CES 2021: Virtual show, real products and trends

Michael Heiss takes a virtual wander around the all-digital CES to discover the latest innovations in consumer technology.

Whatever one might say about the year just past, the one thing you can’t say is that it hasn’t been interesting! Last year’s ISE in February may well have been the last major in-person trade show, certainly for our industry. Since then, everything has been virtual, or as the folks at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the producers of CES, called their show, “All-Digital CES”. Some might have thought that in the absence of being able to watch, touch and listen to new products and technology implementations in-person and first-hand, that there would be no takeaways about what to expect for the year ahead. Nothing could be further from the truth.

CES has always been a place to set benchmarks, and this year’s event was no different. The products were real, and so are the trends. High among them was the continuation of a move towards larger screen sizes. Regardless of panel technology, be it OLED, QLED, miniLED illuminated screens or direct, microLED panels, the drivers for the market this year will move more towards 75-in and larger screens. Perhaps due to the desire from “stay-at-home” viewers to binge watch on something other than a phone or tablet, 75-in is the new 65-in and 85-in (and even larger) is the new 75-in.

Looking at the new offerings from LG, Samsung, TCL and others, a clear trend for 2021 will be miniLED. Remember, while the “mini” means the LEDs are considerably smaller than those used in conventional sets’ backlights, miniLEDS are now viewed directly. That is the province of microLED consumer-centric displays from the likes of Samsung and now LG, with many other players such as Sony, Planar, Barco, Digital Projection, Christie and dozens of others aiming towards the commercial/enterprise/digital signage markets.

The small size of miniLEDs translates to the ability to pack more of them behind the LCD panel to light it up. In turn, that means more light control for significantly more dimming zones and higher light output. This does not count out OLED, as it is considered the best for contrast, but miniLED-based products are giving their competition a run for their money on that score while maintaining the edge in brightness. Based on what was shown at CES, the “LED vs OLED” battle will continue through 2021 to everyone’s benefit.

Verizon chairman and CEO, Hans Vestberg, delivered the CES 2021 opening keynote address, discussing 5G as the framework of the 21st century (Photo: CES 2021) 

Another “real product” trend from the all-digital CES was TVs with features that optimise them for video game play. Along with renewed interest in gaming sparked by stay-at-home policies, let us not forget that both Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation introduced their new generation consoles late last year. Together, those events not only increased game play, but to make the most of the games’ advanced features the players benefit significantly from both new screens, updated audio and better connectivity.

On the display side, a few things we’ve seen before began to gel and become a widespread feature and, in one case, returned to the market.

With games capable of 8K, we finally have sources that require HDMI 2.1. Yes, I know, we’ve been talking about it for a few years, however, at CES 2021 it appears to be finally gaining traction. Virtually every major TV brand showed displays with multiple HDMI 2.1/HDCP2.3 inputs. Even “gaming monitors” were shown with HDMI 2.1. AVRs, the middle-man in the signal path from source to sink are, or will soon, feature it as well. In some cases such as Onkyo, Integra and Elite, there will now even be multiple HDMI 2.1 inputs.

It should be repeated that while resolution is often cited as the reason to trade up to 8K, it is at the heart of the TV lines where it will appear and has the most impact. After all, to paraphrase the old cliché: “One does not live by resolution alone”. Particularly with many, if not most, of us stuck at home, this has been a great year for the game industry. The features that make these games worth the demand they are seeing are video related in most cases. Those, in turn, need HDMI 2.1.

“Based on what was shown at CES, the “LED vs OLED” battle will continue through 2021 to everyone’s benefit.”

Refresh rates up to 120Hz at high resolution and 4.4.4 color sampling? Check. The need to have the display respond to frame rates changing out of the source faster than the display can respond? Check. The need for low latency with regard to audio and video? Check. THOSE are the areas where HDMI 2.1 comes to the rescue.

Foremost among these is Variable Refresh Rate, or VRR. Since the game console or computer outputs are faster than the display is able to respond, VRR mediates all of this to minimise or eliminate tear and blur. HDMI 2.1 is part of this, but so are the capabilities of the display and offering the functionality of AMD FreeSync and Nvidia’s G-Force along with other display brand proprietary versions of VRR within their “game modes”.

End of the day take-away: HDMI 2.1 is, some might say, finally here. Look for it, and always see if any device has all the features a specific installation requires. Remember that HDMI 2.1 is a collection of features, and having one, such as eARC, allows the device to legitimately claim HDMI 2.1. Similarly, the full capability of HDMI 2.1 is 48Gbps, but many receiver and sink (aka TV sets) devices topped out at 40Gbps. That isn’t critical now, but just a note of caution.

The small size of miniLEDS means that more of them may be used for LCD backlighting. The result is brighter pictures and more dimming zones. (Photo: TCL)

Before we leave video and gaming topics from CES 2021, there is one product category that sits into the “didn’t the market try that once and it didn’t find acceptance” ledger. Curved screen displays. Yes, you heard that correctly. Curved screens!

While the concept just didn’t work in a den, lounge or home theatre situation where the seating is spread out, for small sized screens in the 27-in to 40-ish-in range, their ability to focus and immerse the viewer is just what the doctor ordered. Sample a new video game on one of these monitors, or consider them for an office or work from home venue. Particularly for the latter, the ability to put multiple screen windows on one larger, curved monitor rather than spread them across two or three screens has found a great deal of acceptance.

Moral here: just because curved screens didn’t resonate with the public for entertainment viewing, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a viable alternative for other applications.

