Analyst Trip Report — 2008 Consumer Electronics Show
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held January 7-10 in Las Vegas was the madhouse it usually is. Finding a theme through the big speeches, hundreds of presentations, expert panels, and thousands of exhibitor booths was difficult, as usual. A few letters did bubble to the top this year: HD and Wi. Any booth at CES that didn’t use HD or Wi followed or preceded by some other letters probably shouldn’t have been there. One company even used “WirelessHD” as its technology moniker as though it was trying to win in both two-letter categories.
Other wins and losses showed up in big big screen TVs, thin screen TVs, HD DVD, darkening HD, NTSC, video eyewear, video-based cell phones, Dolby, GPS, Green design, social networks, DRM, personal privacy, personal monitoring, battery technology, and fuel cell automobiles. Meanwhile the futurists on discussion panels couldn’t envision any realistic products or even technologies to look forward to. They seem stuck in the lab and out of touch with product development and business issues. If another lab rat talks about dust networks, there may be a deafening scream heard from a swarm of rational analysts.
Crowds gather everywhere at CES
Not Harley Davidson nor Home Depot, but High Definition was applied to all forms of video, images, radio, audio, gaming, and even power line (mains) equipment at CES. HD is a vague term with its use applied without consistency other than to mean “better than before”, similar to the goodness which “digital” implied ten years ago. On one hand, indeed, HD is much better than standard definition. On the other hand, distinguishing one vendor’s HD from another gets down to fine details and spec-manship. Often there’s a clash as exemplified by the video disc standards of HD DVD format versus Blu-ray Discs, and business issues rather than technical ones determine the winner over the long haul.
In the end, a normal consumer would be bewildered and at the mercy of the salesman’s personal or commission-induced preferences. 1080P and 52” is only the beginning. There is no doubt that impressive high-definition TV - and everything that goes with it - is mainstream and readily available. But prices don’t seem to be dipping below a $500 level and the darkness of February 17, 2009 is only a year away.
WiFi and anything wireless is certainly in full force, be it cellular, certified Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11), or other wireless communications and connectivity technologies. CES exhibitors were connecting phones to data networks, transferring photos directly from camera to the Internet, and transmitting high-speed bit streams to big-screen TVs (HD, of course) - all without wires. Bluetooth had a good showing, although Zigbee seemed to be hiding, while at the other end of the spectrum, Intel was heavily promoting WiMax as our all-encompassing wireless future. On the show floor, any wireless demonstration had to contend with the shout of wireless demos at neighboring booths, though the interference seemed less than in prior years.
Panasonic demonstrated many possibilities for giant-sized video displays at CES. The concept has been postulated before and aspects of the system shown by technologists elsewhere, but Panasonic demonstrated an entire room wall appearing as a massive screen, changing at the whim of the room occupant, able to control almost anything in the mythical dwelling. Windows, picture frames, architectural features, and decorations can reconfigure according to the desires of the people in the room and their mood. Scenery outside the virtual windows and doors can be changed. Televisions can appear and follow a person as they move around the room. Audio programs can be targeted at specific people. Gestures by people in the room can alter this computer-controlled environment, with suggestions made according to preferences of the persons identified as making the gestures.
The practicality of this “Living Wall” is left for us to ponder. The price, service contracts, and version of Windows operating system supporting it is also yet to be determined. It was an interesting demonstration, although the whole thing could have been just a movie running behind a few well-timed actors. It had a Disneyland feel to it, but that would be expected. Kudos to Panasonic for opening their imagination.
Click thumbnail for a close-up of Panasonic's "Living in High Definition" concept
Waving hand brings up controls for the house and wall projection
Big Big Screen TV
For the second year in a row, Panasonic led the pack with the largest size physical screen in a TV or monitor.* In 2008, a 150” high-definition screen replaced last year’s 103”, which reportedly is moving to a commercial product.This plasma screen boasts a phenomenal 4,096 x 2,160 pixel resolution and most of the moving pictures that were shown on the demonstration aptly illustrated that level of detail.
It is not likely that any broadcast television or either format of DVD will provide that resolution but indeed it is amazing granularity.Most images shown were slow moving, though one speeding boat and its water spray still appeared as crisp and clear as one can imagine.There must have been some very warm equipment behind the curtain grinding out the images to display in real time.However, screens that are the size and possibly weight of a full-size billiards table are going to have trouble fitting through the door of the house.Perhaps the resulting much-thinner wallet will allow adequate space.
