CES 2015: The Show of Everything (SoE)

CES 2015: The Show of Everything (SoE)

For a consumer-electronics show, CES 2015 was noticeably shorter on traditional consumer-electronic products than in previous years.  Enterprise solutions – such as automotive electronics and displays –  received as much attention as TVs.

by Ken Werner

WITH 170,000 registered attendees, the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year was once again the biggest in history, but the show feels increasingly strange.  For an event that is nominally about consumer-electronic products, a surprising number of the products shown were not for consumers – and many were not primarily electronic.

Cars, batteries, and electric appliances, both small (as in personal-grooming products) and large (as in home appliances), were just some of the products on exhibit that did not fall under the traditional “CES” umbrella.  Some of these products (cars, appliances) had displays; some did not.  A significant portion of Panasonic’s booth was devoted to a men’s grooming salon where male attendees were being barbered for free, with Panasonic grooming devices.  Not far away was a beauty salon, where female attendees were being beautified, again with Panasonic products.  Samsung, LG, and others showed stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, and dryers.

Panasonic also emphasized batteries, promoting the huge battery plant it is building near Reno with Tesla Motors, which Panasonic called “the largest investment in electric automotive technology anywhere.”  Also in Panasonic’s booth was the new Tesla Model X crossover SUV, which has a 0–60 acceleration time of 5 sec and a very large center-stack display Fig. 1.


Fig. 1:  Tesla’s new Model X, shown in Panasonic’s booth, contains an impressively large center-stack display.  Photo courtesy Ken Werner.

Panasonic certainly was not hiding the industrial thrust of its exhibits.  At the company’s big press event at the beginning of the week, the company proudly announced it is the “Number 1 supplier of Li-ion batteries for automobiles” and “the Number 1 supplier of automotive infotainment systems worldwide.”  If there was any doubt about the direction Panasonic is pursuing (outside of grooming products), company executives removed it by saying, “You will increasingly see Panasonic create enterprise solutions as our B2B business grows.”

Consider the energy with which TCL, Hisense, and other Chinese TV set-makers are entering the North American market with sets carrying their own brands, the retreat of Toshiba from the North American market, Sharp’s licensing of its brand to Best Buy for the 2K part of its TV business, and JVC’s licensing of its direct-view North American TV business to AmTRAN; and then consider Panasonic’s statements.  It is reasonable to speculate that Panasonic will be the next company to drop out of the consumer TV business.

Automobiles, and Some Electronics

Not many years ago, the North Hall at CES looked like a compact version of the annual show put on by the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA).  The hall bristled with garish but beautifully executed custom vehicles, and the air pounded with powerful custom audio systems exquisitely integrated into those vehicles.  Some of the SEMA aesthetic could still be seen in North Hall this year, but the show’s vibe was more like a toned-down New York (or Detroit or Los Angeles) auto show, with the center of gravity shifted heavily toward vehicle manufacturers instead of after-market customizers.

A JVC Kenwood rep stated his company commanded 50% of the U.S. market for in-deck navigation systems.  The Model DDX9702S, in addition to sophisticated audio features such as time alignment and crossover adjustments, provides touch control, phone mirroring and control, optional wireless HDMI, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay.  Android Auto supplies Google Maps, music streaming, “Ok Google” speech recognition, and auto-optimized apps on the Android Auto site.  The DNN992 “connected DVD receiver with navigation” incorporates a 6.95-in. hi-res capacitive touch screen, built-in WiFi, a wireless link for in-car content sharing, and a “route collector” trip planner.  In the Kenwood booth was a McLaren 650S with its (presumably) Kenwood-based five-display digital cockpit system (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2:  How many displays can you fit in the cockpit of a two-seat car?  If you’re McLaren, the answer is five.  Photo courtesy Ken Werner.

FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) showed its RAM 1500 Eco-Diesel light truck.  Its large infotainment screen is approximately square and well-integrated into the center stack, but FCA’s main interest seemed to be its new U-Connect infotainment system that will present a nearly uniform interface across all of FCA’s global markets.  FCA’s primary interest seems to be the cost savings it can obtain from a (nearly) universal platform.

BMW was emphasizing its electric i3 and stunningly designed i8, along with inductive charging and a key fob for the i8 with multiple control and information capabilities via a small display.  The display can provide nuggets of information, such as oil level, battery-charge level, or remaining electric range, and you can code a central button to do something useful, such as flashing the headlights.  It will also tell you if you forgot to lock a door.  You can check the battery status of your i3 on your smart TV and plan your route before you leave your bed – if you ignore your sleep therapist and keep a TV in your bedroom.