In tune with the notion that “one does not live by video alone”, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight some other trends from CES 2021 that impact our world. Along with HDMI, two other big stories were the omnipresence of 5G and both Wi-Fi 6 and the new Wi-Fi 6E. The two are more intertwined than one might think.

On the 5G front one of the keynotes was Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon, a major US cellular carrier. That said, while there were announcements about 5G handsets, there were few, if any, other concrete products on display that are, or will soon be, in the market. But make no mistake, as the keynote highlighted and as it has been said here before, 5G’s future is for industrial, telemedicine, education and similar data communication-centric applications as much, or more, than it is for being just another cell phone. Hold that thought.

NETGEAR’s RAXE500, introduced at CES, adds the 6Ghz spectrum for increased performance (Photo: Netgear)

Once 5G becomes more widely available and becomes key to all these data transport uses, how will the data be ported around inside buildings? Particularly at mmWave frequencies where the data capacity is highest but the range and ability to penetrate walls is problematic. The answer is our old friend Wi-Fi. With Wi-Fi 6 there is ample bandwidth throughput to match 5G; indeed, the two technologies are billed as working in concert with one another, not as competition. Virtually all the major router and mesh system brands showed Wi-Fi 6 products that are now readily available.

What’s a CES without a product coming out party? Here it was Wi-Fi 6E. This new variation on the theme uses additional 6Ghz spectrum space now being freed up across the globe. That brings more channels that will allow more and fast simultaneous uses than at present. Asus, Linksys, Netgear and TP-Link all showed either access points/routers or mesh systems with Wi-Fi 6E. Look for more as the year progresses.

“With games capable of 8K, we finally have sources that require HDMI 2.1.”

Particularly notable in pandemic times was the appearance of “touchless” controls, particularly when it comes to kitchen and bathrooms. We may be “digital plumbers”, but our “pipes” carry audio, video and data, not hot and cold running water! Yet our industry does provision whole house control, and water is certainly something to be controlled and monitored. The presence of major plumbing fixture companies at CES for the third year in a row definitely points to something that should be in your sight as a value-added product. Remember, you may not connect the water pipes, sinks, showers, baths or toilets, but you will want to be known as the company that can fully integrate their control.

One more fun part of CES, whether physical/in-person or digital/virtual are the interesting products that are out of the headlines but which either make our industry fun or which help it to better serve our clients and the larger community. Even a pandemic didn’t stop your intrepid reporter from ferreting out our annual “that’s interesting” products. Here is just a sampling.

On the “digital nursery” front there was CradleWise, an “intelligent crib” that is more than an audio/video baby monitor. It monitors infant sleep, and when the child awakes it gently bounces to sooth the baby and stops bouncing when it settles back to deep sleep. Where was that when my son, now 33, kept us up all night as a restless sleeper!

To monitor your own activity, we’ve seen connected exercise bikes and mirrors, but now there is a connected yoga mat. YogiFi from Wellnesys embeds sensors in the mat and connects with both an app to monitor progress but also to virtual instructors.

Always losing your glasses or forgetting where you left them? Findy from Foxsmart is a small object tracker along the lines of a Wistiki or Tile that is tiny enough to clip to the side of your glasses. Where are they? Simply call of the iOS or Android app!

Findy clips an object tracker to your spectacles so that they may be found when misplaced

Expanding your portfolio to air quality monitoring? AurAir’s Aero 1 is more than just a smoke and CO2 monitor. It detects and measures the presence of temperature, humidity, particulate matter and VOC. There is an LCD display for immediate status notification as well as an app and provisions to control ventilation systems.

Perhaps one of the most interesting off the beaten path products shown at CES was Lasso. Still in the final pre-production and market testing phases, it is the most unique solution I’ve seen to reducing solid waste problems and increasing the ease of effectiveness of recycling. Perhaps the winner of this year’s coveted “If I’m so smart why didn’t I think of this!” award, you put an item in the bin and it does the rest.

First, using sensors and AI it detects whether an item is recyclable. If not, it rejects it back out. If it is one of the seven most common recyclable materials – PET and HDPE plastics, clear, green and brown glass, and steel or aluminium – the trash item uses steam cleaning to remove food, grease, dirt and labels before grinding, crushing and shredding it. Finally, the material is then sorted into separate, categorised bins that are then collected for recycling.

Of course, there is an app to monitor and report operation and unit capacity. The system is aligned with bottle deposit return schemes where they are available. Even better, it is envisioned that further on, the owner will even receive a cash return based on the value of the materials collected. Saving the planet and perhaps even getting some payback to offset the cost of the device that assists with that. What could be better? Why didn’t I think of that?

Everything seems to be connected these days, so why not your yogi mat? YogiFi is just that

When it was first announced that CES would be “all-digital” for 2021 many had reservations, myself included. How would we judge the video and audio quality of the new products? How could a digital show replace being able to touch, feel and hold products in your hands? Without being able to talk one-on-one with exhibitors would it be possible to actually “cover” the show as a journalist?

No, it wasn’t perfect and the human touch was certainly missing. In spite of the obstacles and unknowns, CTA did a very good job of putting on a show, providing keynotes that matched the presentation of past years, and giving everyone the best possible access to product displays as was possible at a virtual distance. Most importantly, as this report indicates, the switch from physical to digital didn’t stop us from sorting out the key trends.

We all hope that the current situation will ease over the next few months so that we may gather again in Las Vegas for CES 2022. In the meantime, stay safe, stay well, and fear not, HiddenWires is there to keep you informed as to the latest products and trends regardless of where and how the trade shows and product announcements take place.

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