Five defining trends from CES 2013

Monday 21 January 2013 15.54
Consumer Electronics Show remains the greatest show on earth, writes Niall Kitson
Consumer Electronics Show remains the greatest show on earth, writes Niall Kitson

The party is over in Las Vegas for another year - Niall Kitson looks at the mess left behind.

The Consumer Electronics Show is being given a run for its money by the likes of IFA, CeBit and, now, the Mobile World Congress in terms of relevance to the technology market but for breadth of ideas it remains the greatest show on earth. This year’s event, however, took place against a backdrop of market consolidation in the mobile space as Samsung and Apple drag each other through the courts, declining PC sales and a Microsoft smarting from poor uptake of its Windows 8 operating system. Still it wasn’t all a rearguard action, as these five highlights show:

4K TV outshines 3D

Ultra-HD, aka 4K, delivers images twice as sharp as what we know as full HD (3840x2160 versus 1920x1080 pixels) today and it made a splash at CES with all the main TV manufacturers getting in on the technology. Sony, LG, Samsung and Panasonic all joined the 4K revolution with a selection of OLED TVs and a 20” tablet that are a few years away from mass distribution but are pretty to look at. Sony played to its strengths by unveiling 55” and 65” TV and announcing the release of select Sony Pictures content on which to watch them. Good enough reason to get saving the expected $25,000 retail price.

Samsung’s 84” prototype is expected to hit the market for about $37,900 along with 95” and 110” models but their biggest innovation was arguably the one it shared with rival LG: curved screens. Designed to deliver the same viewing experience as IMAX cinema screen, the novel form factor may not catch on but it certainly drew the crowds.

Gesture and voice control continued their slow build but one feature conspicuous by its absence was 3D, which received but a passing mention. Take this as an acceptance by manufacturers that 3D may be packing them in at the cinemas (and doubling production costs) but that does not transfer to the home where the viewing conditions mare slightly less controlled.

In-car tech takes another step forward

In-car tech rarely gets much attention at CES largely due to there being plenty of other outlets for it but this year saw two massive developments to engage the geek community. First, one of the great dreams of science fiction: the self-driving car. Audi, Lexus and Toyota all unveiled cars that will rely on only minimal effort on the part of the driver. Of course function has come at the expense of aesthetics and none of these models will set the forecourts ablaze. If you like the look of Google’s mapping cars then you’ll like staring at the current state of the art.

The second big development is the approach by Ford to encourage app developers to give them a spin. Speaking to news website The Verge, CTO Paul Mascerenas emphasised the company’s interest in developing content and treating cars as “the ultimate mobile device”. Will we see Android-powered car computers in the future? Maybe not, but Ford’s App Link software development kit has been opened up for developers that want to take a crack at.

Qualcomm stumbles forth

You might not be familiar with the Qualcomm brand but if you own a high end smartphone the chances are you’re using one of their products already. As the opening keynote address Qualcomm’s challenge was to make its products - processing chips - look exciting and relevant by highlighting their technology’s application through every sphere of personal technology. It was a tough ask in the first place but the presentation they put on will pass into history as one of CES’ most bizarre and cringe-inducing.

Under the tag-line ‘born mobile’ CEO Dr Paul Jacobs gave the audience a perfunctory overview of Qualcomm chips in action on tablets, mobile phones and cars. In isolation his wooden delivery would have been considered solid if uninspiring. Unfortunately Dr Jacobs’ appearance was framed by a cringe introduction by three overzealous actors playing the part of gamer, socialite and entrepreneur and later punctuated by bizarre cameos from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Big Bird from Sesame Street, Star Trek actress Alice Eve and film director Guillermo del Toro.

The biggest scene stealer of them all was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who stomped all over Dr Jacobs’ lines and got as much Microsoft pitch into his slot as any other executive would have managed in the entire week. Ballmer’s people can sleep soundly knowing they got their message across without having to take out any floor space.

Touch screens are no longer an option

Ultrabooks were meant to save the PC but slow uptake due to premium pricing and the possibility of being overtaken by Windows 8 devices kept the punters away. Now Windows 8 is here and the lesson is that if you want to make money off an operating system that is focused on being connected to the cloud 24/7 and works as well on tablets as PCs you had better be able to handle multiple form factors.

With this in mind, manufacturers came to play at CES with a slew of tablets, laptops and hybrid devices combining the best of both worlds. Whether it’s Lenovo’s Yoga with its flip screen or Dell’s XPS 10 with its removable keyboard mobile computing’s paradigm is shifting to occupy the middle ground between full fat and mobile operating systems. Dell’s new releases lean heavily on this model of the business tablet as a Windows PC that can be augmented with peripherals and a full-size display. Canonical also came out with a version of Ubuntu Linux for smartphones that can deliver a full size desktop on a display.

Very personal technology

Last year we saw the proof of concept video for Google Glass, a headset control for Android devices. At CES, Vuzix Smart Glasses took the top honour in the Wireless Handset category of the show’s Innovation Awards for a device that does more or less the same thing. The Accessibility and Universal Design was won by Moneual for a wrist-watch style device that detects noise and transmits information about it to the hearing impaired user. The Personal Electronics category was won by Scanadu for its personal health monitoring device. New ways to engage with your mobile phone, real time updates to manage your health - the new shape of consumer electronics.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie