23.02.15

Letter from America: CES 2015 Observations

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When attending a major trade show such as the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held annually in Las Vegas during early January, it’s almost inevitable that either at, or right after the big event, someone will ask “What product did you see there that I need to know about?” or “What is the one thing from CES that was most important?”

Reasonable questions to be sure, but as much as there is the natural tendency to look for that one breakthrough or potentially disruptive product, particularly at this year’s CES my take on things is somewhat different. For me, it isn’t “the one most important product of the show” this year; it rarely is. Rather, it is taking a step back and looking to see where there was either a multiplicity of products in a certain category, or perhaps a dearth of products. Good, bad or indifferent with regard to the products themselves or to the differences between one company’s take on a product or concept, it is their being there that tells us what direction our industry is going and what the pool of available products will be.

Thus, rather than say that I liked this UHD set or that one, the clear message from the fact that they were everywhere says that 4K/UHD is here and will most likely stay here. Some still scoff a bit and say that it will end up being “Just another thing like 3D: a conspiracy on the part of the set manufacturers to sell something new.” We beg to differ.

As was the case last year, but more so, everyone from the top legacy Japanese brands (those left, that is, with Toshiba’s stand noticeably missing any consumer display) and the Korean majors to the vast number of Chinese brands and US marketing companies licensing legacy names such as RCA had UHD sets. Yes, it was the same at one point when you could say that everyone had 3D, but the content wasn’t there and then there was that thing with the pesky glasses. The momentum behind UHD at CES was clear and those who don’t recognize that will miss the boat.

But wait, you may say, where is the content? Wasn’t that a problem with 3D? Perhaps, but other aggregations of interest prove our point that it is the weight of many companies and factions behind UHD that point to its inevitability as something to promote and get on with. First, at least for the US market, both of the major satellite providers unveiled their 4K content solutions. If they go in that direction it can only be a matter of time before we see the same for UK and EMEA.

For physical media, there was only one standard. However, to our point of looking for where the mass of interest was, the adherents were behind it in abundance from all sides: studios/content owners, set and player manufacturers and IP providers. Indeed, speaking with two of the major executives involved in the Blu-Ray Disc Association (BDA), the keepers of the standard, we were told that some companies who might have been said to be moving away from optical media towards an emphasis on streaming have renewed their support for UltraHD Blu-ray.

Heiss_Panasonic-HRAHere, a preponderance of interest and brands behind what is now to be known as UltraHD Blu-ray not only says that the format will appear, but that reports of optical media’s death are, to quote Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Panasonic even showed a working prototype player (pictured) at their stand and expectations are that we’ll see some players and discs in the market before the end of the year. This one’s for real. Another single item, but with considerable traction is the Ultra-HD Alliance, also announced at CES. Most of the major set manufacturers, studios, streamers and IP providers are behind it, ranging from Samsung (said to be the ringleader for this one) along with LG, Sony, Panasonic and Sharp to Warner, Fox and Disney to Netflix, Dolby and Technicolor.

With that, this could be a major step forward in codifying an ecosystem that will help speed the introduction of all the bits and pieces needed to make it easier for us to have the interchangeable parts that speed adoption and lower costs. This move was truly unexpected before CES, and it is as big a story as any of the products or services the Alliance’s members offer.

Among the many parts of what one hopes the Ultra-HD Alliance will be able to standardize is High Dynamic Range, or HDR, technology. The complete inner workings of HDR are complex enough to warrant a separate Letter, something we’ll get to later in the year, but suffice to say that HDR brings dramatically improved contrast and brightness control to any video system, particularly 4K/UHD. Here, our groupings that validate the concept are on a number of different levels.

First, we have at least three schemes looking to be selected, with anyone’s guess as to who the winner will be in the marketplace or standard. Dolby Vision was the most widely promoted at CES, with a few brands showing prototype sets with the technology on-board. Technicolor and others are said to have standards, along with a workflow standard for the production side of the fence being promulgated by SMPTE. Depending on how the work of the UHD Alliance proceeds we may see a standard agreed to or we may not.

Regardless, we’ll see HDR. In a perfect world, with systems such as Dolby Vision, the content is encoded with metadata that, when sent to and read by a display, tells the set how to render out a proper picture. In other words, it is an end-to-end standard that really doesn’t function to maximum performance benefit without both sides being present. That isn’t here yet, although at CES Warner announced that they will be offering a select number of Blu-ray titles this year with Dolby Vision coding. Second, validation of HDR came from the many brands, perhaps almost all of the majors, who claimed that they were incorporating some measure of HDR in their new sets. Remember, without HDR capability on BOTH sides of the content and display equation it isn’t true HDR, but we’ll take any image improvement we can get. Yes, even if it is advanced video processing billed as HDR. That everyone was on this boat again is a sign that it is something most can do and all want to. For you, that means it will eventually be a “must have” in mid- to high-end displays.

