Christopher Harz doesn't leave what happened at CES in Las Vegas, telling us all the news on the hottest gadgets soon to hit the market.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) still remains the largest trade show in America, with more than 150,000 visitors and 65 miles of aisles zigzagging around the equivalent of 35 football fields of floor space at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands Convention Center and various other venues around Las Vegas, Nevada. It is the annual trek to Mecca for anyone interested in consumer electronics, including television sets, car and home stereo systems, cell phones, cameras (both still and video), MP3 players and accessories and the like.
Themes and Trends at the 2007 CES
Attending the same show for many years lets you pick up on major changes and trends, and there were several noticeable ones this year. One was the growing domination of Asia -- there were more products from Japan, South Korea and China, and fewer from Europe and the U.S. Another was convergence, which has been a theme for several years, but now seems to have gone to a whole new level. Hundreds of products and companies pitched their solutions for making television and other video available over the Internet at any time, any place -- without defining exactly how such content can be paid for, or how the required mega-bandwidth would be available. The good news for animators is that the market for new types of shows is likely to increase, that new means of distribution will be available (if Disney won't give you a deal, try YouTube) and that there is now a market for shorts -- whereas NBC or CBS would normally not talk to you about your indie-produced 10-minute video, you can now pitch their online departments, as such shorts are ideal for the Internet or mobile viewing market.
The nature of the show has changed palpably, with the old focus purely on gadgets evolving more and more to a concern with content, and how best to transfer and display it. The CEA (the Consumer Electronics Assn., the group that holds the CES) claims the show is now the "It" show for the entertainment biz, competing with NATPE, NAB and even the E3 as the place to be to see the future of content production for TV, film and gameplay. It seems that at a time when millions watch or listen to content on video iPods, cellphones or automobile a/v systems, it pays to be in synch with Generation Y. Leslie Moonves, the ceo of CBS, put it succinctly: "If you're not totally aware of what's happening in technology and the new kinds of delivery systems, you're going to go the way of the dinosaurs," he said. Disney's ceo, Bob Iger, like Moonves, a keynote speaker at the show, discussed the Mouse House's plans to expand its web portal, to create more content customized for mobile devices, to offer more shows from its film and TV subsidiaries and to form partnerships with platform providers such as Apple in order to couple content tightly with delivery options.
Whereas last year's show seemed to emphasize moving audio and video around the home, using a PC as a central control console, this year the emphasis was on video, and how to move it into or out of the home -- how to get it from a PC to the home TV screen, or make it go the other way, from normal TV inputs such as cable through some intermediate device to mobile platforms such as cellphones, laptops or car A/V (audio/video) systems. New gadgets are replacing the PC's previous central role in moving content back and forth via home and Internet, such as the Slingbox and the new AppleTV, which are simpler to use than a PC or traditional STBs (Set Top Boxes).
The reason why moving audio around the home (via a PC, which in any case usually has poor-quality A/V outputs) has been de-emphasized was obvious: why bother with accessing a central music repository on a single hard drive when every family member can carry around his/her entire music collection on an iPod? Instead of ways to access a home's PC for music, the emphasis this year was on compact amplifier/speaker setups to house an iPod -- there were hundreds of these available, many of them costing more than the iPod itself; a lot of car stereos can also house an iPod now, and display its data on the car system's main screen.
High-definition big screens dominated the show, fighting for wall space, arranged in neat rows ranging from around 40 inches (the "small" end of the lineup) to 70 inches or higher, with 100-inch-plus screens being the star of the show. These were not the 720p (720x1260 lines of resolution, progressive, not interlaced) screens of yesteryear, but super-definition 1080p (1080x1920 lines of resolution, progressive) screens, featuring twice as many pixels (around 2 million) as their 720p brethren. The old argument that it was useless to buy a high-def TV because no content was available for it seems to have been settled since last year -- for instance, the DISH satellite TV service now offers 25 HD channels, and its competitor, DirecTV, has announced plans to offer 100 HD channels by the end of 2007. Whereas the changeover has been painful for broadcasters (many of them now need two sets of TV trucks at sports events: one for standard-definition, one for high-definition, until new dual-capable cameras take over), the transition is inevitable - there is no denying that a football game looks better in high- definition on a large screen, whether at home or in a sports bar, and by this year HD will be the standard for any major game broadcast.
The response to the newly available HD content has been enthusiastic -- TV manufacturers expect to ship more than 16 million HD sets in the U.S. this year (many of them in large format), with similar sales growth in Japan and Korea (one Panasonic engineer told me that a Japanese household would be ashamed to show a 42-inch set in the living room -- anything that "small" would be a secondary set, in the bedroom). Europe, for some reason, has not kicked into the HD revolution yet, and seems content to still watch CRT tube sets, which are now considered so ancient that there was not a single one in sight at the CES booths.
