IT/AV

Where Fantasy & Practicality Collide: Product Trends At CES

I’m just a few days back from one of the world’s largest trade shows, the International CES. According to press releases from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the new name for the Consumer Electronics Association, upwards of 170,000 people attended the show this year, which was spread out over several venues in Las Vegas.

Based on the crowds I saw, I’d say that number wasn’t far off. Walking through booths in the Las Vegas Convention Center gave me the feeling of walking along the beach while a tidal wave was sneaking up on you: One minute you had a particular exhibit all to yourself and the next, you were washed away in a sea of bodies adorned with badges.

The weather was unusual for Vegas, with a few days of heavy rain spicing things up and making the process of getting from venue to venue a bit more complicated than usual. And, of course, cab lines were interminably long, as were lines for food and some of the more popular exhibitors, like Oculus Rift.

Trying to predict which trends in electronics will be “hot” each year is basically a fool’s errand. Going into the show, I was deluged with press releases about “Internet of Things” gadgets, and the show didn’t disappoint. I saw everything from connected thermostats and body sensors to pet food dispensers and alarms that sense another alarm and then call or text you to let you know (redundancy at its best!).

In the crazy world that is display technology, I figured that high dynamic range (HDR) would be the “hot” item in every booth. Surprisingly, although it was featured in the Sony, Samsung, LG and Chinese TV manufacturer exhibits, it wasn’t generating all that much buzz. Well, not nearly as much as the numerous demos of virtual reality (VR) headsets, which were to be found everywhere in the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC) and also over at the Sands Expo Center.

Of course, drones were also in abundance. In fact, the rear of the lower South Hall of the LVCC was devoted to drones, and I’ll betcha couldn’t name one of the companies that exhibited there. No surprise, because every one of them was based in China. More familiar names like DJI and Parrot (based in France) chose to set up multiple booths in the LVCC, and some even went to the Digital Experience and ShowStoppers tabletop shows.

What was an eye-opener was the declining importance of televisions in the Samsung, Panasonic and LG booths. LG and Samsung devoted more space than ever before to appliances, tablets, smartphones and personal electronics like smart watches, subtly pushing TVs (of which there were still plenty, believe me) to a secondary role with less square footage.

Sony chose to use TVs to illustrate HDR, wide color gamut and local-area dimming concepts, while Panasonic mostly ignored them, featuring just a 65-inch UHD OLED TV in one part of their booth, and a 55-inch 8K LCD set in another…primarily to demonstrate 8K signal transport over optical fiber.

The fact is, appliances are more profitable than TVs these days…WAY more profitable. And Samsung and LG had plenty of refrigerators, ovens, washers and even dryers out for inspection. The “towers” and stacks of televisions we used to marvel at a decade ago have now found their way into the booths of Chinese TV brands like Hisense, TCL, Changhong, Haier, Konka and Skyworth. (Not familiar names? Don’t worry, they will be very soon!)

Of course, Sharp’s US TV business and factory were acquired by Hisense last year, and there was a Sharp meeting room w-a-y in the back of the Hisense booth, which was enormous: almost as big as TCL’s behemoth. And Konka, Changhong and Skyworth weren’t far behind.

So, what was significant about the show? It could take me several columns to do that reporting justice, but I’ll give you five key trends in an executive summary. (More details will be covered in my “Future Trends” presentation scheduled for InfoComm in June, and at other venues throughout the year.)

TREND #1

Bigger and denser displays. Five different companies showed big 8K TVs, most of them using LG’s 98-inch IPS LCD panel or Innolux’s equally-large offering. The leap to 4K (Ultra HD) happened so quickly at CES that you didn’t hear the terms “1080p” and “4K” much at the show, just “TV.” I saw so many sets in the 60-inch and larger range that 50-inch TVs started to look small to me after a while. (Remember when a 50-inch 720p plasma cost $30,000?)

The fact is, displays can be manufactured in any size with just about any pixel count, and at affordable prices. You’ll be moving into 4K digital signage faster than you think, thanks to Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers and their ever-growing fabs!

TREND #2

Internet of Things. Yep, you would be floored at the number of gadgets that can be connected and controlled via IP addresses and apps. How about a showerhead that monitors and records water use? A doorbell that doubles as a camera, continuously streaming and recording video? An LED lamp that triples as a video camera and sound recorder? Clothing with a multitude of built-in biometric sensors that link via WiFi and Bluetooth? WiFi-operated cat and dog food dispensers? (I kid you not.)

Like it or not, this is the near-term future of control systems. If you can operate a myriad of these gizmos in your house from your phone, there’s no reason why you can’t do it in a classroom or in your office. The products and protocols already exist.

TREND #3

Faster wireless streaming. It’s taken a few years, but chipsets for 60GHz 802.11ad WiFi are finally coming to market. Qualcomm showed a dozen preproduction tri-band routers (2.4, 5 and 60GHz), and one Chinese manufacturer (LeTV) has a smartphone with 802.11ad built in. Channels in the 60GHz band are so wide that you can stream video at nearly 3Gb/s (the uncompressed rate for 1080p/60).

Because 60GHz signals don’t pass through solid objects, operations in this band will be limited to in-room, but I saw demos of 802.11ad WiFi links over 50 feet. And with full power (+30dBi) and directional antennas, the signals can go a lot farther. This will result in more wireless in-room links for a myriad of devices, and fewer cable connections.

TREND #4

Next-generation display enhancements. HDR, wide color gamut and high frame rates (to 120Hz) are all coming to TVs and monitors NOW. Not tomorrow, but now. And these enhancements will take UHD to another level altogether over “conventional” 1080p displays. Of course, combining them will kick up clock rates for display interfaces considerably, and in some cases, faster than the current crop of display interfaces can handle.

HDMI 2.0 is woefully slow for fast HDR content delivered in an RGB (4:4:4) format with 10-bit encoding. And 10-bit is where we’re heading very quickly, especially since the new crop of display panels feature native 10-bit addressing. DisplayPort 1.2 can just about carry 10-bit 4K @ 60Hz, which is why we’re waiting to see who will adopt superMHL and DisplayPort 1.4. (Yep, version 1.4 will be announced by the time you read this.)

TREND #5

The universal connector may have finally arrived. USB 3.0 Type-C is taking the PC and mobile device world by storm, and you’ll be interfacing with it in short order. This fast, symmetrical connector also supports alternate modes, meaning you also can piggyback DC voltage and display signals on its pins. Currently, DisplayPort 1.3 and superMHL are compatible with USB Type-C Alternate Mode (HDMI is not).

USB Type-C is here, and was demonstrated at the show.
USB Type-C is here, and was demonstrated at the show.

Much of our signal switching and distribution may migrate to a serial data platform via USB hubs and routers, with display and audio going along for the ride. And thanks to DisplayStream compression, we’ll be able to pack enough pixels in that pipeline to light up 8K displays, too.

Too much to absorb at once? I’ll be revisiting all of these topics throughout the year in my columns, and taking deeper dive in each one. 2016 is shaping up to be a very interesting year…and I didn’t even mention the trend to AV over IP yet…!

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