* These claims rightly put Texas Instruments DLP -based projectors into a separate category.Those projectors can be moved away from their screens a great distance allowing much larger picture areas, even commercial theatre-sized screens, albeit with increasingly dim images or intensely bright and hot light sources.
Click this thumbnail to see a full size image which tests the limits of the meager 3MP camera taking the picture to show the 4,096 x 2,160 resolution moving picture on Panasonic's 150" diagonal plasma screen
Thin Screen TV
Apparently everyone wants to hang their flat-panel TVs on the wall, without hiring a weightlifter to mount it. This and aesthetic issues drive big screen TV OEMs to make their screens as thin as possible. In 2008 this thickness appears to be 1”. A number of manufacturers showed panels as thin as an inch, sometimes measured at the edge, sometimes thicker in the middle.
Will big screen TVs get thinner? Do they need to? Hang a picture on the wall and you’ve taken up an inch of depth. A half-inch thick TV screen isn’t going to put any more space into the room - an inch should be thin enough, the rest is just spec-manship. Weight is important as larger screens become practical, but larger CRT-style TVs were frequently heavier than 100 pounds. Any of these are going to have to mount solidly on a stud in the wall so it is likely that most screens will mount without much concern at this stage.
A $100,000 wall of plasma screens
OEMs like to think consumers will toss a few of their flat-panel monitors around the house not only to watch TV and DVDs in every room, but to show artwork and PC displays of weather, stocks, and email. OEMs at CES proudly said as much. Such screens are all shown to change with a mere touch of controls far simpler than any we have seen yet (obviously not Windows-compatible), but the biggest obstacle is really just plain price. Maybe a PC or TV OEM executive can afford (let alone set up) a dozen or so flat panels around the house that cycle through last year’s summer vacation pictures but for most folks coming up with the $500 for replacement TVs next year will take a 2nd mortgage on the house.
Older readers will remember when PCs first came on the scene and one was assigned to each department at the office, and shared under the watchful eye of its master. Later a printer was located in the department. Eventually more PCs were provided to the favored workers in the department, finally linked together with this new thing called AppleTalk or Ethernet. Printers remained/remain departmental – it was only with the advent of inkjet printers and a razor blade business model that it became reasonable to put a printer beside every PC - at least at home. So, is it logical to talk about a digital TV in every room and a flat-screen up and down the hall showing family photos? How long can a person expect to live?
Contrast and blacker blacks are one of those improvement areas for high-definition video screens and a number of OEMs were demonstrating their blackening techniques. NXP, the recent semiconductor spin-off of Philips, makes richer colors for HD by pulling information from the digital decoding taking place in their chips. One, it moves to LEDs rather than fluorescent backlighting for LCD panels for more localized control. Second, it dims the red, green, and blue LEDs in each region of the screen to match the color intensity needed in that part of the image. This make possible not only darker blacks but also richer colors as both the source light (the LED) and the filter (the LCD) can work better in unison. Rather than having a fluorescent backlight on at all times, modulating the LEDs will result in lower overall power consumption and heat generation too.
RIM's Blackberry Pearl appeals to passers-by
Video-Based Cell Phones
Motorola’s Z10 GSM phone is more like a miniature motion picture studio. The Z10 borrows its look from an old camera, not unlike the old Sony Ericsson T637, though is later opened with a two-stage slide mechanism that gives it an interesting cupped shape . Not only does this cell phone take still images at 3.2 megapixel resolution, it can snap them at a rate of 1 - 3 pictures every second even with the flash recharging – a pretty phenomenal click-to-click rate.
