Christopher Harz goes to the gadget geeks mecca CES and tells us what wonderful toys he found that are pushing entertainment into the future.
The CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas was bigger than ever, with some 140,000 of the faithful trekking through 2,500 exhibits, some of them gigantic. A few of the hot themes were convergence, IPTV, big screens, HDTV and iPods. Other things merely got better, including camcorders and compact still cameras.
Visions of Convergence
As at CES 2005, there was no end of presentations on how all of the entertainment in the home would be centrally controlled, with strong support from Microsoft, HP and other vendors. Consumers have remained somewhat leery of all this centralization, however for one thing, hooking everything up to one center can get complicated, and, for another, some members of the household may want to keep their content separate (teenagers, for example, may want to keep their own music files, while mom and dad may want movies unsuitable for the kiddies). In the past, it was easier to keep each room separate, with its own TV set and an inexpensive VCR that could record a couple of programs on tape the only central function was the satellite or cable signal coming into the house at one point, after which it was split off for different rooms.
Several things are starting to change. One is that everything is going digital the date has finally been set (2009) by which all televisions will be digital, and the old analog sets will go dark (they can still receive digital signals with an adapter); in addition, old analog systems such as VCRs and tapes are increasingly being replaced by hard drives and DVDs. A second factor is the emergence of DVRs (digital video recorders), which have more capability than VCRs (300GB sets can hold hundreds of programs), and which can be programmed for months in advance with Tivo-type features. Such units are also more expensive than the old $50 VCRs, especially units that can record high-definition television (HDTV) programs, which can cost $500 and up. A third trend is the advent of IPTV (television sent via Internet protocol), which offers video programming over the incoming broadband Internet connection. IPTV content usually requires a set top box (STB) that changes the Internet format into TV signals to be shown on a big screen (and in some cases keeps track of pay-per-view costs). The emergence of television from different sources that is stored on a hard drive while (or before) being watched may yet force the centralization of entertainment in the home that software vendors are hoping for. There were hundreds of vendors at the CES with offerings for this type of interface, with ways to move video and MP3 music files around the home.
Big screens have gotten better and brighter, and the prices of plasma displays have finally come down dramatically. For instance, 50-inch sets such as the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK are now priced in the $3K range, and lots of 42-inch sets with true HD capability are available for around $2K. Both Toshiba and Panasonic claimed the honor of having the largest plasma screen at the show (with 102 and 103 inches, respectively).
This was the year when HD finally hit its stride, with most of the big screens showing HD pictures, with cable and satellite service providers offering dozens of HD channels, and with the release this year of DVD players capable of showing high-def movies. There are still (unfortunately) two competing HD formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD, so early adopters will have a choice to make when the sets come out this spring (high-def DVD players will also become available for PCs at about the same time). HD-DVD players will seek to undercut the prices of Blu-ray sets (about $500+ vs. $1,000+). Some recent major movie releases such as King Kong are expected to be available in both formats, but check how many films are actually available for the format of your choice before you plunk down your credit card for a player.
As if two different formats of high-def DVDs were not confusing enough, there are also two levels of high-definition television (HDTV): the better-known format of 720p (1280x720 pixels), and the newer 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. 1080p has a much better picture than 720p, because it has more than twice as many pixels on the screen (about 2.1 million vs. about 900K). This year saw the introduction of many 1080p sets, such as the Samsung HL-R6768W, a 67-inch set with a stunning picture that costs something in the $4K range. Up to now there has been no programming available for the 1080p sets (HDTV via cable or over the air has all been 720p or its interlaced equivalent, 1080i). This year will see 1080p movies on Blu-ray DVDs which ones they will be is still being decided. If you did not run out and buy one of the first generation of 1080p HDTV sets, congratulate yourself the dirty secret is that early sets were not native 1080p; that is, they could not accept 1080 lines of input, but merely took 720 lines and upconverted them. The new sets now accept the full 1080 lines, but it wont hurt to double check a particular model youre interested in.
Briefly, if youre deciding on a new TV, you have eight basic types to choose from:
1. Direct-View CRT (cathode ray tube). These are the classic, bulky TVs where you watch the front of a picture tube. They tend to be restricted in size (around 35 inches) and are gradually being phased out.
2. Rear Projection CRT. These were the first big screens to hit the mass market, with 3 CRT guns reflecting from a mirror behind the screen. These tend to be very big and heavy, and are gradually receding into the pages of history.
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 black is created when the mirror is set to the off angle, and light is reflected from the mirrors other angle the brightness depending on how many times per second the mirror flips to that position). Some of these sets are thin enough that they can actually be hung or set on a wall, like a plasma TV. DLP sets have improved markedly in the past year, and will be available in both 720p and 1080p models. Look for a new type of DLP set that uses LEDs for lighting instead of the normal bulb this results in less crawling effect on the screen and much longer bulb life.
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. Sony and others offer these in either 720p or 1080p flavors. Look closely at the screen to make sure the set does not have a screen door effect, caused by having pixels set too far apart, with black squares surrounding each one.
5. Rear Projection LCOS (liquid crystal on silicon) or SXRD TVs. This type of TV also uses LCD chipsets, but the light is reflected from each LCDs, rather than having to shine through it. These sets tend to be brighter than normal rear projection LCD sets, and because the pixels are packed more tightly together, there is none of the screen door effect, but they cost more. A Sony 60-inch Grand WEGA SXRD KDS-R60XBR1 will cost almost $5K, but the 1080p picture is stunning.
