Christopher Harz reports back from CES about what new electronics will be animating our lives in the near future.
The CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, Jan. 6-9, 2005, was bigger than ever this year well over 120,000 of the faithful crowded the aisles of the Convention Center and various other venues in the area. 2,500 exhibitors showed every type of toy under the sun, from 102" TV sets to iPod accessories without end. And to show that size does matter, lots of things (digital cameras, video cameras, flash drives, MP3 recorders) got much smaller, while others (flash storage capacity, LCD displays, Rear Projection TVs) got bigger lots bigger.
Visions of the Future
Bill Gates started out the show with the news that digital convergence is finally here, and that a central point in a household, such as a PC running Microsoft products, will contain and distribute every form of digital content, including music (for home and car stereos as well as personal players), home videos, videogames, recorded TV shows, Internet-based content, and so on. The message was strong its high time to stop the ugly Balkanization of entertainment in the home, with different islands of entertainment content such as DVRs (digital video recorders) and audio systems scattered willy-nilly around the house, and centralize everything.
There were only two small problems. The first was that there is no easy way to hook all that stuff up to a PC or STB (set top box) there are few PCs with surround sound or high definition video outputs, for instance, and trying to run cables between satellite receivers, a PC, a DVR and an audio amplifier/receiver would be a labyrinthine labor, and the appropriate inputs and outputs are missing, as is a simple remote controller (Gates tried to demonstrate a controller, but it crashed, leading host Conan OBrien to ask, Whos in charge here?) A second problem may be that consumers dont want all their stuff to be in one place teenage Spike may not want his rap music accessible to mom and dad, who in turn may not want their R-rated content mixed in with the fare for young kids. Could it be segregated reliably? Someday it will with the sales growth of home media servers (50% of households are expected to get one), the infrastructure for home networking will soon be in place.
But when Bill Gates has not one but two major crashes in a stage demo, you can tell this technology is not ready for prime time as yet. In the meantime, PC-centered entertainment is best if you live in a college dormitory or really small apartment, where a 19 or 21" screen can do double duty as computer monitor and television set (TV tuners in PCs are becoming standard).
Among products, large screen TVs were bigger and brighter than ever. The big news is that there are now two levels of high definition television (HDTV) the existing one of 720p (1280x720 pixels), and the new one of 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) The 1080 refers to the number of vertical lines in the picture, and p refers to a progressive display all the lines are presented at once, as opposed to i or interlaced, where the TV presents only half the lines at any given point, and switches back and forth. If you are buying an HDTV, make sure it can display at least 720p some plasma sets are being sold as HDTV compatible, but can only display 480p (they are compatible insofar as they downconvert the higher level HD picture to something they can display). The other great thing about HDTV, which will drive its popularity, is that you can now record it there are dozens of HDD (hard disk drive) units out that allow you to record HD programming as it comes off the air, satellite or cable, and HD DVD players are already being sold in Asia.
There are presently nine different types of television sets:
1. Direct-View CRT (cathode ray tube). This is what grandma watched in the 1950s. These tend to be bulky, and max out at around 35", with a few sets at 40". They are generally analog, and thus not able to show digital pictures or true high definition programming.
2. Rear Projection CRT. These were the first big screens to hit the mass market, and are readily available in sizes of up to around 65". They generally employ three CRT guns (one for each color) in a base unit that is reflected to the screen via a mirror. They tend to be very heavy (200-300 lbs.) and bulky; if you can tolerate that (and if you can get five guys to schlepp it up your stairs), this may be your big screen at a bargain price, probably under $2K.
3. Rear Projection DLP (digital light processing, essentially a chip with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrors that tip to reflect light onto the screen). Now were talking! With the new, improved DLP chips from Texas Instruments, and new lens designs, these sets can be very light and compact, not much bigger than flat plasma screens. These have been available as high definition (HD) for some time, but had some artifacts (known as rainbows) from the color wheel positioned in front of the chip. With improvements, the rainbows are gone (take a close look at the screen, especially when it is displaying skin tones or white lettering). In addition to 720p, you can also get (for a lot more money, of course) a unit with the new chipset that gets you 1080p lines of resolution finer detail than any original programming you can get over the air right now. The built-in scalar will up-convert whatever input you have, such as DVD (480p lines) to 1080p essentially, it doubles the lines of resolution coming in (scalars are also known as line doublers) before the TV displays the picture to you the doubling makes the content appear more detailed than it actually is.