Bluetooth and other forms of wireless also seem to be maturing, with many new products for WANs, PANs (Personal Area networks) and MANs (Metropolitan Area Networks), including WiFi (802.11x) and WiMax/WiBro (802.16). Remember all the iPod ads highlighting the white connecting cords going to the earphones? This year the cool thing will be wireless headsets powered by Bluetooth. The really cool thing will be Bluetooth headsets with built-in mikes, which can automatically switch between incoming phone calls and music from an MP3 player. Here are some random samples of the thousands of products available at the show.
Television Sets and Monitors
There are too many models of TVs to name even a representative fraction of them, and the models seem to change every month or so, but here is the pattern that seemed to emerge from seeing hundreds of sets from dozens of vendors. The advice below is for those of us with a budget -- if price is no object, by all means go for the 103-inch Panasonic 1080p plasma, for around $70,000.
For sets sized 40 inches or below, consider a flat LCD screen. Prices for these have come down substantially; Samsung and Sharp are very strong in this category. At this size, it may not matter whether resolution is 720p or 1080p.
For sets sized 40 to 50 inches, plasma is king. You should be able to get a great 50-inch plasma screen from Samsung or LG for around $1,500 (720p) to $3,000 (1080p). LCDs are starting to intrude into this area, but are still much more expensive.
For sets of 50 to 70 inches, consider a rear projection TV, either LCD or DLP. Plasmas are expensive in this range (a 71-inch 1080p Panasonic costs around $16,000, for instance), whereas a 61-inch DLP rear projection TV from Samsung will be around $3,500 for the 1080p resolution version, and $1,000 less for 720p. If you want to wall mount your TV, don't count rear projection sets out of the picture; there is a line of super-slim models from Samsung that are only 8 inches deep, and come with hardware that lets you bolt them to the wall (you can even tilt them downward, a great feature). The latest rear projection sets have long bulb lives (10,000 hours), and new models come with LED lights instead of bulbs, which results in longer life (60,000 hours) and the elimination of the "crawling" effect sometimes seen with DLP sets due to the use of a color wheel, which is eliminated with the 3-color LEDs (LED sets cost more, however).
For sets much above 70 inches, consider a front projection TV. Sony has the VPL-VW50 1080p projector, which is relatively inexpensive (for Sony) at under $5,000 street price, but may not be bright enough for a typical living room. The best buy in this category seems to be either the 1080p Panasonic PT-AE1000U, which has 1,100 lumens and costs around $4,000, or the Panasonic PT-AX100U, a 720p HD set with a remarkably bright 2,000 lumens (probably bright enough for your living room) that costs about $2,000. In addition to the projector you will need a screen, which will run about $500-$1,000; an electrical version will withdraw up to the ceiling, so you won't have an ugly white screen to look at while the TV is off. For under $3,000, you could buy the PT-AX100U and a 10-foot screen, and have the biggest TV in your neighborhood.
There seemed to be an almost limitless number of new cellphones at the CES, with every conceivable feature, such as games (both local and online), GPS (Global Positioning System, to let you know where on the globe you are standing), MP3 music storage and stereo play features, television/video reception by several different methods, text messaging with a variety of smart keyboards, the ability to take pictures with multi-megapixel cameras (some with built-in flash), and the ability to scan documents and then digitize them (with Optical Character Recognition, so you could read them on the cell in your favorite font and type size, not as a fuzzy JPEG picture) and then store or forward them. As an afterthought, the cellphones could also receive and send phone calls.
Many of the cellphones were capable of receiving video and even broadcast television, though most U.S. cellphone screens still had much lower resolution than units already in use in Japan or Korea. One exception to this was the new Apple iPhone, with a resolution (150dpi) that is equal to or better than any of the offshore models. The iPhone is also one of the few U.S. cellphones that is able to receive WiFi, making it possible to get video downloads from a direct wireless connection to the Internet rather than by the more expensive route of a carrier's network. The iPhone also makes it easy to switch between phone calls and music (it essentially contains an iPod with either 4 GB or 8 GB for storing thousands of songs); when a call comes in, the album cover picture of the song you are listening to starts to fade on the screen, and the ID of your caller (with optional photo) comes up, permitting you to switch to the call; when the call is finished, the music automatically cues back up. With a set of stereo headphones with built in mike (available from Motorola and other vendors), your ears need never listen to a moment of silence again.
