by Steve Sechrist
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is always a watershed event on the consumer-electronics calendar. Not only does it offer the opportunity to touch so many who flock to the sunny Las Vegas desert in the dead of Winter, it gives the industry a chance to reflect on itself. CES highlights technology successes and the unveiling of new dreams, and also exposes (through their lack of presence) those efforts that have failed to come to fruition.
This year's event was no exception, with some telling signs of things to come, such as 3D-TV, NeTVs (Internet-connected TV), the rise of LEDs in projection, and a whole new crop of e-book readers. Without question, 3-D dominated the show, with so much going on in that area that Insight Media produced a Special Report on 3D at CES-2010.
CES proved that there is 3-D activity at every level of the consumer and professional industries. Besides the 3-D flat-screen and projection display products, we saw activity in electronics and integrated circuits to support the formatting, distribution, and encoding of 3-D content. There was news about 2-D to 3-D conversion, 3-D cameras, and 3-D mobile devices. And most important, we saw announcements about the creation of new 3-D channels from heavyweights such as Discovery, ESPN, and DirecTV. Blu-ray 3-D standards have been agreed to, and the HDMI 1.4 specification is set to support the distribution of 3-D within the home. Multiple vendors talked about a variety of 3-D glasses to support these new TVs. And all the top TV brands announced that 3-D will be a part of their product lines in 2010 – a key message for consumers.
However, it is important to remember that this major 3-D push is coming from the companies that stand to gain the most from the phenomenon. The questions remain: will consumers actually embrace these 3-D TVs? Will they wear the glasses? Will they be willing to replace a newly purchased HDTV with a new 3-D TV? Will they pay a premium to have this 3-D capability? These questions have not yet been answered, so the future of many aspects of 3-D remains cloudy.
Going beyond the third dimension, European On CE editor Bob Snyder cleverly observed that while the "buzz" at the show was about 3-D TVs, the "honey" was probably in Internet-connected TVs, or NeTVs.1 These could earn manufacturers real and immediate revenue, as supported by both the marketing numbers and the products shown at CES. For example, one DisplaySearch forecast predicted that the "Web-connected TV" market will grow from about 15 million units in 2009 to over 70 million units by 2012, with the largest market penetration in Western Europe and North America. On the other hand, a post-CES survey result from Parks Associates notes that less than 8% of U.S. broadband homes – about 5.5 million homes – are considering canceling their pay-TV subscriptions in favor of online video. That is actually down from 10% in 2009 and 11% in 2008. To be fair, this study appears to have looked at a complete conversion to Internet delivery. In reality, we suspect consumers are more likely to experiment with Internet delivery until they feel convinced they can make the switch and not lose something they want from cable, satellite, or terrestrial delivery services.
The point is, all top brands had one or more versions of NeTV at CES, all with unique nomenclature to help differentiate (or rather confuse) the consumers. But most seem to understand the idea of NetFlix and Widgets (the new substitute for channels), which empower Internet streaming directly to the TV without the use of a separate computer. This opens up a whole new delivery mechanism and changes the game for cable and satellite providers, as well as fixed-content disc suppliers handling Blu-ray and DVD distribution.
The ability to send HD content wirelessly within the home was also a pervasive theme among most major display manufacturers at CES. While not new to the show, or even some top-end sets, the wireless connectivity is becoming more robust (with 1080p/60-Hz support) and pervasive, due in part to new chips now shipping from major providers such as Amimon.
In a move to differentiate itself, Japan-based Sharp Electronics announced Quad Pixel TVs – a new technology for the company that expands the color primary set beyond the conventional RGB (red, green, blue) by introducing a new fourth (yellow) primary to the mix. While this is far from a new concept, and there is plenty of multi-primary IP out there, we think it is the first time a major CE maker is introducing it into the market as a way to differentiate its LCD products, perhaps the same way that Samsung created lots of buzz around its "LED-TV".
Display expert Ken Werner, who covered the story for Insight Media, explained that adding a yellow primary outside of the RGB triangle gives a four-sided RGBY quadrangle that contains more colors. As a result, the company now claims it can display roughly a trillion colors instead of the billion colors in a conventional RGB set.
Also visible at CES were many e-readers, including the launch of the long-awaited QUE from Plastic Logic and next-generation displays such as LG's EPH display mounted on thin, flexible stainless steel, as shown in the new Skiff device from Hearst. There was also a new production version of Pixel Qi's hybrid transflective panel shown in a private suite, and Qualcomm's MEMS display prototype in a 5-in. class size that we recently learned is ready for production and will ship by end of 2010 in a yet-to-be-named OEM vendor's e-reader.
But Insight Media analyst Pete Putman caught something even bigger brewing on the CE display horizon at CES. He mused recently in our Insight Media Display Daily Blog (January 18) about the "Changing of the Guard" in the industry, with some of the old-guard Japanese firms giving way to Chinese ones. Here's how Pete put it:
"Aside from all of the demos of 3-D, NeTVs, widgets, super-thin LCDs, energy conservation, wireless HD, and OLEDs, there was another significant story to be covered. That was the big-time CES appearances of Chinese CE and TV manufacturers TCL, Haier, and Hisense. This is not the first time that any of these companies have shown their wares at CES. Rather, what was truly significant was the sizes of each company's booth (enormous!) as well as the depth and breadth of their product lines."
Pete could have added Hanvon to this list, the third largest e-book reader (EBR) maker (and top seller in China), whose booth dominated the EBR Tech Zone at the show and featured dozens of new models. (We learned after the show that Hanvon sold 100,000 EBRs in China in the month of December – further proof that the market is real and exploding.)
"It wasn't hard to locate any of these booths" Pete continued; "they occupied prime real estate surrounding the massive Samsung and Sharp exhibits, space that was formerly taken by three Japanese CE power players made conspicuous by their absence – Pioneer, Sanyo, and Hitachi. What happened to them?"
Well, most of us already know that Pioneer, now out of large-format displays, was relegated to North Hall with the audio crowd. Sanyo merged with Panasonic, so there was no Sanyo booth, and Hitachi offered no public explanation for why it was not present at CES this year.
What else didn't we see at CES? There wasn't any word about new OLED TVs (there were several prototypes, including 3-D, but no commercialization announcements). We did not hear anything from AsusTek and its long-rumored dual-screen (color) EBR.
So, the old guard in consumer electronics is seeing new challenges from mainland Chinese brands, while upstart brands like Vizio are using aggressive pricing models to shake things up with entrenched TV brands. But similar to the years that have passed before it, 2010 opened with a large, loud, and, yes, impressive CES with new technology, hopes, and dreams of capturing the mind share (and market share) of consumers everywhere. But technology aside, are things really that much different from years past? We would say yes! For even though today 3-D dominates the display technology horizon, perhaps the same way HDTV did just a few years back, the discussion itself is beginning to shift from pixels, speeds, and feeds to something more exciting. Our content, connectivity, and mobility options are exploding with the opening of the Internet, and new devices to capture, create, and display this knowledge – right into the living room and beyond.
1http://on-ce.net/index.php?option=com_content&task= view&id=359& Itemid=45 •