720p HD rear projection DLP TVs such as the Samsung 50" (around 80 lbs., about $3K) have stunning pictures, and are probably more reliable than the competing plasma screens. A 1080p version might cost around twice as much as the 720p version the 67" Samsung HLR6768W retails for around $8K, for instance. Be sure to check the lifetime and replacement cost of the bulb (probably around 6,000+ hours and $200). Some of these sets are thin enough that they can actually be hung or set on a wall, like a plasma TV. This type of set should definitely an option for your big screen shopping.
4. Rear Projection LCD (liquid crystal diode) TVs. These are chipsets (usually three, one each for red/green/blue) that block or release light that shines from behind them to get the proper image to the screen. LCD projectors have a problem resulting from the space in between the pixels, known as the screen door effect look at the screen really close to see whether you can see this. Newer models have packed the pixels closer together to minimize this effect, and rear projectors such as the Sony 50 inch Grand WEGA (around 80 lbs. and $3K) are both very compact and have a great picture.
5. Rear Projection LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) TVs. LCOS was the pride and joy of Toshiba and others at last years show, with several models pioneering 1080p resolution for the very first time. Alas, there have been production and reliability problems, and Toshiba and others have dropped this technology, which has the advantage that the light reflects off the panel, rather than having to go through it, as is the case with LCD chipsets. You may want to approach LCOS sets with caution at this time, although JVC and others claim that they may have solved many of LCOSs problems.
6. Rear Projection SXRD TVs. This is a new technology being pushed by Sony, which has given up on existing LCOS technology (and is probably unhappy with the monopoly Texas Instruments has on DLP chipsets, so wanted something it could claim as its own). SXRD (silicon x-tal reflective display) chipsets are very densely packed (2 million pixels in less than a square inch) and enable a high contrast (3,000:1) picture of 1080p resolution. Like LCOS, the light is reflected from the SXRD panel, rather than shining through it. SXRD sets have gorgeous pictures, and if youre a Sony fan and price is no object, this may be the set for you the 70" 1080p KDS-70XBR100 will be out shortly, at $11K list.
7. Plasma Flat Screen TVs. These were the stars of previous shows, and they are still being bought in large numbers (especially in Asia), but their star quality has dimmed somewhat, as problems with burn-in (if one picture is displayed for many hours, it may leave permanent traces on the screen) and ghosting (a blurring of fast action shots, especially left-right movement across the screen) remain with some sets. Samsung unveiled a prototype 102" model, and is shipping an 80 model, the HPR8072, in May. A representative cost for a very high quality plasma TV such as the Samsung 50" HPR5072 right now is around $7K (list), though there are lots of 42" sets around with street prices near the $2K range (just make sure they can display 720p, if you want HDTV).
8. LCD Flat Screen TVs. These had the biggest crowds and the most buzz around them. The sets on display (both the 720p and 1080p versions) appeared to have the brightest, clearest pictures at the show. Response time was so fast that there was no blurring of the picture, even on fast lateral movement. The sets are very thin, so they can be hung on a wall, like plasma screens (but they dont have the burn-in problems the plasmas do). Some of these displays can do double duty as really large computer or game monitors (this is one reason they are so popular in Asia, for instance). The bad news is that LCD flat screens (often just called LCDs, which can confuse them with LCD rear projection TVs) are still very expensive. A Samsung 40" LNR480D costs about $5K, and the new 57" LNR570D will be priced at $18K when it comes out in June. Several innovative companies at the show offered beautiful wood frames and roll-up pictures to go with wall-mounted flat screen TVs, so that your television can look just like a framed painting when you are not actually using it.
9. Front Projection TVs. If youre an aficionado and want a really big screen, you can get a front projection set; after you mount this on your ceiling (or set it on your coffee table) you can put a 70-120" screen in front of it (which can retract into the ceiling). A few years ago, such sets were wildly expensive, and their light output was so low that you had to pull the window shades when watching the picture in the daytime. New models such as the Toshiba MT800 have enough light output (over 1,100 lumens) that you dont need to pull down the blinds, and are more affordable (at around $8K-10K), but are still not as bright as rear screen TVs. Front projection TVs are available in either DLP or LCD flavors, with the LCDs being somewhat brighter and cheaper.
The Sanyo PLV-70 is a real bargain in this category, giving you a 10' picture for about $4K (plus about $1K for a screen). One under-appreciated feature of front projection TVs is that they usually have inputs for computers (so you can play PC games with life-sized characters) and other TV formats such as PAL and SECAM, so you can play DVDs or VHS tapes from other countries that do not subscribe to the American NTSC standard (with a multi-format DVD player or VCR).
