu-ray sources that the TV, internally, was upscaling. Side-by-side comparissons showed a very clear improvement in image quality between the upscaled Ultra HD and vanilla HD. I even challenged one of the booth staff to pause the Blu-Ray disk to prove it was a live demo, and he did without hesitation; it was very impressive to compare the two images when both displays were on pause (the movie playing was Disney's Brave and in the Ultra still image every hair was individually discernable, as were all the threads in the cloth in the clothes; not so on the regular HD version).

Sony have even gone as far as mastering (branding) a collection of movies as Optimised for Ultra HD. These are still regular Blu-ray disks, but have been mastered/tweaked to also give a great experience when upscaled to 4k to act as a stepping stone before native Ultra HD content is available. Sony were also showing a professional Ultra HD video camera (see picture)

Back on planet Earth

What’s in it for you and me?

For the average consumer, TV sizes are increasing. Once upon a time, top of the line flat screen TVs were sold with sizes of 40” then 42”, 50”, 55”, 60”, 65” … It should be no surprise that you will be able to find 70”, 80”, 85" and even 90” devices in your local Costco store are reasonable prices very shortly.

Sharp was the only manufacturer showing a 90" TV today (See left).

Pretty much every manufacturer has made improvements to their 2013 model line-ups over the previous same offerings. Colors are that little bit brighter, bezels a little bit thinner … evolution at work (spot the theme?)

All the TV's I could see the back of had the usual row of HDMI connectors, and every single one was also sporting a Cat-5 Ethernet socket. Nobody was pushing it (they were all busy showing pretty Hi-Res pictures), but it's not hard to imagine that every one of these TVs could be used as some streaming video player with built in services like Netflix (or for watching cat vidwos on YouTube, or to make the TV a home media-extender …)

There was hardly any mention/reference at the show about Google TV. Maybe next year …

Organic Light Emitting Diodes

OLED technology has been around a while, but it’s only now we’re seeing the technology and manufacturing proficiencies mature enough to make large format displays. You'll be glad the technology is now here, because OLED displays are simply stunning to behold!

My snappy photos do not give credit to the stunning picture quality. Compared to LED TV’s (which are really just LED backlit displays filtered with LCD shutters), OLED displays directly produce their light; they make thinner, lighter displays, with better brightness and contrast and they are more energy efficient.

These TV’s are now so thin that they are works of art. They look impossibly thin. They are so thin that, were you to own one, you’d want it on a table/pedestal so you could walk around and marvel about just how thin it was and show it off!

Just look at the thickness of the screens shown on the right. It’s ironically gone too far; Initially TV’s were made thinner so we could mount them flush on walls and reclaim floor space. Anything thinner that 2-3” was more than good enough to meet this goal. Now, these ultra-thin works-of-art are pieces of furniture in their own right and mounting them on the wall is an insult to their beauty. (And at $12,000 for the first iterations you really do want to show them off). They are unnaturally thin. It’s spooky to see them (approx. 4mm thick!)

What happened to 3D?

What about 3D? Yeah what about it? It's never really taken off with consumers. Some attribute the lack of uptake to the lack of content, but to me it’s a different issue. To me, it's all about TV viewing habits.

Household TV viewing is a casual experience. A TV is on, possibly in the background, possibly in the foreground, and you’re watching it with friends and family. You chat whilst you’re watching the news or some sitcom, you get up and put the kettle on, maybe you’re cooking at the same time. For this you don’t want 3D, you don’t want to have to put on those glasses, you just want a TV. Occasionally, there are times when you want the movie experience, and for those times, yes you might want to go the whole way and put on the glasses to get the complete 3D adventure, but this is a scheduled event, not a casual viewing. I know it’s a generalization, but I think the number of people who have and use a 3D TV (as intended) is similar in magnitude to the number of people who have a dedicated media-room/theatre in their house.

With the exception of LG (and to a lesser extend Sony), the other TV manufacturers barely even mentioned their 3D offerings. LG made up for the others: Their booth was bristling with 3D offerings, including a (very impressive) totally massive 3D TV wall. (My image looks blurred because my phone camera is capturing both stero images).

The LG booth was certainly the busiest booth I encountered this year (as it was last year). And it gets my (tied) vote as the most impressive stand at the exhibition. Way to go Lucky Goldstar, errr, I mean "LG". My vote for the tied position was the Sony stand (impressive in its scale, design and openess, as well as the offerings).

A novel use of 3D technology (for none 3D purposes) was shown on a couple of stands again this year:

3D TVs work by exposing each eye to a different stereoscopic image. The function of the standard 3D glasses you wear is to mask out the wrong image from the inappropriate eye so that each eye sees a different image. For this particular technology use, rather than giving each viewer a pair of LeftRight glasses, the device is shipped with two sets of glasses, one a set LeftLeft, and one a RightRight. This way, two independent videos can be played at the same time of the same screen, and each viewer sees a different image. When connected to a gaming console, bingo, two players can play full screen games head-to-head against each other on the same screen. Neat!)

Curved Screen TVs

Hey, those flat screen TVs are not flat!

Both LG and Samsung were displaying curved screen TVs. The curves, whilst slight, were noticeable (Imagine a TV shape cut-out from the wall of a large diameter cylinder). Both of the screens were OLED, so were incredibly thin.

LG (shown left) claimed to be displaying:

The World's First Curved 3D OLED TV

 

On the other hand Samsung (right) claimed to tbe showing:

The World's First Curved OLED TV

See the subtle difference?