6. Plasma Flat Screen TVs. Plasmas have gotten brighter, and the manufacturers claim that they are less prone to the burn-in effect that early models had. Nevertheless, this may not be the set for you if you plan on also using it for a computer display (where a picture would stay in the same place on the screen for many hours). Plasmas come with either 720p or 1080p capability, and, if space is a concern, they have a real advantage, and they can also be suspended from the ceiling for that space-age effect.
7. LCD Flat Screen TVs. These sets (both the 720p and 1080p versions) are growing in popularity, and larger sets (in the 40-inch range) are getting more affordable. Response time is very low, so there is no blurring of the picture, even on fast lateral movement. The sets are very thin, and can be hung on a wall, like plasma screens, but dont have the burn-in problems that plasmas do. 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). Unfortunately, larger sets in the 50 or 60-inch range are still much more expensive than plasmas or rear projection sets, so this type of TV may not be an option this year if youre on a budget.
8. Front Projection TVs. If you 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-inch screen in front of it (which can retract into the ceiling). A couple of years ago, a 720p HD front projection set would have set you back around $10K, but prices have come down a lot. An unusual bargain is the InFocus IN76, which offers 720p HD with DLP (and great design) for under $3K. Be sure to check the light level in your viewing room; front projectors are not as bright as other types of TVs, although a model with more than 1,000 lumens (such as the IN76) should be adequate for most rooms. Front projection TVs usually have direct inputs for computers, so you can play PC games with life-sized characters.
Compact digital still cameras are improving standard capability should include at least 5 megapixels, a 2.5-inch screen and the ability to record video at 640x480 and 30 frames-per-second. They are also getting more compact, though many of the new models (such as the otherwise excellent Panasonic Lumix or CasioExilim) have given up the optical viewfinder, which I still find necessary in bright light conditions, or when the cameras battery is running low and you want to turn off the screen. The higher resolution of these cameras, and the ability to record video, requires more storage, and you should plan on upgrading whatever flash card comes with the camera to at least a 1GB or 2GB model 8GB versions of SD and other formats were already on display.
The Samsung Sports Cam, the SC-X105, has been improved this year with a wireless capability. This camcorder has an external lens that you can mount on a helmet, or strap on to your arm, which will let you take video footage hands-free, so you can record your extreme sports moments jumping out of a plane or plunging down a hill on a snowboard. Since you no longer need a wire to connect the lens with the camcorder, you can turn your dog into a cameraman.
My vote for this years coolest gadget is the Sanyo HD-1, an ultra-compact camcorder that fits into your pocket, but that takes high-definition video. Available around April, this little gem will let you take home movies that will astonish your neighbors, especially if you show those movies on your new HD big screen. A regular camcorder can let you take OK videos of your kids, but HD will let you count the individual hairs on someones head, and the colors really sparkle and come to life. For around $800, the HD-1 will give you that kind of video, and will also let you take 5.1 megapixel still pictures (with a built-in flash).
If you want an HD camcorder with more features than the compact Sanyo, take a look at the Sony HDR-HC1, a compact model priced at under $2K, or the Prosumer HDR-FX1, which allows you to shoot professional quality HD video with separate sound inputs. You will need video editing software capable of editing HD, and Sonys new Vegas editing suite, at around $130, is a very affordable choice for that.
Laptops and PCs
A new generation of laptops and PCs is coming with new chipsets that offer dual processors (this includes the Macintosh line, which is now being offered with Intel dual CPUs). The difference will be immediately obvious to animators and others who push the graphics capabilities of their computers. However, even non-pros will appreciate the difference nowadays, many PCs are loaded with anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and speed even on mundane apps such as Microsoft office can slow to a crawl with older processors.
The Skullcandy continues to be a real boon to head-bangers, and was offered in a variety of new models. This is a low-cost connection between the two life-support systems for many young consumers the cell phone and the iPod (or other type of 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.
For home audio systems, the best surround sound possible remains DTS (in either 5.1, 6.1or 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 available on many game consoles (to provide real you-are-there immersion in the game. There was some speculation that upgrades to surround sound systems would go to more channels (the number 12 was mentioned in previous years), but fortunately this did not prove to be the case. (Even I would balk at having to buy 12 loudspeakers for a home system!) Instead, the upcoming availability of high- def DVDs, with their 25GB or even 50GB of storage, has ushered in a new era of even richer sound uncompressed DTS. This new format, called DTS-HD Master Audio, is bit-for-bit identical with a master sound track, and is meant to accompany the richer video displays that will become available with 1080p. DTS-HD Master Audio offers seven discrete channels front center, left and right front, left and right side and left and right back (the .1 refers to the subwoofer channel). The new format will be available for A/V systems in this year.
The $135 billion consumer electronics industry is continuing to enjoy double-digit growth. The Consumer Electronics Show continues to be the world showcase for whats coming down the road which, unfortunately, tends to get more and more complicated. The trends for increased digitalization and integration of data and entertainment devices is continuing, as are improvements in the picture and audio quality of multimedia content and in the displays, memory storage devices and transmission pipelines necessary to make it all happen.
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.