There were a number of new portable printers from Canon, Epson and others that allow instant printout of pictures from your digital camera, sort of a modern version of what Polaroid cameras used to do, but with much higher resolution (and you get to keep the original). These printers will make you an instant hit at any wedding or party you attend, as you can pass out the pictures for people to take home with them. Two other printers that stood out at the show were the Epson R200 and R800, which not only offer very high-resolution photographic prints, but come with the ability to print on compatible CDs and DVDs. This is a lot better than printing on labels that you stick onto these media, as these labels tend to curl up and come off after a while (usually while the CD or DVD is playing in your expensive A/V system).
Whereas professional machines that print directly onto CDs or DVDs have been around for quite a while, these cost several thousand dollars; in contrast, the Epson R200, at about $100, is a real bargain. The R800 also coats the prints for archival purposes, so if youre worried about fingerprints, water spots or other intrusions on life marring your prints, this printer (at $400) will save you a lot of headaches.
The major trend in digital cameras this year was hybridization, with still cameras gaining more video capabilities, and video cameras better able to take still snapshots. New models of digital cameras proliferated at the CES, with some new manufacturers such as BenQ and jWIN entering the competition. The biggest improvements in compact digital still cameras were in display sizes (what used to be 1" displays are now 2" or better, and much shorter response times, both for startup and in between shots. Older generations of cameras often took painfully long to start up or to re-play pictures that they had taken, and some models of Nikon were reported to wait 5-10 seconds in between shots, especially with certain types of flash storage cards. In stark contrast, digicams such as Casios 6-megapixel QV-R62 offer a startup time of one second and a shutter release of .01 second, which means your subject will no longer be yawning by the time the shutter finally activates on your compact camera, and you can shoot several pictures in a couple of seconds by just holding the button down, like the motor drive on a film camera.
The new design element for cameras (and for cell phones that feature built-in cameras) this year was swivel parts of cameras would swivel or twist 180 or even 360° to reveal other parts and controls. One interesting example of the genre was the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-M1, which swivels to open (forming a shape like a figure 7). About the size of a deck of cards, this camera can take 5.1 megapixel stills, or up to 27 minutes of MPEG-4 VGA quality video at 30 frames per second. A novel hybrid record mode automatically records 5 seconds of video before and 3 seconds of video after the still picture is snapped, to give the photographer a more complete record of the moment.
The most creative video camera at CES, and one of the coolest gadgets at the show (it was the CES award winner in its category), was the Samsung Sports Cam, the SC-X105. This is a very small video camera small enough to clip onto your belt or put into your purse, so you always have it with you. It takes MPEG-4 video, which it stores on a flash card, as well as still pix. It has a small external lens that you can mount on a helmet, or strap on to your arm, which will take video footage hands-free, so you can record your extreme sports moments jumping out of a plane. Finally, it is ruggedized, with a weather resistant casing.
Another unusual hybrid was Vivitars DVR-390H digital/still video recorder, which has a 3-megapixel still camera, an MPEG-4 video camera, a built-in flash, and a 3.6" LCD screen. With its built-in 20GB hard drive it can store 5,000 MP3 songs, 10 hours of MPEG video or 21,000 3-megapixel images.
Removable storage for digital cameras grew in size. Whereas 1-gigabyte flash drives were still a big deal last year, this year all three major formats (Compact Flash, SD and Sony Stick) showed 4GB models.
Laptops and PCs
Laptops are becoming more specialized, with more models out that are ultra-light (1-2 pounds, with small screens) or ultra-wide (with 15-17" screens). Laptops that have often only been available heretofore in Japan, such as those made by Panasonic, are also now more readily available. Whats new is that some models are now offering AMDs new Turion 64-bit mobile chip, a real workhorse that is a serious competitor to Intels Centrino, and that several models now allow upgrades, especially of the graphics board. This latter is especially important, as the GPU (Graphics Processor Unit) is the most rapidly evolving part of laptop units, and the most important to multimedia functions such as video displays or gaming. Whereas it was always possible to upgrade the GPU on a desktop computer as a new generation came out (which it does about every 6 to 9 months), once you bought a laptop, you were stuck with its graphics capability for the lifetime of the computer.
To see the future of PCs you only needed to go over to the Voodoo booth, and take a look at their f:5 model. Fully loaded, this comes with a 3.46GHz Pentium (liquid cooled, of course), 2GB of Crucial Ballistic DDR-2 RAM, about a TB (yes, a terabyte!) of hard drive with RAID backup, an nVIDIA GeForce 6800 Ultra 256 PCI Express Graphics System, a Soundblaster Audigy2ZS Platinum Pro sound card with Creative Gigaworks THX 7.1 channel surround sound, and a 40-inch Samsung Syncmaster 403T LCD monitor. If you cant wait several years until this kind of capability becomes the standard, and have to have this now, the Voodoo folks are friendly, helpful, and dedicated to the proposition that being extreme is a real virtue.
