Letter from America: CES 2014 - a Strange Brew Indeed!

By Michael Heiss, HiddenWires. It’s now about a month on from my annual trek to Sin City for the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and in that time, I've been able to recover from lost sleep and a bad case of the 'show crud' that always seems to infect you when you’re in close contact with 150,000 of your closest industry friends. Of course, that time has also given me the opportunity to reflect on what the meaning was of the products, services, concepts and gadgets played out across over 2 million square feet of exhibit space, as well as the hundreds of press conferences and events and the 'back room' showings in off-the-floor hotel suites. [caption id="attachment_4234" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Some of my closest industry friends at a CES press event.[/caption] We’ll have more in-depth analysis and comments on specific topic areas over the next few months, but for now, a bit of top-level storytelling is in order. After all, as a long-time CES attendee going back to the days of VCR, I'm always asked 'What did you think of CES?' or 'What things stood out for you?' That’s my mission today, and I can answer in a few words: it was a really Strange Brew! No, not the late 60’s hit by Cream from the influential Disraeli Gears album, or the 1983 comedy movie from SCTV. In this case, CES 2014 merits that designation for the mashup of things that will happen, those that might happen and those that are best classified as 'science projects'. And, of course, the always-strange things that happen at such a massive trade show. Let’s talk about just a few: 4K/UHD and Displays: Reality Versus Science Projects Coming into CES 2014, perhaps the biggest question many were looking to answer was whether 4K/UHD was going to be real, if there would be native content availability, would prices stabilise or drop, would it remain something for the high-end, or whether it is still something of a science project. As one might expect, the answer to all of those is my Strange Brew mashup: yes, no and maybe. 4K? Yes, it is real. Indeed it is not unfair to say that it has been real for some time. Like it or not, and notwithstanding the dubious success (or lack thereof) of the last new video format, 3D, 4K is very much real and here to stay. There were sets from all of the major 'Tier 1' brands, from the upstart 'Tier 2' brands and in volume from the new China-based 'Tier 3' brands that are looking to make a mark on the global market. There were PC monitors, 110" behemoths (put them in the science project category for the time being), laptops and more to display 4K. There were still cameras, camcorders and 'wearables' to capture 4K images. Put another way, last year at CES one couldn’t walk from one stand to another without seeing a Bluetooth speaker in neon colours. This year the same could also be said for 4K/UHD products. In sizes large and small, at prices low and high, from legacy brands and from brands you probably haven’t heard much of (yet), the ubiquity of 4K could not have one leaving CES thinking that 4K was a Strange Brew any longer. It is as common as brewing a craft ale or hot cup of java. [caption id="attachment_4238" align="aligncenter" width="600"] From new contenders such as Changhong (left) to the displays from the major brands, to 4K laptops from the likes of Toshiba (right), 4K hardware was omnipresent at CES.[/caption] 4K Content? Put that in the category of 'soon, but not yet'. Netflix promised 4K streaming this year with its CEO appearing at the press events for both LG and Sony. Samsung announced content deals with Paramount and Fox, Sony had demos of 2160/60p content from ESPN and there were various sightings and promises of content to be delivered via cable and satellite services - at least here in the USA, for now. Yes, it will be here, but when and at what cost? Hmmm. Check back later… [caption id="attachment_4239" align="aligncenter" width="600"] 4K/UHD content partnerships were part of the brew at CES with more to come. Of course, the big question remains as to when this will actually be delivered to the home.[/caption] 4K/UHD OLED? Yes, there will be some available from LG. Regular Full HD OLED? Yes, and also coming soon from a wide variety of legacy and upstart brands. And, in most cases, curved, as well. [caption id="attachment_4237" align="aligncenter" width="600"] OLED is no longer a science project and will be available in both 4K and Full HD resolutions. [/caption] Bendable TV? Let’s put that in the category of science projects for the time being, with an 85" LCD shown by Samsung and a 77" OLED from LG. From where I sit, let's call this one an oddity: the bend radius is not as severe as in the fixed-curve OLED or LCD sets, and while there is the novelty factor, will one switch between flat and curved that often? If someone likes the curved set look, they will buy one. If not, they won't. Sorry, the logic of this escapes me! [caption id="attachment_4236" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Both LG (left) and Samsung (right) showed bendable displays; the former an OLED, and the latter an LCD. Both claimed a 'first' – but each was there at the same time. Strange.[/caption] Pricing for 4K? As expected, all over the map. The Tier 3 brands appear loaded for volume sales with 50" UHD models to be priced at US$999 list, and who knows what as a 'street price' in the stores. The majors tried to point to features and quality to separate themselves from the lower end of the pack. 4K Brewing the Return of 3D? One of the advantages of 4K is that it allows 1080p per-eye when viewing 3D. With that in mind, 4K may end up being the saviour of 3D by making it possible to do glasses-free 3D with Full HD resolution. More than a few demonstrations of that were on the floor in Las Vegas and I’ll be curious to see when they come to market. [caption id="attachment_4229" align="aligncenter" width="674"] StreamTV is one of the companies vying to start a rebirth of 3D with a glasses-free model. [/caption] Strange 4K Brews One of the leaders in low-priced 4K/UHD sets in the US market has been Seiki. The sets, themselves, aren’t bad when fed native 4K content which has actually led to them becoming popular as large high-resolution monitors. However, in the current absence of popularly-available native content, most 4K sets are used with 1080i or 720p inputs that must then be scaled to 3840x2160. In the minds – and eyes — of many, it is charitable to characterise the scaling in the Seiki sets as, quite frankly, underwhelming. In an effort to improve their reputation, the folks at Seiki have developed an external scaler that is in line with an HDMI cable using the highly-regarded Marseilles semiconductor solution to offer high-quality scaling. Even more interesting, one of these cable/scalers will be sent free of charge to all current set owners and one will be included with new set shipments. [caption id="attachment_4231" align="aligncenter" width="600"] For under US$40 Seiki will be offering a high-quality 4K upscaler. A good match for entry-level 4K sets where the scaling might not be up to high-end standards. A noble gesture, to be certain, but one would think that given the short model cycle of TV sets these days, they would just build it in. A Strange Brew, indeed. For the price, anyone with a 4K display might want to pick one of these upscalers up to see how it compares to any displays the onboard scaling of their set(s).