CES 2013

As usual, it was a lot of fun to travel to Las Vegas & subject myself to the huge crowd of over 150,000 attendees & massive onslaught of gadgets from the 3,200 exhibitors at the International CES for 2013.  There’s almost too much to appreciate, representing an amazing collection of diverse product categories & offerings.

The Central Hall was dominated by massive exhibits from the biggest electronics brands, but the video display business is definitely evolving, since an estimated 62% of TV viewers globally already have at least one HDTV & competition for profit is tough, with 50” screens now on sale for as low as $399.  The Ultra HD or 4K panels (with 4 times the number of pixels, 3840×2160, of a regular HDTV) that debuted at CES last year are now finally hitting the stores, as Sony ($24,999) & LG ($14,999) are already selling pricey 84” sets that have incredible detail & sharpness, with 55” & 65” Ultra HD sets planned for release from most manufacturers later this year & there were even some 110” Ultra HD screens on display.  However, the obvious problem with Ultra HD sets is the lack of source material, since 4K movies are too big to fit on a BluRay disc & there are no broadcast plans at present, although the Korean Broadcasting Service did show a demo of the first terrestrial 4K-UHD broadcast, sending a whopping 35 megabytes of data per second over a standard 6MHz wide TV channel.  This was similar to the situation when the first 720p HD plasma panels became available over a decade ago, which had great High Definition images, but which actually made Standard Definition broadcasts look worse than when viewing them on older tube-style sets. Therefore, the big news of this CES was the tremendous improvement in the quality & speed of the signal processors that convert standard HD signals to Ultra HD images inside some of the Ultra HD sets being exhibited.  In particular, the Ultra HD displays from Hitachi (using both an i5 dual core & an i7 quad core processor from Intel), LG, Samsung & Sony created noticeably clearer & more detailed up-scaled 4K images when compared to the original 1080i (broadcast) or 1080p (Blu-ray) HD source material, especially on screen sizes of 60” & larger.  These sets really do create an immediately obvious improvement in viewing quality, almost as great as the jump a few years ago from Standard Definition TV to High Definition TV.  And Ultra HD prices will certainly drop eventually, just like HD panels have (remember that the first consumer plasma, a 50” 720p from Pioneer, retailed for $25,000 when first released).
More exotic display methods, like the OLED (using Organic Light Emitting Diodes that eliminate the need for a backlight) HD sets that have been displayed at CES in the past, will finally go on sale this year, with LG’s 55” due for release in March & Samsung’s 55” coming out in the 3rd quarter.  These sets have incredible contrast, brightness & depth of color, but will also be quite expensive, likely selling in the $10-12,000 range.  Some manufacturers also demonstrated OLED sets showing off specific potentials of this technology, as LG showed its touch-screen OLED, Samsung had its bendable OLED, Hisense launched its transparent 3D OLED & Sony exhibited the first Ultra HD OLED.
Other “normal” HD sets were pushing features like internet connectivity, voice interactivity, facial recognition & gesture controls, none of which have created much of a consumer reaction thus far.  Even 3D seems to be taking a back-seat these days as merely one of a number of features that a set can deliver, since the sales of 3D sets (either Active or Passive systems, both requiring special glasses) have been slow.  However, Stream TV demonstrated a glasses-free 3D system on an Ultra HD 2160p 4K display that looked surprisingly good from a relatively wide range of distance & angles.  If Stream TV can convince more manufacturers (Chinese brand Hisense is the only one committed to this system so far) to start including this proprietary technology in their sets, it could put 3D back on a winning path in the home.  For those who can’t wait for more 3D content, VEFXi demonstrated its 3D-Bee Diamond processor, which converts any 2D image to 3D in real-time & allows customized control of both the 3D D-axis (appearing behind the screen) & the Z-axis (appearing in front of the screen).  I saw a 3D conversion of a CBS NFL football game shot in 2D that looked every bit as good as the occasional live 3D broadcasts of college football games on ESPN 3D & the $499 retail price on this processor is supposed to be dropping to $299 soon.

