CES 2013 Highlights & Predictions

15/01/13
For those interested in seeing, touching and feeling the very latest in gadgets and devices from Ultra HD television sets, smart fridges and robot vacuum cleaners, CES is where it's at.

While most people spend the second week in January breaking various New Year resolutions, abandoning diets and generally getting back into the swing of things after the Christmas holidays, one hundred and fifty thousand brave souls decend on Las Vegas for the annual technology get together that is CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. It's also a great place to meet and listen to industry pundits, experts and others giving their predictions for the key technology trends likely to impact consumers in the year ahead (just don't ask them how last years predictions panned out).

So having joined the melee this year, here is my summary of the key trends, interesting innovations and a few predictions of my own for 2013:

Ultra HD (4K) TV

Every major television manufacturer had a 4K Ultra HD product or prototype on display. This was probably the single biggest trend at this years show and the results were impressive. Ultra HD is the consumer friendly name for the next generation of TV display resolutions. The standards behind it were ratified late last year and support two resolutions - 4K and 8K. The 4K reference is simply the approximate number of horizontal pixels on the screen, so a 4K display has a minimum count of 3,840 × 2,160 pixels. That's four times the resolution of Full HD (1080p) and on a larger screen the image quality was very good.

However, there is one major problem with 4K TVs for now (apart from the huge price and lack of shipping products) - 4K content. The screen resolution is just too far ahead of the existing source material. Sony demonstrated some nice upscaling TVs that would digitally enhance a HD (or even SD) source upto 4K in much the same way that upscaling DVD players work today. This is likely to be the reality of 4K TV usage for the next few years at least as the volume of native 4K content will be slow to build and will require newer physical formats (the current Blu-ray discs won't cope) or lots of bandwidth (a streamed 4K movie would require 35/40Mbps). Sony announced a 4K distribution service where they basically ship you a large hard drive array with 4K on board but even then the number of titles is tiny. Despite all this I think we can expect TV manufacturers to begin introducing 4K sets at the top end of their product ranges later this year and into 2014 and those with more money than sense (and large living rooms) may be tempted.

Prediction for 2013: More promise than product. Expect to see some strategic product launches, but without a content or distribution eco-system Ultra HD is more for 2014 and beyond.

OLED TV

Another popular trend in the TV space was OLED. The vast majority of todays TVs are based on LCD display technologies, those with LED backlighting being the most recent incarnation. However, OLED has been proposed (and demonstrated) by some manufacturers for the past couple of years and this year major vendors showcased OLED displays of various sizes. The common theme among them all is an incredibly rich colour palate on screen with beautiful contrasts between almost perfect blacks and vibrant bright colours. The effect is stunning and is one of those cases where you really do have to see it to appreciate it. OLED also promises flexibility in the physical construction of the screen and Samsung and LG both demonstrated curved OLED TVs that showed what may be possible with this display technology. Curved displays aside, OLED also alows the screens to be very thin because no backlighting is required. Some of the OLED TVs on show were very thin, about the same thickness as an iPhone 4.

The only downside for now is that large OLED screens are proving difficult to manufacture (yields are rumoured to be 30%) and while many more devices where on show this year at CES it looks like it will be a few years yet before we can expect to see OLED TVs that are affordable for the mass market. Still, this is one technology to look forward to and when they appear in volume we can expect significant consumer adoption. For the ultimate display experience a combination of 4K and OLED was included in a handful of prototypes at the show and they looked spectacular.

OLED vs Ultra HD (4K) - People tend to ask which of the two is better and what the difference is. It's actually a slightly flawed question but the simple answer is that they are different and not competing things. Ultra HD is a display resolution just like SD, HD Ready (720p) and Full HD (1080p) and can be realised on a range of different display technologies including OLED, LCD and plasma. OLED on the other hand is a display technology that can be used at different resolutions. If I had to choose between a Full HD OLED TV today and an Ultra HD LCD TV I could go with the former.

Prediction for 2013: Unlike Ultra HD, OLED TVs are held back by manufacturing challenges rather than content and if these issues can be resolved we may see some serious product before Christmas. However, I think this is also more of a 2014 technology than 2013, unfortunately.

3D TV

Sticking with the TV theme for the moment, another very noticeable trend was consumer 3D TVs. Noticeable that is by an almost complete absence of any reference to 3D. Despite the fact that many TVs now ship with 3D as standard, the industry seems to have quietly accepted that consumer uptake for 3D TV viewing in the home just hasn't materialised and so that particular bandwagon has moved on. I think a role still exists for 3D as a theatrical experience for cinema goers but until we have glasses free (auto-stereoscopic) 3D TVs, its just not going to be a mainstream pursuit and even without glasses I wonder if a consumer appetite exists at all. It highlights a recurring theme in the technology world where sometimes we as an industry get too far ahead of the consumer and provide solutions to problems that just don't exist. There was one interesting twist on 3DTV at the show - Samsung demonstrated an OLED 3DTV that allows two people, wearing 3D glasses, to watch two different programmes on the same TV at the same time. Could this be the answer to the classic debate between couples over what to watch on the TV?

Prediction for 2013: The biggest problem for 3DTV going forward is consumer apathy, but who cares?

Even Smarter TV

Finally on the TV side, the latest smart TV implementations were quite impressive. We have already got past the challenge of putting IP video on connected TVs so the focus at this years show was on improving the user experience in various ways. This included improved content navigation and discovery, richer EPGs and an increasing trend towards natural user interfaces such as voice and gesture control. Many of the higher end TV models included video cameras that allow the TV to recognise individual viewers and customise the content recommendations based on past viewing patterns. Samsung still lead the industry with their smart TV offering and this year not only introduced an innovative new UI but announced an upgrade option for last years TV models to provide access to the new features for those purchasers.

Prediction for 2013: Ordinary people are starting to 'get' smart TV and are connecting them to the Internet in increasing numbers. I think this year will see significantly increased use of smart TV functionality for catchup and other on-demand content. I think we will see some industry initiatives around the use of Android as a smart TV platform (not Google TV but Android TV) and I think we will finally see something special from Apple in the TV space. In Europe, the HbbTV specification will see significant take up and product launches too.

Check out the second blog part of Highlights and Predicitons from CES on Thursday.

Steve Plunkett, Chief Technology Officer

photo taken 9 January 2013 18:35 GMT / By Dan Sung