At Consumer Electronics Show, Sorting the Go-Go Gadgets from the No-Go
LAS VEGAS -- It's not obvious whether a new gadget's public debut at the annual Consumer Electronics Show would be better described as taking the stage or walking the plank. This is my 16th year of covering the show, and I cannot say the electronics industry's batting average has improved much since 1998.
(Disclosure: For most of last year, I wrote a series of blog posts for the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington, Va., trade group that runs CES; I also led two tours of the show floor for CEA guests on Wednesday.)
The biggest gamble this year is "Ultra HD" television, also known as "4K" for its approximately 4 million pixels' worth of horizontal resolution. Quadrupling the resolution of mere HD allows for enormous sets that offer the same pinpoint detail as a new iPad's Retina display, but it also makes for an exceedingly expensive item -- $20,000 for an 84-inch LG set that was shown off in the Las Vegas Convention Center's massive exhibit space, maybe $6,000 for an upcoming 55-inch model from that firm.
There's little point in making 4K sets any smaller: From the average couch, you already can't see the individual pixels on most medium-sized HD screens.
Nor can you find much 4K content to watch, thanks to the lack of pre-recorded discs or cable or satellite channels to deliver shows, games or movies. An upcoming 4K movie-download service Sony announced Sunday will require far more bandwidth than most homes can get today. Until those factors change, UHD viewers may have to settle with HD content electronically "upscaled" to that higher resolution.
The prospects for ultra-thin OLED (organic light-emitting diode) TVs don't seem much more promising. A screen that is barely over an eighth of an inch thick does look fabulous when viewed from the side -- as in, the wrong place to watch anything -- but how many people will pay, for example, the $12,000 LG proposes to charge for a 55-inch OLED model?
Attendees wearing 3-D glasses watch the world's first "3-D video wall" at the LG booth Tuesday. TVs with 3-D technology haven't become a trend since debuting at the CES three years ago. Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images
There aren't as many displays of 3-D TV on the show floor. (I didn't spot any 3-D footage playing at Samsung's or Panasonic's exhibits.) The diminished profile of a technology that three years ago was supposed to be the next big thing in video should give pause to people expecting 4K or OLED to go far in the mass market.
Another old ailment for the gadget industry -- the inability to settle on standards -- risks holding up needed progress in useful phone-car integration. Having each vehicle manufacturer develop its own way to get your phone's navigation, web-radio and other apps on the dashboard's display and controls represents a huge waste of time and complicates shopping for both cars and phones. One of the most solid attempts at creating a standard, MirrorLink, has not seen enough support. The technology is the result of a consortium dedicated to developing global standards for smartphone in-car connectivity.
And leaving functions like mapping and directions to built-in systems is equally inefficient -- the phone does that job better than any in-dash system that either can't get online or requires its own mobile-broadband receiver (something Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs predicted in a prolonged and confusing pre-show keynote Sunday night). Your car doesn't need its own wireless bill any more than your fridge needs its own touchscreen and apps (something Samsung seems to think is a good idea).
The best news at this year's CES seems to center around smaller devices. Pretty much the entire TV industry has come around to the idea that a gesture detected by a camera, your own spoken voice or an app represents a better way to command a TV than the traditional remote control.
Camera vendors, after years of watching smartphones devour their business, have also moved to make it easy to beam photos from their products to your mobile device, usually with some sort of Wi-Fi link but also with the shorter-range Near Field Communication wireless in many Android phones. In many of these connected-camera designs, you can also use your phone as a remote viewfinder and employ its GPS to "geotag" your shots.
The single most promising trend at this year's CES may be the increasingly cheap cost of sensors and wireless networks. Exercise-tracking pods and wristbands such as Withings' upcoming Smart Activity Tracker can monitor your workouts, your walks, your heart rate and even how well you sleep, then beam the data over to your phone via Bluetooth wireless. Wi-Fi-linked home-automation systems such as Lowe's Iris can bring some self-awareness to your abode without having to rip open walls.
And one thing I have picked up over these last 16 years is that when you make a technology cheap enough, people find and invent more interesting uses for it than anybody would have predicted at the start.