5 February 2015
By Jean-Marc Frangos, MD for external innovation, BT
There’s no doubt about it - the global consumer electronics industry is in rude health.
For evidence of this, look no further than January’s CES in Las Vegas which, in terms of scale (3,600 exhibitors, 2.2 million square feet of exhibits and more than 170,000 attendees), tore up the record books.
I went along again this year and the first thing I noticed were that 4K televisions were back again. In fact, more so than for CES 2014, they were everywhere.
The big difference is that in the world of ultra HD television things seemed to have moved on pretty quickly. Most manufacturers are now on their second or third generation of sets.
Image quality is one area where real progress has been made. Vendors have been making advances in brightness and colour rendering so now blacks are blacker, whites are brighter and hues come in millions.
At the show, firms were keen to show off their proprietary imaging technologies. So for example, there was curved OLED (Organic LED) for LG, ‘nano crystal’ under the S-UHD brand for Samsung, ULED (Ultra LED) for HiSense and pixel splitting for Sharp (I found this very impressive).
You could tell that science and R&D teams had regained the high ground over the coders who had prevailed three years ago when ‘smart TV’ was the word.
This striking burst of differentiation normally happens a little later in the product maturity cycle, so it was obvious that for manufacturers, 4K is here to stay - unlike 3D.
TV manufacturers also tried to differentiate with each by claiming to be the best recipient for still scarce 4k content.
IP seems to be winning the early battle to bring 4k content from Hollywood to 4K screens. Companies with ultra HD streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Dish, M-Go, Video Unlimited, Ultraflix, and Toon Goggles, are being courted by the TV manufacturers.
There were also a handful of large 8k models on display in Las Vegas. People could be seen sticking their noses right on the screen or using magnifying glasses in attempt to see the pixels.
It was also clear as you walked round that the 4k industry is visibly spreading to all categories with multitudes of 4k cameras and accessories being shown.
The Internet of Things (IoT) was also a big theme at CES this year.
More and more consumer electronic devices are now ‘connected’ in some way.
At the show there were connected toothbrushes, connected stoves and dishwashers, connected beds (dynamically controlling the firmness, and influencing room temperature according to sleep patterns), child trackers, pet trackers, smart pet feeders (programmable by smartphone, but not yet informed by pet activity trackers).
I also saw connected plant pots, connected sprinklers, connected fishing rods, yoga mats, bicycle pedals, running socks and insoles (to correct posture and pronation during runs).
This outbreak of mass connectivity is largely because the cost of using ethernet, bluetooth or wi-fi is no longer a significant obstacle - even for sub $100 devices.
In fact, during the show, Intel announced Curie - a new, low-cost, button-size IoT specialised chipset which includes a 32-bit CPU, motion detection, bluetooth, charging, and an SDK (software development kit), making it a one-stop-shop for connected device inventors.
Other areas of innovation at the show included:
Wireless charging. This is definitely starting to gain public awareness. Starbucks has rolled out this technology to 200 coffee shops in the San Francisco Bay Area and a company called Aircharge will be installing its wireless charging solution at 50 McDonald’s restaurants in the UK.
3D scanning and printing was in full swing at CES, with lower costs and greater diversity of materials and colours available for the printing process. A machine was even printing edible snacks on one stand. It is now possible to buy a ‘3D photocopier’ (scan and print) for under $2,000.
Portable storage: One side effect of the arrival of 4K technology is a new challenge for flash storage devices as 16GB is no longer sufficient in a 4K capable smartphone/camera. SanDisk was showing a 512GB SD format storage card with 95MB/s transfer speed. Samsung also impressed with a 30 gram 1TB portable storage companion with up to 450Mbps speed and 256bit encryption capable of carrying confidential documents as well as a decent movie library.
Cameras on drones: 4k camera accessories, from retractable selfie sticks to gimbals and harnesses for amateur filming of extreme sports, were everywhere at the show. Drones present at CES showed how amateur footage could be made to look very professional. ‘Selfie drones’, like the Hexo, no longer need to be piloted. They can be instructed to remain stationary or follow the action while filming.
Audio: Sony and a few audiophile brands are trying to promote a new audio format to match 4K TV resolution which they have named Hi Resolution Audio (HRA).
Augmented reality/Virtual reality: Perhaps the most relevant business device category at CES was augmented reality glasses. The Google Glass format was replaced by proper headsets and helmets from companies like Samsung or Daqri.
Cars: Audi drove an autonomous car from San Francisco to Las Vegas without human interaction (only on motorway portions), which created a massive buzz. Nvidia presented one of its most powerful chipsets (X1) designed for autonomous vehicles, pointing to a future where most of the processing would be done on the car rather than in the cloud, which makes sense for security reasons. Another functionality to expect in tomorrow’s cars is mirroring a smartphone onto the main car screen - demonstrated in Las Vegas.