Delivering video via a cellphone service is costly for both consumer and carrier, and several novel approaches have been taken to try to solve this problem. For instance, a new service from Qualcomm, named MediaFLO, will send TV via terrestrial broadcast to cellphones that are equipped to receive this new service, which is being rolled out gradually in major markets (Samsung showed phones with this capability, which requires a special tuner and antenna -- note this type of TV broadcast is different from the broadcasts you get on your TV set at home). South Korea and Japan have taken a similar approach for sending TV via broadcast to cellphones, but use a different transmission scheme, via a DBS satellite system (Samsung, LG and other vendors have offered cellphones that support this service, which provides around 50 channels of TV, for the past three years).
All of these different services could make a cellphone bill confusing -- and expensive. It could include, for instance, your regular calling plan, your cellphone company's online plan for your phone, the same company's high-speed service for your laptop (such as V CAST for Verizon) and a bill for your broadcast TV service. In addition to these four types of reception, you might be billed for specific services such as navigation -- Verizon's VZ Navigator costs an additional $10 per month, for instance. On top of that, if your phone can get WiFi, you might get a bill from providers of that service, such as T-Mobile, which provides it at Starbuck's coffee shops.
If these charges (in terms of minutes talked, megabytes downloaded or minutes viewed) are not confusing enough for you, there is yet one more service on the horizon, another type of broadband wireless Internet called WiMax (WiBro in Asia, also known as standard 802.16), which will provide wireless Internet similar to WiFi, but will do it on a city-wide basis rather than in small "hot zones" of a few hundred feet or so. WiFi (802.11x) is available on a few phones in the U.S., but many (such as the Treo) can get it with a small adapter card. Make sure that your cellphone is capable of not only receiving Internet (for data and video), but is also VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) enabled, so that you can use services such as Skype to make calls overseas for free or for pennies a minute instead of the dollars per minute your carrier would charge. The ability to make VoIP calls from a wireless access zone is especially useful overseas, where your phone may not work otherwise - for instance, you will find your Cingular/ATT cellphone (which uses the GSM standard) to be useless in Japan or South Korea (which use the CDMA standard).
Although the total number of cool gadgets at the show is impossible to list, here are some that seemed especially useful or novel.
Panasonic LM-BE50DE Blu-ray Disc Rewritable
Panasonic offers several player/burners for your laptop or workstation that read and record using this new Blu-ray disc (also known as a BD), which accepts 25 GB on each of its two layers, for a total storage of 50 gigabytes. The technology for this is remarkable -- it records using a blue laser (as opposed to the red lasers of conventional CDs and DVDs) to get higher data density. The BD manages to get two recordable layers into a portion of the disc (which is the same size as a DVD) that is only 0.1 mm thick. Less costly is the LM-BR50DE, which can also record 50 GB, but is not erasable. The great thing about this level of recording, 10x that of a DVD and almost 100x that of a CD, is that you can use one or at most two of these discs to back up all of the data in your home office, instead of having to worry about stacks of backup discs.
The Apple iPhone.
This is really three gadgets in one: a very cool mobile phone with a remarkably high resolution screen and camera, an iPod with new, well arranged touch controls and an Internet interaction device for getting email (in a way that actually works for the small screen) and downloading maps and map data from Google to let you find your nearest Starbucks.
New Flash Memory Cards
There are now three types of flash memory sticks: full size (about the size of a postage stamp or a stick of gum), mini (about half that size) and micro (small enough to make it almost certain that you will lose them sooner or later).
Sony's mini MemoryStick ProDuo, for instance, stores 8 gigabytes in a format that weighs 2 grams, is .8 inches wide, and 1.22 inches long. SanDisk's new Memory Stick Micro (M2) stores 2 GB, and is intended for cellphones such as the Sony Ericsson Cyber-shot. One advantage of having the larger memory capacity (4 or 8 megabyte) flash cards is that compact cameras using them can now take long clips of video, whereas even a minute of video on a camera would fill up its removable memory a few years ago.
Casio EXILIM EX-V7 Digital Camera
This 7.2 megapixel camera claims the status of being the slimmest digital camera in the world -- it almost looks like a fat silver credit card. It is so thin that even Britney ought to be able to slide it into a tight jeans pocket. Remarkably, the camera has a 7x optical zoom lens, compared to the 3x that is still the standard on most compact cameras.
This new gadget, essentially a flash drive, allows you to take video or other content from your PC from one of its USB ports, walk it over to your home TV, and insert it into your TV's USB drive (which newer TVs will have). A remote control lets you choose which video clip (or set of photos) you want to watch. A simple device like this that involves walking from one set to another is called "sneakerware." It's not as elegant as wireless-everything, but it's simple and secure.
Kodak EASYSHARE Digital Picture Frame
Kodak has a new line of 10-inch and 8-inch picture frames that let you show your photos as a slide show. The pictures can either be stored in the system or downloaded from WiFi. There are other great digital picture frames on the market, including a wonderful model from Parrot, called the PHOTO VIEWER, which holds 500 images and downloads via Bluetooth, but the Kodak frame appears to be simpler to operate, and will make the perfect birthday or holiday gift for your grandma.
