Letter from America: An expert’s guide to attending CES 2018

It’s that time of year. You’ve packed your bags, gone to the train or airport, or loaded everyone and everything into the car. For those who are travelling, or have travelled with children you will soon hear that famous question: “Are we there yet?”. I’m not at all suggesting that you or your clients and prospects, dear readers, are children. However, with CES in January and ISE in February there will be numerous announcements that will cause you to be asked a similar kind of question.

Once the news from the shows reaches the enthusiast, business and general press, let alone trade-oriented publications such as HiddenWires, you’ll be asked a variant of that question… or you’ll perhaps ask it of yourself. “Is that technology, product or service I read or heard about available?” “Will you sell it?” If yes, when, if not, why not?”

With the caveat that that this Letter was written just shy of three weeks before CES it is almost impossible to answer all of those questions. However, let’s take a stab at them now so that you have a guide to what you need to find out at CES as well as how to answer the questions if you can’t attend.

There’s an advertising slogan that goes “What happens in Vegas STAYS in Vegas.” Take that statement and change “Vegas” to “CES” and you have an answer to some questions. I’ve been going to CES for over 40 years (!) and learned long ago that just because a product is shown does NOT always mean that it will make it to market. That is frequently true when you read reports of “private concept demos”. When the description is of a “concept product” beware of thinking that you will always be able to sell it; take it to the bank.

More importantly, at a trade show where there are whole exhibit areas where it seems as though “Kickstarter and Indegogo meet IoT” it is crucial to ask the same question I do: “Is it fully funded yet?”. If yes, there is a decent chance the product will appear, though as a rule it is unwise to use the product promoter’s often optimistic availability date. If they are honest and say “NO” that does not signal that the product won’t happen, but it does mean that it would be unwise to put it in an installation plan, let alone promise it. As you might answer the kinds in the back seat, that means that they are “…NOT there yet”.

There will be quite a few things expected to be shown at CES that are interdependent on more than one product. That is where “Is it available?” may be a trick question that will help you answer the real question “Will you sell it, and when?”.

Approach 8K and HDMI 2.1 carefully

Two key categories in that range are 8K and HDMI 2.1. For either to be of benefit you need more than one piece of the puzzle. As an example, it is almost a certainty that 8K displays (such as the 88-in monster OLED from LG) will be on display. We also expect that may be am 8K camera or two. “Great!”, you may say. Wait, not so fast.

Presuming that the sets are available, will there be commercial content available via physical or streaming media? Will there be players or streaming devices to play it back on? Not to be ignored, will there be a means to connect all of this. (See HDMI 2.1 below.) If enough of those pieces are not available then some parts may “be there”, but it would be like a drive to a vacation where the hotel isn’t quite finished.

Diagram showing HDMI 2.1 Bandwidth compared to 1.4 and 2.0

The same may be true for HDMI 2.1. First announced at last year’s CES, it will definitely be there at CES 2018. Indeed, I’ve already RSVP’d for a SuperSession on the topic and will meet with HDMI executives at their stand on the showfloor. You’ll undoubtedly read much about it during CES, as you will right here after the Show. So, we’re “there”, correct?

The answer to that also requires some Holmes-like deduction. There will likely be some products shown in prototype, but none that you will be able to put on your line card for perhaps six months or more. To answers those who might say that means it is “there”, you have to go back to the puzzle pieces again.

Here, it is not just a question of the products, but one of the need for that type of connectivity at this time. HDMI 2.1 will absolutely offer increase bandwidth up to 48Gbps, but will there be any content available that requires it? If the answer is “no”, then it may be there, but it might not be a place to go just yet. Also remember that the content flow path requires programming, a player or streaming device, a compatible AVR or surround processor and a display. Oh, and don’t forget the new cables that will be required!

“In the case of HDMI 2.1 we’ll bend our vacation trip analogy to a journey where you stop along the way, have a good time, and never quite make it to your intended destination.”

In the case of HDMI 2.1 we’ll bend our vacation trip analogy to a journey where you stop along the way, have a good time, and never quite make it to your intended destination. For HDMI 2.1 that may well be realised with its “eARC”, the acronym for “Enhanced Audio Return Channel”. It will be a enable streaming content received by a TV to transport multichannel, high-bit-rate audio and object-based bitstreams formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X to audio devices, particularly soundbars, but also AVRs. That is not possible today, and some feel that it may be almost as important as the high-speed video/data capability.

At the end of the day, there is no question that the full HDMI 2.1 feature set will find its way into all the necessary products over the next 12-18 months. If eARC comes in first, that may be all that is needed. For other applications it isn’t that you won’t get there, but rather “when” will you get there.

From these two examples it can be seen that as you embark on a sales journey, just as the technologist, manufacturers and brands do, it is sometimes very much a question of knowing where you want to go, how you will get there and if perhaps the time is right to go there at all. No one loves all of these products more than I do, but I’ve learned over the years, sometimes from bitter experience, to be careful what roads you plan to take and be careful to look past the promises and end benefits to see when it makes sense to know as best you can that you’ll get there before you “book the trip”.

Hopefully, this road map will help you to navigate your product and project decisions in light of the news from CES. I’ll certainly use this as part of my guide, and you’ll see our take on what was on display both on the show floor and behind the scenes as the New Year unfolds.

To take our “journey” theme one final step, my best wishes to all for a Happy New Year that leads you to a year of prosperity, health and happiness, and most of all, peace. Enjoy the ride!

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 or follow him on Twitter @captnvid,.