07.01.14

Letter from America: It's CES Time Again!

For those of us involved in consumer electronics in almost any manner, a sure sign that the year has come to an end and that new one is about to begin is not the Boxing Day sales, not the crystal ball dropping from the top of a building in Times Square, not having to remember to put the new year - not the one just concluded - on cheques (presuming, of course, that you still write them).

Rather, the marking of a new year is making sure that all is in order to visit the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held each year, in very early January in Las Vegas. After all, what other event finds most of the press conferences starting with the main presenter wishing everyone 'Happy New Year'? While the show is, indeed, truly international, we also realise that given the far-flung location of our readers, it is probable that many of you might not be able to attend. Thus, for this month's Letter a few things to look for from the show, whether you'll be there in person or read about it from afar. Given its position in the calendar, CES often sets the tone for what you'll buy, install or be asked about by clients who also read about the goings on at CES in the popular, enthusiast and financial press. Without further ado, a few things for your lists:

4K/UHD - Displays, Sources and Connecting/Enabling Devices
This is the year that 4K has to really prove that it is a viable product and not something consumers will take as 'another excuse to sell us a new TV and yet another copy of a movie we've already bought on VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, DVD Special Edition and Blu-ray'. More importantly, given the less-than-enthusiastic take-up of 3D, 4K/UHD has to either prove its worth as a reasonable proposition or it risks low take-up and a pending trip to the dustbin of electronics history.

In reality, I think that CES 2014 will presage a year where 4K begins to find a footing thanks to the following indicators:
• Prices for mainstream brands are already beginning to drop, but they have their lower limits if profitability is to be maintained. How low will the traditional brands go to meet the competition from the upstart, primarily Chinese brands that are seeking respectability but are doing it mostly through pricing?
• Will those mainly Chinese brands improve their quality to the point where the high-end customer will accept them? To date their scaling quality, for example, has been somewhat below par in the minds - and eyes - of many.
• In an effort to keep one step ahead of sets that may source their LCD panels from the same vendors, will the legacy brands renew their push to OLED with 4K models? Will any of those sets be flat screens, or will the current curved screen trend continue for OLED?
• OLED's start in 2013 was a bit slow. Will it spread to more, larger and hopefully less-expensive models? Will its own picture benefits of great colour and contrast be applied to 1080p sets such that some might prefer it to a 4K model? Pricing will be key to the OLED puzzle at CES and into the year.
• With most of the newly-announced 4K sets likely to include HEVC/H.265 decoding, will that, in combination with on board 'smarts' and 'apps' disintermediate external streaming set top boxes from the 4K programme delivery eco-system we'll have to deal with?
• Will there be any widely-available 4K content freed from the constraints of vendor-specific systems such as the Sony 'Hatbox' server available here in the US? Will we see formal announcements from the likes of Netflix, Amazon/Lovefilm or others?
• With the World Cup taking place later in the year, will there be any firm announcements of 4K coverage available (likely via satellite delivery) to consumers, not just to pubs and the like, as in the early days of 3D?
• It's likely that most of the new displays will sport HDMI 2.0 connectivity, but when will it be available in AVRs or surround processors?

Audio, Let it Not be Forgotten! It's likely that most of us, at least of a certain age, were introduced to this business by hanging around audio shops, in the days when a video display was simply 'the telly' and home automation/integration was just the stuff of the future. The decimation of the physical media side of audio by streaming, servers, phones and tablets and a bazillion celebrity-driven headphone models and look-alike Bluetooth speakers has changed the equation for audio.

Perhaps CES will mark a change as its organisers, the CEA, are about to launch a major push to re-market the concept of high-quality audio. Even more than video, networking and automation, that is one area where we can provide products and services the 'big box' emporiums simply cannot. If you are going to CES, spend some time at the exhibits in the Venetian Hotel where the 'high-end audio' rooms will be. I will certainly do that and I will be looking for the following:
• Two or so years ago it was headphones, as Beats came out of nowhere to disrupt and perhaps re-invent the category. Last year it was Bluetooth speakers by the dozen. Will this be the year that we see Sonos wanna-be products at every turn. Bose, Core Brands, and others are already there, and while I can't reveal the brands before CES starts, expect other major suppliers to join in the fun. Will the new contenders beat the category's leader at their own game? Be on the lookout!
• Audio playback technologies need to adapt to the changes in how content is distributed. What new DAC, server or similar new take on a traditional product such as turntables, CD players, and tuners will help you differentiate your own offerings? How will you blend the best of the old with the best the new?
* What tricks will be up the sleeve of the multichannel world where we haven't seen any major new advances since the various introductions of Dolby and DTS' mainstream codecs? When will we see home versions of Auro or Dolby Atmos?
• Soundbars have become somewhat of a price-driven commodity category. Will someone appear out of nowhere with something that shakes things up? Look for a growing trend to 'sound platforms', 'sound stands' and 'sound bases' as the bars squish down from something you place in front of the TV to something on top of which you place the display! How will these sound?
• With eco-friendliness becoming critical, will this be the year that we see more Class D amplifiers used in traditional audio products?

New Opportunities Home control, security, automation and integration? If you are reading this you've 'been there, done that'. Sure, there will be new products to examine, but what can be added that we're not doing too much of already? • The intersection of fitness and home health presents a great opportunity and I expect to see much more of that at this year's CES. Think of all the 'fitness bands' that found their way into homes as holiday gifts this year. They are only the vanguard of connected products we expect to see to support 'aging in place' for 'silver seniors'. Who better to install, connect and monitor the systems with these products than you?

• Advanced networking technologies will be all over the place as the increased bandwidth requirements of the connected home mean that in all but the simplest systems, you just won't be able to rely on consumer products. Turn that on its head and take a very close look at how the major consumer-facing brands are updating their product lines. What do they do that you need to also provide in enterprise-grade products? What don't they do that leaves you a market opening? Think about bandwidth, security, range and reliability for starters, and then pour in the ability to do remote management and monitoring.
• Got everything under control? Brought to consumer acceptability by Microsoft's Kinect as part of Xbox 360, and now Xbox One, along with other products, controller-less gesture and voice control have become much more mainstream. How will this present itself in products for system control at CES? What solutions will be there to integrate all the disparate apps and system-specific controls and controllers?
• There's always something new in our world; the stuff I'd tell you to go look at save for the fact that until the show is over, I don't know what it is. One of the best places to find that hidden gem is in the Eureka Park area of CES. Think of it as Kickstarter or Indiegogo on steroids and a great collection of sometimes odd and unusual but also potentially breakthrough new products.
• Looking for something you can private label? First-time attendees should check out the warren of importers in the national trade group pavilions typically found in the LVH (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) ballroom areas. Thinking of adding some margin with your own brand of cables, cases, remotes or gadgets? That is the place to go shopping!

See You There?
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will help you frame your game plan for a Las Vegas trip or to scan the coverage. Of course, I'll be there for the duration and will be tweeting key announcements as they happen.' Here's to a great year for all our readers and their families. See you are CES!

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. Follow him on Twitter @captnvid.