There was an increased presence of auto manufacturers this year, mainly displaying a wider variety of available connectivity in the digital dashboard.  General Motors & Chrysler announced that they would be adding the iHeartRadio app to the menu of their in-vehicle infotainment systems, joining Ford, Toyota & Lexus, with Chrysler also adding Pandora, Slacker & Radio Aha.  Ford announced its new Ford Developer Program, which makes the Sync platform available to software writers so they can directly interface with the vehicle to create apps & thus allow radio stations to have their own individual app on the dashboard display, rather than sharing a presence in a collective app.  iHeartRadio also announced an update of its app for iPhones & PCs that will offer “Perfect For” stations offering channels based on moods & activities, with availability soon on other mobile & tablet devices.

Among other products deserving of attention:

CHARGING USB DEVICESNectar Mobile Power displayed a very compact (5”x4”x1”) portable system that can charge mobile phones or tablets on the go, using small disposable power pods.  It will become available at Brookstone this summer for $299, with each $9.95 pod typically capable of fully charging 10 devices.  Charging devices at home is made easier with the Power 2U USB wall outlet, designed to replace existing AC outlets by providing not only 2 AC outlets, but also 2 USB ports.  It’s a very simple idea, but quite convenient & inexpensive, selling for $14.99 at Amazon.com.  Or, if you don’t want to actually replace your existing in-wall outlets, GE was displaying a simple USB charger adapter that plugs into a standard AC outlet pair to provide 2 AC outlets plus 3 USB ports, retailing for $27.99.

iPHONE CASES – The new Sensus protective case includes a processor & sensors that add touch-screen sensitivity to the back & sides of the iPhone, allowing the user to scroll through text by sliding a finger along the edge of the case or play games by touching the back of the case.  It will become available this summer, priced at less than $100, with similar cases for iPad & iPad Mini models also promised.  Another interesting iPhone case is being sold now by RHP Multimedia, called the MirrorCase.  It allows photos & videos to be taken of objects directly in front of or on the side of the device, like recording a lecture or as a stealth camera. The iPhone 5 version is available now for $59.95, with the iPad version due out in the 2nd quarter of 2013 at $79.95.

EXERCISE – If you like to listen to audio while exercising, RunPhones are super-thin speakers securely mounted in a very comfortable headband so they won’t fall off your head.  The wired version is selling now for $34.95, with a Bluetooth version coming out soon for $79.95.
FOR KIDS – Crayola & Griffin Technologies announced the Crayola Light Marker for iPads, a lightweight marker-like stylus with a glowing tip that is recognized by the front-facing camera of the tablet & interprets the motions being drawn in the air to display them on the screen.  It will go on sale this spring for $29.99, with the Light Marker App available for free.
AVOIDING WATER DAMAGELiquipel is a nano-coating for electronics, which penetrates the entire device both inside & out, to protect them from exposure to water.  Their CES exhibit included a wide range of treated devices that were being repeatedly sprayed & dunked, without apparent damage.  You can either buy pre-treated devices or you can ship your own devices to them for treatment, at a cost of $60-80 per item.
I’ve left the most interesting product for last, because it has such potential.  It’s from a consortium called the HD Base T Alliance, which includes LG, Onkyo, Pioneer, Samsung, Sony & Valence Semiconductor.  This protocol provides the capability to send uncompressed HDTV, audio, Ethernet, control signals & AC power through a single CAT5 or CAT6 Ethernet cable.  They had a video display that ran completely (signals, control & power) through a single wire, which was quite amazing to see.  The plan is to get more manufacturers to sell products that include the support of this protocol, but adapters are already for sale for $199.95 that can combine 4 HD video or audio signals with up to 100 watts of power over a single Ethernet cable.  It’s quite an impressive engineering feat, which will hopefully become widely used soon because wireless HD systems are beginning to catch on.  In the electronics business, change is not only inevitable, but it’s really fun to watch it happening & the CES is definitely the place to see technology evolve.
Tommy Hadges