Fujifilm FinePix F40fd Digital Camera
This is a remarkably feature-packed compact 8.3-megapixel camera, and probably a "best buy" at the price. Although I have never seriously considered a Fujifilm digital camera before, the new F40fd has turned me into a convert. Two negatives of Fujfilm cameras in the past have been the use of (relatively uncommon) xD-format flash cards and the lack of an optical viewfinder (in case the digital screen cannot be seen in bright sunlight). With the F40fd, Fujifilm now also accepts the popular SD flash memory chip, so you are not dependent on the availability of xD cards. It still does not have an optical viewfinder (these are slowly disappearing from the scene, anyway), but it appears to have an elegant solution for four major problems bedeviling small digital cameras: the need to use flash indoors (due to low ISO speeds and low-grade lenses), the "wash-out" of faces with a flash held too close, color imbalance (especially for flesh tones) and camera shake. The shake factor is taken care of with image stabilization (this is becoming a must-have for small cameras). The wash-out (or white-out) of faces with flash held too close is ameliorated by "Intelligent Flash," a feature that adjusts the amount of light with a fast feedback mechanism. Having to almost always use flash indoors (which will not make you very popular at a party, and will get a lot of unnatural and strained facial expressions) is taken care of by a relatively fast lens (f2.8 at noon-zoom setting) and the ability get an ISO speed of 2,000, allowing a shot that is 4x faster than with the 400 ISO speed of most small cameras. Color balance is achieved in a really novel way. The camera has the ability to track faces (you will find yourself compelled to demonstrate this to all of your friends), up to eight of them (the "fd" in the camera's name stands for "face detection"). On the screen you will see a person's face highlighted in a grid, and the camera does an eerily accurate job of tracking the face, even if the person is moving. Color values for the shot are optimized for the tones of the face. You might think that getting track on a face would slow the camera down ("slow-to-shoot" is another problem with small cameras), but the opposite is true: the camera can do its facial detection and take the shot in an industry-leading 0.05 seconds.
LG Dual Format High Definition DVD Player
If you have been confused by the two competing high-def formats, Blu-ray Disc (backed by a Sony-led consortium) and HD-DVD (backed by a Toshiba-led consortium), the solution may be just around the corner. LG has developed a player that can accept either format. At around $1,200, it's very pricey, but that should come down by next year. MGM Studios has developed an alternative solution, where they put one format on each side of a disc; although they displayed this dual-sided disc at the show, they are not sure of whether they will release their whole library in this format. Then again, you could simply buy a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360, and use the built-in HD players essentially for free (if you can wrestle the game platforms away from your kids).
Future Technology: The New Internet
One of the highlights of the show was the IPv6 panel, with presentations from Mitch Aramaki, director of R&D for Panasonic USA, Alex Lightman, ceo of Innofone.com, Dr. Sandeep Singhal, director of Windows Networking, Microsoft, Alexander Ramia, cto of Mobile Technology Group and, yours truly, Chris Harz, vp of IPv6 Summit Inc. The New Internet, also known as Internet Protocol version 6 (the present format known as version 4, or IPv4, has been in existence since 1973), is a massive upgrade to the existing Internet, which is expected to result in dramatic improvements in security (the military is switching to this format for this very reason), mobility (for seamless mobile access), multimedia transmission (it can enable much cheaper and much higher quality transmission of streaming video) and interoperability (the ability to send voice, video and data over one standard).
The panel highlighted how New Internet technology can improve future generations of consumer electronics products. Microsoft's new Vista Operating System is especially suitable for IPv6 applications, and Panasonic has dozens of entertainment and home office products that are IPv6-enabled (IPv6 services are widely available in Japan and South Korea). Services by the Mobile Technology Group will soon enable admission tickets and content to be bought via cellphone; for instance, you will be able to buy a pass to the Las Vegas Monorail, download it as a 3D barcode to your phone and then simply show your cellphone (with barcode display) to get onto the ride, bypassing long lines of customers waiting to buy tickets.
In short, the CES this year was bigger, more mind numbing and tiring than ever. It showed a bright future for consumer entertainment, and lots of eye candy for cool wares - while also showing that the devil is in the details, and you have to watch the fine print ("Is this really a 1080p TV set?"). The convergence of digital content from many new sources and digital displays of many new types is continuing - the speed of response of Asian manufacturers to market tastes is astonishing, to say the least. In this changing environment, producers of content might do well to take to heart the words of Moonves, Iger, Bill Gates and other speakers at the show, to take a close look at all of the new display devices and services and ask themselves, "What kind of content would really look good on this?"
Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames 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.