[/caption] Although not publicised by Seiki at CES, this value-priced accessory also does a stunning job of upscaling to 1080p and may also find a home working in concert with the lower-priced FullHD sets now in the market. Short-throw Projection A hint of things to come was in the CES keynote by Sony’s Kaz Harai. While outlining the company's future direction (note from Ed: see Michael's 'Special Delivery' piece on Sony this month), there was interesting mention of a 147" short-throw UHD projector. We’ll be on the lookout for that as the year moves on, as well as for the Full HD short-throw with a laser light engine shown by Hisense. The Sony appears to be a concept piece/science project for now, but the Hisense looked ready to roll. As 4K demands larger screens to be fully appreciated, this is certainly something to watch. [caption id="attachment_4232" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Hisense demonstratied its Full HD short throw projector.[/caption] Corporate and Other Strange Brews Traditionally, one of the larger and most prominently-positioned stands at CES has been Panasonic's. Its breadth of product line categories means you typically tend see a bit of everything at their stand, but this year’s presentation was curious in that the usual plethora of displays was missing. Yes, there was video in the form of a few rows of airline seats with seat-back displays to promote Panasonic's inflight entertainment, and UHD monitors where there were demonstrations of applications for 4K, but traditional TV sets were just absent. Similarly, at its press event the day before the CES opened, the first ten minutes or more of Panasonic's presentation was devoted to 'enterprise' and commercial products and applications. Great for NAB, ISE or InfoComm, but as far as I remember, the C in CES stands for Consumer, not Commercial. A Strange Brew, indeed. Yet another Strange Brew was the number and size of stands from auto manufacturers at CES. OK, not all that strange as car audio has been a mainstay of CES for decades, but the trend towards mega displays from the likes of Toyota, Daimler, Audi, BMW and others was hard to miss. OK, great to publicise their wares, but it’s not as though they were selling vehicles off the floor or that very many of the attendees were auto dealers. We can guess at the reasons for this, but is it really worth the press coverage for the auto makers to mount these stands at CES rather than the major US, European or Asian auto shows? [caption id="attachment_4235" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Audi and Toyota were only two of the major car manufacturers with a presence at this year’s CES. [/caption] The spread of connected devices at CES encompassed an ever-growing range of products. Along with fitness monitors, a wide range of cloud-connected thermostats and medical monitors, we saw cloud-connected sleep assists, beds primed for systems integration and even a Bluetooth bra (don’t ask). However, when it comes to brew, we saw a different kind of cooking with at least two examples of connected crock pots, a number of schemes for allowing connectivity to household appliances such as washers, dryers and stoves, and even a range hood. I'll get to this in a future Letter, but suffice to say that while on one hand the Internet of Things, or as Cisco positioned it in its stand, the Internet of Everything, is spreading, wrangling it into controllable systems will be a challenge. [caption id="attachment_4230" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Whether it is medical parameters or dinner in the cooker, virtually everything at CES was connected to the cloud or directly to a phone via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
[/caption] Yet one more interesting brew at CES was closer to the true meaning - not something alcoholic, rather something related to coffee. A demonstration by Duracell showed a mashup of a battery jacket case for iPhone 5 models with Powermat wireless charging. A good idea if you provision charging mats in clients’ homes so a 'wall wart' charger isn’t needed everywhere. More interesting, however, was the announcement that the Duracell system is going to be built into tables at Starbucks, so that you can get your brew (strange or not), borrow a wireless charging adapter to plug into your phone or tablet and recharge both your devices and your own energy level with a bit of caffeine, at the same time! Perhaps not such a Strange Brew, after all. [caption id="attachment_4233" align="aligncenter" width="400"] Duracell is working with Starbucks to bring wireless charging to their shops, but the concept is equally valid for your residential or other commercial installations. Here the store lends you a charger ring, but for home use, a battery jacket with the charger pad built in is the way to go.[/caption] Conclusion Space does not allow a full CES report in this month’s letter as there is much more to digest. Consider these the headlines and look for more in the months ahead. As a bottom line takeaway for those who didn’t brave the travel time to attend CES, one can point to the vitality of the industry as shown by the many new products beyond those noted here. Whether it is video, audio, connectivity, content and the tools and devices to integrate it all, the incredible array of companies, products and services shown last month in Las Vegas points to an interesting and hopefully profitable year ahead! Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires. You can contact Michael by leaving a message below or via the HiddenWires LinkedIn group, and follow him on Twitter @captnvid.

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