The question is, why make curved TVs? Well aside from the snippy "Because they can!", and the obvious PR value of this achievement, the manufacturers are quoted as saying that curved TVs give a better sweet spot for ideal viewing. With a regular flat screen TV, you can only be directly opposite (normal-to) one point of the display, and with screens getting bigger, the further away from this perpendicular point, the more severe the viewing angle becomes. With a curved TV, these differences are greatly reduces (and theoretically zero at one particular point).

 

Does it make a difference? I'm not sure I could tell the difference, but they were certainly drawing a lot of buzz and attention from the crowd. Curved screens segues nicely to the next product …

… flexible displays

Why stop at a fixed curve? Samsung were also previewing flexible displays. These are also OLED displays, and required no backlighting. The prototypes on display were definetly prototypes, but they certainly were flexible. Sorry for the blurred picture, but in it you can see one of the displays draped over a curved glass block. The future-look examples of this technology being suggested were very compelling; smartphones with rounded corners with the display wraping around for viewing notifications at many angles, and devices with folding and rolling screens.

Phones with flexible displays, are less likely to break and shatter when dropped! (In other news, Corning announced at the show the release of Gorilla Glass 3 which is three times more damage resistant than Gorilla Glass 2. Helping solve this problem from the other end of the scale).

Now that's just showing off!

Not content with showing just Ultra HD Televisions (4k), Sharp showed an 85" display running an 8k picture (they quoted 7,680x4,320 pixels with 10 bits of color depth for each RGB channel).

Qualcomm

Qualcomm had a very busy show, and took over the Keynote speech after Microsoft's departure. One of their big pushes was Snapdragon S4; their answer to low-power, high performance processors for todays mobile device needs. Snapdragon processors power many devices including the new Sony Xperia Z smart phone shown here.

I liked the look of this phone, with its simple iPhone-esque flat-with-rounded corners design. The phone was elegant with glass on both front and back, and Sony claims up to 30 seconds of water resistance.

(I missed the Qualcomm keynote, with its "Born Mobile" theme, but the buzz is that the presentation was so attracious, bizarre, creative that there are already numerous parody sites out there. Look it up on Google!)

Tablet, Phablets, Phones

Phones are getting bigger, displays are getting brighter, pixel count and density are getting higher. I didn't focus a lot of attention on looking at these new devices (sorry). In line with my theme of this year, phones are all evolving (and evolving very nicely), but I did not see anything revolutionary.

Same with tablets – and there were a lot of them on display. Some daddy-bear sized, some mommmy-bear size, and some baby-bear size. Tablets are appearing from everywhere – not just the known-name players. There were also dozens for Asian clone manufacturers presenting their wares.

In contrast to the volume of tablet devices was the lack of laptops and ultrabooks on display. I know CES is not a computer show, so this is somewhat explainable, but if you ever wanted evidence that tablets are main-stream consumer devices, this is it.

Laptops have been relegated to work tools.

Gamification of Health

One of the very obvious growing markets this year is that of health. There are numerous competing devices/braclets that track your lifestyle … there are sleep monitors … there are movement trackers … there are digital scales with body fat measuring technology … there are blood pressure sensors, even blood oxygen level monitors … there are heart rate monitors … (And GPS watches/pedometers, and hats with head-up displays to allow you to see your vital stats …)

All these devices are now connected using wireless technology to upload, download, track, monitor and share stats. There are iPhone apps, and web services, and health and wellness monitors, and scorecards, and goals, and targets and achievements.

Gamification of health is here (and I think this is probably a good thing. It helps payback some of the debt that excess video games and TV consumption have had on our lifestyles).

Fun Stuff

A mixed bag of randomly seen things:

The Hapi Fork

Only in America? This is a fork with sensors and microcontroller which monitors your eating habits.

If it detects you are eating too much, or too quickly, it gently vibrates to remind you. (If I had a dollar for every person I’ve related this story to who suggest that it should give you an electric shock instead, or signal to a Bluetooth listening electric dog collar, then I’d be semi-retired by now!)

Useless Internet Fridges

Why do people continue to make fridges with internet connections? Anybody who is addicted enough to the internet to want to browse the web from their kitchen probably already has a much more capable device (or two) in close proximity.

Does history not teach these people anything? Anyone remember how popular the “Phone in the Fridge” product was? Is a “Browser in a Fridge” any more compelling?

Remote controlled vacuum robot

What is the logic about this?

You are too lazy to push a vacuum cleaner around, so instead you buy one of those floor cleaning robots and it performs an elegant balet around your floor; cleaning as it goes.

So then you go out and buy a device that allows you drive it by remote control !?!? Why not just get the vacuum out and do it the traditional way?

Android Watch

Designed by Italians. Still a bit too big and clunky for everyday wear, but it scores 9/10 on the geek factor.

21 Mega Pixels

A picture of someone using a very expensive 21 mega-pixel camera (taken with cheap, noisey smartphone camera, zoomed, cropped then reduced to just 175x167 pixels. There should probably be a law against doing this).

A 'roomba' for your back

This little device was just a few inches long, and hosted knurled wheels. The idea is to put it on your naked back, turn it on and let it roam around (using its sensors to stop if falling off the edge). As it moves, the wheels would give you a gentle massage. I didn't try it …

Dangerous battery powered toys

I saw a remote controlled pair of motorized roller skates. Why?

3D Printers

Some pretty impressive 3D printed sculptures were on display (not just finely detailed and comlpex, but sporting many different colors).

Goodbye CES 2013.

 

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