CES may be a consumer technology show, but there's a lot going on this year that's helping put consumer gear on the cutting edge of the market. In case you didn't make it out to Vegas for the annual confab, here's a summary of some of the major developments this year. We'll steer clear of the powered rollerskates, the connected toothbrush, and the bizarre smart belt that loosens or tightens depending on how much you had for dinner. Instead, we'll concentrate on video screens, computer hardware, and other developments that may have the biggest ramifications for production, post-production, and, yes, consumption of movies, TV, and more.
OLED is squaring off against quantum-dot LCD.
For a while, it looked like OLED was going to be the next big thing in consumer TVs. Now, it's far from a sure thing — within the last year or so, Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung have all abandoned plans to push into OLED production in a big way. That leaves LG as the single biggest marketer of OLED screens, which are best-known for achieving much deeper black levels and wider viewing angles than their LCD counterparts. At CES, LG introduced seven different 4K OLED TVs, ranging in sice from 55 to 77 inches. But the mood was a little tense, with CNet reporting that LG took public swipes at the quantum-dot LCD backlighting technology favored by Samsung. And Samsung, in turn, is said to have cast doubt on LG's ability to deliver the quantum-dot sets that it has promised in March. That's a problem because OLED panels still command too high a price to be a truly mass-market item — the new sets haven't been priced yet, but LG's previously announced 77-inch 4K curved OLED screen, the 77EG9700, has an MSRP of $25,000. (Compare that to Samsung's HU9000 series 78-inch 4K TV that lists for $9,000.) Further Reading: War of the words at CES over what's best for TV [CNet]
4K is set to be the new mainstream.
Ultra High Definition officially became A Thing in Hollywood with the formation of the UHD Alliance. The coalition of companies — including studios, consumer electronics manufacturers, and others — plans to set standards for 4K and higher resolution, HDR, expanded color gamuts, and "immersive 3D audio." Presumably the UHDA will also be looking at delivery mechanisms for all those improvements in picture and sound, and that's why UHDA member company Panasonic brought what it described as the world's first 4K Blu-ray player to CES. Panasonic's prototype Ultra HD Blu-ray player features support for UHD video at up to 10-bit and 60p, HDR, BT.2020 color, and H.265 compression peaking at 100 Mbps. But it's anybody's guess as to whether Ultra HD Blu-ray discs will ever see the light of day. Much more attention was paid at the show to 4K support from companies like Netflix, Roku, and Vimeo. With options for 4K LCD TVs expanding, prices dropping, and at least a steady trickle of content being made available, 4K is becoming the new HD. Not to be outdone, Samsung had an 8K TV prototype on hand that included glasses-free 3D, which makes the most of the available resolution. Further Reading: Hollywood Studios, Consumer Electronics Brands, Content Distributors, Post-Production and Technology Companies Announce UHD Alliance [Press Release] | Panasonic shows off first 4K Blu-ray player, but can discs survive another standard transition? [ExtremeTech] | Samsung's 110-inch 8K glassesless 3DTV is beautiful and awful [Gizmodo]
Virtual reality is still not a reality.
2015 is widely expected to be the year of VR gear like the hotly anticipated Oculus Rift 3D headset, but reporters at CES have been underwhelmed. "Gadget makers, having promised for years to bring a truly fantastic VR game to market, appear not to be there yet," griped the New York Post. Engadget called the Oculus Rift's still unannounced ship date "the elephant in the room" and complained that "to date, we've seen zero input solutions for VR that are worth anything." More and more content creators are getting busy creating virtual worlds for the emerging VR platform—but it's hard to tell whether a consumer version will be released in time for the next holiday selling season. Further Reading: Virtual reality headsets still a virtual disappointment [New York Post] | The challenges ahead for Oculus VR as it creates the consumer rift [Engadget]
Drones: the next generation.
The new darling of adventurous airborne cinematographers everywhere is also a compelling consumer product, given the enduring popular fascination with remote-control vehicles. Drones weren't anything like the hottest product on the CES show floor, but they had their moments in the spotlight. GoPro founder and CEO Nick Woodman spoke at a CES dinner event last night and came this close to confirming that his company was working on its own camera drone. Instead, he sounded a cautionary note regarding efforts to regulate drone flight. "There needs to be some regulation to keep it safe, but we need room to allow the industry to blossom," he said, according to a Forbes.com report. "It's easy to focus on how things can go wrong, but we need to make sure we allow things to go right. A drone with a GoPro is much safer than a helicopter with a crew and a large, heavy camera." Meanwhile, DJI showcased some of the applications that have been created using the SDK it released last year, including one from Pix4D that turns a drone into a measuring tool for mapping purposes and another from PixiePath that allows multiple drones to be controlled simultaneously. Further Reading: GoPro CEO talks drones, innovation and the future at CES [Forbes] | DJI wants you to develop software for their drones [Popular Science]
Type-C may finally be USB done right.