But the best of the Z10 is still its full-motion video. Changing to a video camera, 30 frames per second MPEG4 is captured for nice smooth motion. Here the cell phone leaves others in the dust. Not only does the Z10 record video, it allows editing the video right on the phone. Portions of the captured video can be deleted, the order of sections can be re-arranged, and music or voiceover can be overdubbed. The final edited video can be directly uploaded to YouTube or other Internet services, having never touched a PC. Going from raw video to finished production on the Internet in a few minutes using nothing but a phone – a pretty impressive little studio in a handset. It looks well-tuned to a prime demographic of today’s mobile social networker. This exotic cell phone makes use of a Freescale DSP for the baseband and a Texas Instrument 2420 OMAP processor for all the fancy video and editing action. The Z10 is available in Europe now but expected to come to America soon,
The Lights Go Out Next Year - February 17, 2009
As if the Y2K debacle wasn’t Chicken Little enough, the real screaming in the United States will start February 17 of 2009. That is the date that broadcast television stations are commanded to shut off their NTSC analog transmissions and only broadcast digital signals. There are many issues involved but in a year there will be a lot of surprised people when their TV's suddenly stop working. The government will be handing out $40 certificates to offset the cost of digital-to-analog TV converters, but that is only a partial solution. At CES, EchoStar, the satellite and Slingbox operator, proclaimed that they would make an analog converter available for $40. This offer is being made - selling the converter at a loss - to build goodwill with potential customers. LG/Zenith will offer a $60 converter.
Inner-city Personal Protection Robot?
If a private viewing of video is essential because there are people in the room with different tastes, or there just isn’t enough space for a big screen TV, MyVu may have just the item, especially for those with esoteric style. Imagine a pair of glasses with QVGA (quarter VGA) or even VGA (640x480) 3-D video displays built in. With growing popularity of YouTube, iPods, and just plain movies anytime anywhere, there could be a following for MyVu glasses. These aren’t intended for use while driving, though at least one version sports actual sunglass lenses over the tiny monitors, the business end of these “personal media viewers” is about 1/2" high with connected earpieces for audio and a cord to connect to the source signal, be it DVD, mobile phone, iPod, or game system.
myvu personal media viewer (stock image)
Similar concepts have been seen before, but these are much smaller, very light, and look like they came themselves from some futuristic movie. It seemed like even this light weight would become annoying quickly, and significant movement would not be advised, but the USB-rechargeable batteries are supposed to last 4-10 hours. It must be said that eye-mounted screens are the only reasonable means of bringing true 3-dimensional vision from a manmade source.
Absolutely no other 3-D technique the author has seen is much better than the old blue-and-red glasses of the ’50’s, including a technique promoted by Texas Instruments and some movie-makers for the big screen. Of course, no source material is available in 3-D anyway, and any that does exist is as cheesy as those ’50’s movies with sharks approaching and arms lurching forward. Even these glasses won’t provide demand for true 3-D video, but they may be able to capitalize on some gaming effects for the well-heeled kid with an extra $200 or $300 to spend on further isolation from people and the real world. Watch for them in the movies.
Truth-in-advertising on an old Cadillac: "1960's Hybrid - Burns both Gas & Oil"
Fuel Cell Automobiles
General Motors was showing the current state of their fuel-cell automotive program at CES. Rather than relying on a rather short-sighted hybrid approach to fuel-efficient transportation, GM has continued to explore the use of fuel-cell-powered automobiles. These are going through staged development cycles with a handful of cars transitioning to a hundred cars transitioning to production-line cars, each going through a learning process of what works best from a number of engineering points of view to what makes practical sense from a driver/owner/utility point of view. Building these cars will require new techniques although many of those skills are common to today’s gasoline automobiles.
Sources and distribution of the hydrogen, storage of the pressurized hydrogen in various tanks throughout the vehicle, effectiveness of the fuel cell itself, blending of electrically-driven accessories (steering, braking, A/C, etc) with traditional hydraulic- or belt-, and motor size and configuration are all being evaluated and tested through these stages. The next stage for these cars at GM is to build about a hundred for diverse real-world evaluation. So far results are very promising, significant unsolvable problems. It is, however, likely to be at least another five years before there is general availability of fuel-cell-based vehicles from General Motors.
And . . .
The magnitude of CES takes its toll
Of course there was much more going on at CES. This was a discussion of the most interesting products and angles the author saw in 2008. In most areas, the technology is possible - it’s just a matter of hitting on the right combination of features, services, business model, and price. The reason the Consumer Electronics Show is so massive and so many vendors are showing so many products is that those vendors each think they have the right combination in their products. Each year helps thin out some wrong ones while creating some new ones. Timing must also be correct and some ideas are recycled a few years later only to be successful the second time around. Watching this process year after year is fascinating. 1/22/2008
Some fun new company names
an interesting treatment of a well-known name (below)
Notes: The 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show, commonly referred to simply as “CES”, took place at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Nevada, USA) between January 7 and January 10, 2008. www.cesweb.org