Another technology whose full explanation is a topic onto itself is quantum dots, or more correctly as a generic description, nano-crystals. The goal here is to provide increased colour accuracy by placing a film or material over the LEDs used to provide the illumination for virtually all but the least expensive LCD sets these days that replace the current colour filters for a screen’s sub-pixels. Using a variety of proprietary techniques that some brands have developed internally while others purchase from specialists such as QD Vision or create in partnership with firms such as Dow Chemical, the result is impressive. CES found this technology a feature from most all brands where from a marketing and pricing perspective it was promoted as a less pricy alternative to OLED. Here, it is worth noting that while OLED is perhaps the ultimate in flat-screen technology and is not going away, only one brand among the majors (LG) was promoting it at CES this year. Price no object? OLED for sure. Price a bit more of a factor? If the sets on display at CES are any indication, quantum dots will emerge this year as a major go-to and very demonstrable technology feature.

Lest one think that we are totally video-centric, a few other confluences of concept and technology became apparent at CES. On the audio side, the visibility for object-based audio systems let by Dolby Atmos that started at CEDIA EXPO gained credibility at CES with the unveiling of DTS:X. Complete details on the new format will not be available until March, but suffice to say that almost all of the key audio brands are on board. Content for Atmos, Auro3D and, of course, DTS:X is still somewhat of a rarity, but as the hardware is here with more on the way, the content is sure to follow. Object-based audio is, in many ways, a parallel to 4K/UHD in terms of increasing the immersion of home theatre to a point where you have good reason to propose major system upgrades to your existing client base as well as to outbound selling to new prospects.

The news from CES as measured by the number of brands signing on gives you the confidence to promote them to any comer with the confidence that “It isn’t just one brand—the whole industry from Hollywood to the electronics companies are behind it!” The same goes for the widely touted concept of “High Resolution Audio” (HRA). Looking for a way to reinvigorate your two-channel system sales? The portable HRA players no on sale from the likes of Sony, Pono and Astell & Kern, along with in-home systems pair up with the increasing number of streaming and downloadable content recorded or remastered for HRA. This is an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.

 Finally, moving to the automation and integration side of the business, “IoT” was perhaps one of the most often heard buzz words at CES along with HDR, UHD and quantum dots. Yes, we could point to this product or that, but we’re looking for the macro picture here by spotting trends from the interest in any given category of goods. Examples? It’s more than just the obligatory “fitness band” or HVAC controller.

BT-Binky8-400x389In the world of health monitoring, a new trend with more than a few companies showing their take was “baby temperature monitors”. Integrating the ability to report an infant or child’s temperature when they have an ear infection or other is something that will appeal to anxious, connected parents. “Trackers” that you attach to keys, luggage, cameras or put in a wallet and then integrate them all into a single app on the clients phone so that they can easily see if the keys fell under the couch cushions were visible from half a dozen vendors. I have them from Tile, Tracker, Gecko, OORT, Wistiki and others. All have their own attributes, but first hand experience says that they are something to put on your line card.

New at CES, but soon to be available from were “connected Edison sockets such as Emberlight. The concept here from the likes of Emberlight is to eschew more expensive “connected bulbs” by placing the communication links and dimmer in a “socket that screws into the socket”. Buy it once and then replace bulbs as needed without the added expense. This is such a good idea that it wins our CES 2015 “If I’m so smart, why didn’t I think of it” award. It will be interesting to see how this concept succeeds by siting at the intersection of the plain LED bulbs and integrated ones.

Similar “one is an idea, more than one is a trend to watch” areas within IoT were air quality monitors, soil/weather/moisture irrigation sensor/controllers, “connected kitchen scales”, and more. OK, some did border on the silly or “why would I want that”, but for the client who wants almost everything connected and reporting there isn’t much left. We even saw our first “Wi-Fi Water Kettle”, connected cigarette lighter (to help you stop smoking) and yes, “Belty”, the first “connected belt” at CES. With some of those, the hype may be larger than the potential market.

Suffice to say, there was much more to see with CES covering more than two million square feet of exhibit space. However, my space is limited and we’ll have to call it quits here for the month. Details on all of these items and more will follow in the months ahead, but we’ll leave you with our lesson from CES to guide how you judge the reports on all the new products and technologies: sometimes it is better to look at the forest as a totality and what types of trees dominate than at the individual trees themselves. From that, as well as to see which types of trees are harvested, you often get a better picture of things than by looking at one single tree.

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group, follow him on Twitter @captnvid.