One of the more innocuous standards that emerged at CES is the USB Type-C connector, which improves on previous generations of USB in important ways. First, it's reversible, which means you no longer have to check the alignment of your cable every single time you plug in a USB device to make sure you're not sticking it in upside-down. Second, it's part of the USB 3.1 spec, which doubles the maximum transfer rate to 10 Gbps. And finally, it can deliver up to 100 watts of power. It's starting to show up on components like motherboards and tablet computers, according to PCWorld — and it's the only data connectivity on those rumored redesigned MacBook Airs. Further Reading: The reversible USB Type-C connector is turning heads at CES [PCWorld]
The camera car of the future may be driverless.
It was the year of the driverless car at CES, even though self-piloting automotive technology still looks to be about five years out. Luxury brands like Mercedes Benz and Tesla Motors will likely be among the first to bring autonomous cars to market, while Ford CEO Mark Fields told The Wall Street Journal he's more interested in making an affordable version of what will initially be very high-end technology. Stunt performers probably don't like the technology any more than heli pilots like camera drones, but the potential benefits on a movie shoot are pretty compelling — imagine a camera vehicle that could keep in perfect speed-sync with the hero car, or get ridiculously close to the action without putting a human driver in peril. Further Reading: Ford chief says mass-market autonomous vehicle is priority [The Wall Street Journal]
Computers get smaller.
Dell got a lot of press for its new XPS 13 laptop, which uses a new thin-bezel design that maximizes the space available for a 13-inch screen in a form factor that's more typical of an 11-inch computer. It's an Ultrabook, not a full-on PC workstation, but for everyday PC tasks, it offers a bigger screen in a smaller form factor than before. And if you want a computer you can carry around in your pocket, check out the new Intel Compute Stick. For $149, you get an HDMI stick with an Atom Z3735F Bay Trail processor, 2 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of flash storage running Windows 8.1 For $89, the Linux version has 1 GB of RAM and 8 GB of built-in storage. Depending on how much video-crunching power it actually has, this might just be workable as a cheap, universal playback solution. You'll have to bring your own input device, but with the Metro interface on Windows 8.1, a Bluetooth mouse should work well. Big drawback? You need to power it via MicroUSB. It's supposed to show up in March. Further Reading: Dell blows us away with their near bezel-less XPS 13 Ultrabook [Windows Central] | Intel introduces Compute Stick with Atom quad-core CPU [ZDNet]
Solid-state storage gets speedier.
The big evolutionary change in SSDs is the move from the SATA interface to PCIe, which allows new drives like the just-announced Samsung SM951 drive to reach read speeds of more than 2,000 MB/sec and write speeds of more than 1,500 MB/sec on PCIe 3.0 — around four times faster than SATA-based SSDs. That will pay dividends inside laptop cases, where the smaller eSATA-based SSDs leave more space for other components, like the always-important battery. On the desktop side, Kingston introduced the HyperX Predator PCIe SSD, which is bootable via standard AHCI drivers and boasts read speeds of up to 1,400 MB/sec and write speeds of up to 1,000 MB/sec on PCIe 2.0. Further Reading: Samsung's ludicrously fast PCIe SSD uses almost no power in standby mode [PCWorld] | Kingston unleashes its first PCIe SSD with 1.4 Gbps speed [ComputerWorld]
Sports fans finally get a viable cord-cutting option.
It's long been a fact of life: if you want ESPN, you've got to get cable TV. Until now. This week, Dish announced that it's new Sling TV web service will allow subscribers to watch ESPN and ESPN 2, along with a handful of other cable channels, online for $20/month. Another one of cable TV's biggest guns, HBO, recently announced that it will soon be available as an a la carte service that will be especially attractive to viewers who crave Game of Thrones and Girls but not much else their local provider has on offer. Are these two offerings harbingers of the future of television? Almost certainly, yes. But don't expect the transition to be painless—subscribers to online streaming services will still have to buy their bandwidth somewhere, and the relationship between bandwidth-hungry content providers like Netflix and the nation's ISPs (which are often the cable companies themselves) hasn't always been completely friendly. HBO, in particular, will have a lot of infrastructure to build out as it starts serving customers directly, rather than through the traditional industry middleman. These are early days, but it's hard to see this particular trend reversing. Further Reading: Dish's new Sling TV Internet TV service starts at $20, features ESPN, Disney Channel, CNN, TNT, and other channels [CNet]
Wait a minute—Apple wasn't even at CES!
Apple has a way of becoming part of any consumer electronics conversation, especially given the dominance of its iOS devices and the sci-fi appeal of the upcoming Apple Watch. But despite the company's absence from Vegas and the lack of any product announcements, Apple was still the talk of the town, thanks to widely reported rumors this week about a new, single-port USB Type-C redesign for the MacBook Air and a possible March launch for the company's aforementioned timepiece. No wonder Apple doesn't have a booth at either CES or NAB, given that everyone's speculating about what they're up to, regardless. Further Reading: Apple's next major Mac revealed [9to5Mac] | Apple Watch launch expected in March [9to5Mac]