The star of the show for MP3 players didnt even bother showing up Apple did not sponsor a booth to feature its wildly popular iPod line of players, which revolutionized the portable audio market, preferring to display them at its own trade show. However, the iPod has spawned a huge accessories market, and Apples little white moneymaker was shown in dozens of booths attached to every conceivable support gadget some of which cost more than the iPod itself. Some of the best ones were:
1. The BMW. Some of these cars, which have integrated inputs for iPods, were shown as iPod accessories. If you set your iPod into the glove compartment of your new BMW and plug it in, the cars stereo system will play its tunes and display the names of the songs. If you dont have a BMW, Denisons ICE-Link will adapt many other models of cars to play the iPod, and integrates the controls (even steering-wheel-mounted controls) and display; an optional Firewire cable will also charge the iPod at the same time. Similar devices were also offered by AudioVox, Pioneer and Monster.
2. The Nyko MoviePlayer. This device allows the owner to transfer movies and store and play them on the iPod. The MoviePlayer sports a 3.5 screen and a battery that increases the iPods playing time.
3. FM Transmitters. These devices, which look like a computer mouse, enable the iPod to broadcast music on the FM band, for pickup either on a home radio or car stereo. Whereas the sound quality is nowhere near that of a hardwired connection such as the ICE-Link, this is a handy way to play your iPod tunes on a rental car, and the Transmitters cost only around $20-40 (some stores offer them free with the purchase of an iPod). One of the best sounding transmitters was the iTrip, from Griffin.
4. The Belkin Media Reader. This allows you to insert photos into your iPod while on a trip. You simply insert your cameras media card (one of six supported types) into the Reader, and download them into your iPod.
If youre a snow-boarder or skier, you probably already have a Skullcandy setup. This is a low-cost connection between the two life-support systems for many young consumers the cell phone and the MP3 player which allows a cell phone to ring through if youre listening to music on stereo headphones, so you can answer the call and then return to the music. Skullcandy, located in Park City, Utah, caters to snowboarders, and has a complete line of audio accessories and is compatible clothing to contain, connect, play and charge (with solar panels on your jacket) all your electronic gadgets so you can enjoy them hands-free, whether on the slopes or jogging around the block.
For home audio systems, the best surround sound possible remains DTS (in either 5.1, 6.1 or 7.1 channel form). DTS decoding and playback is available for most home audio A/V units these days, is standard equipment in many high-end cars such as Acuras, and is also increasingly available in after-market car stereos such as Alpine systems. DTS sound is also available for game consoles and desktop PCs, and offers a whole new dimension to playing high end video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once youve played a game with cars or helicopters approaching from behind you (via DTS surround sound), any game with mere stereo will feel totally lame and tame by comparison.
Panels on New Technology
An interesting technical panel was for the New Internet (technically called Internet Protocol version 6 the old Internet format, which has been around since 1983, is called version 4; there have been no other versions). One of the features of the New Internet is that it allows wireless roaming (like cell phones), and almost unlimited addresses, so that billions of consumer devices can each have their own Internet address and can be supported by existing Internet-enabled applications.
Alexander Ramia of Panasonic described the companys New Internet-enabled webcams (which were demonstrated at the Panasonic booth). Ramia described how someday soon a picture could be taken of a child on a beach by a Panasonic camera and sent to an online digital picture frame at grandmas house, where she could immediately see the picture, and the whole transfer would be secure (the built-in security of the New Internet is why the U.S. and other defense departments have already mandated switching over to it, so they can use it to send secret information, something not possible with the existing Internet).
Common Operating Systems such as Windows XP, Apple OSX and Linux already support the New Internet format, and many new types of products are expected soon that will take advantage of the revolutionary features of mobility, security and zillions of addresses (including addresses for wireless-enabled RFIDs, Radio Frequency Identification tags) placed in cars, refrigerators, and other home products it is expected that eventually, practically every device above $100 or so will be online and connected, both with other devices and with the manufacturer.
The $108 billion consumer electronics industry is enjoying double-digit growth, with an amazing variety of new products every six months or so. The Consumer Electronics Show continues to be the world showcase for whats coming down the road for the coming year. Major trends include a blurring of the distinctions between traditional products such as still and video cameras, music players, PDAs and phones, the growth of China and South Korea as manufacturing and design power houses, the increased digitalization and integration of data and entertainment devices, and the quantum jumps in the picture and audio quality of multimedia content and in the displays, memory storage devices and transmission pipelines necessary to accommodate this.
Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.