In its large press conference on Press Day and in its booth in Central Hall, Sharp showed its IGZO-driven free-form displays, which feed both column- and row-driving signals in from the bottom edge of the display, so the rest of the display can be curved in various ways to fit the design for an automobile’s instrument cluster, or a designer’s whim for other locations (Fig. 3).  Sharp has shown the concept at display-oriented shows, including SID’s Display Week last year, but presenting it at CES implies that Sharp is ready to roll the innovative displays out in volume.  Given typical automotive design cycles, it is unlikely we will see these displays in cars for at least 3 years, but see them we will.


Fig. 3:  This “free-form” automotive display from Sharp was shown at CES.  Photo courtesy Ken Werner.

Ford stated explicitly that CES is very important to them, and the company wanted to be accepted as part of the CES community.  A Ford executive suggested that Ford’s sizeable presence at CES this year is likely to grow.  Although other manufacturers may not have made that statement explicitly, several traditional makers of consumer electronics, Panasonic among them, implied that they were emphasizing their automotive electronic products.

The logic behind this is clear.  As consumer electronics continues to be a difficult business with low margins and many competitors, automotive electronics is a rapidly growing market with significant opportunities for innovation and profit.

Displays at CES

Despite the automotive distractions, there were still a lot of consumer-electronic products at CES.  A major trend in TV this year is the increasing commoditization of UHD (4K) TV.  The speed with which 4K has gone from expensive to cheap continues to surprise many people in the industry.

Quantum-dot-enhanced TVs are at the same stage this year as 4K was last year.  Many major manufacturers announced QD-enhanced TVs for release this year, including Samsung, LG, and TCL.  Unfortunately, they will probably be called “QD TVs.”  But we survived “LED TVs,” and we can probably survive “QD TVs” too (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4:  A TCL executive gleefully introduced TCL’s new quantum-dot-enhanced TV and the company’s relationship with QD Vision.  Photo courtesy Ken Werner.

Viewed side by side with conventional LCD TVs, the increased color saturation and gamut produced by QDs provide an obvious improvement in image quality and allow TV makers to exceed 90% of REC.2020.  Combined with 4K, QDs produce really compelling images.  Samsung went so far as to say that QD enhancement provides image quality that is superior to OLED.

In its suite, QD Vision had a side-by-side demo that went a long way toward providing credibility for Samsung’s claim.  The QD TV using QD Vision’s Color IQ optical element exhibited greater luminance and color gamut than the OLED TV next to it.  The QD TV could not match the OLED’s inky blacks, but one could make a credible case that the QD TV had a better image overall.  Not everybody will agree with that case, but it is defendable.

When LG announced its line of QD-enhanced TVs, its marketing people were forced to walk a very tricky tightrope.  On the one hand, the company said its new QD-enhanced TVs offer a huge improvement over conventional LCDs, that the new sets are beautiful, and that everybody should buy one – but they are not as good as OLED TVs, which is the technology of tomorrow.  That’s a tightrope on which they might not be able to balance for long.

Panasonic and Sharp were using non-quantum-dot phosphor sheets to enhance color gamut instead of sheets or linear elements containing quantum dots.  Panasonic described its approach in some detail, claiming up to 98% of the DCI color space (which is considerable smaller than Rec.2020) and high color accuracy within the space thanks to “professional-level 3D lookup tables” and “six-color reproduction.”  Strangely, Sharp was not straightforward about its approach, calling it “Sharp’s version of quantum dots.”  I would guess that Sharp will be moving to a true quantum-dot solution in the relatively near future.

This year QD will be for premium sets, with TCL saying it will have a UHD 65-in. set with QD for $3000 later in the year.  Next year, these sets will enter the pricing mainstream.

As usual, LG had a very large exhibit for customers, analysts, and the press in a hotel suite.  Of course, LG was featuring its mid-to-very-large-sized curved UHD OLED-TV panels, but I was taken by the flat 55-in. UHD OLED TV with its impressive pixel density and typical OLED color saturation and contrast ratio.  For those inclined to say at this point that you cannot see the difference between 2K and 4K on a 55-in. screen at normal viewing distance, I can only respond that the Snellen visual-acuity chart in your optometrist’s office does not begin to describe what goes on when you view moving images sampled by a fixed pixel matrix.  But that is the subject of another article.

LG had some good demonstrations of high dynamic range (HDR), which was a feature in premium sets promoted by all major setmakers.  LG, of course, argued that OLED technology is ideal for implementing HDR, but LCDs with local-area dimming and good algorithms can do very nicely.

LG also had a good 8K demo, with a 98-in. 8K set showing 2K, 4K, and 8K images on different portions of the screen.  To my eye, the subjective difference between 4K and 2K was obvious and impressive, but the difference between 8K and 4K was subtle.

Smart TVs are no longer exclusive to premium sets, and at least one market-intelligence firm said the market penetration is already at 50%.

Not surprisingly, LG was also promoting flexible OLEDs for mobile electronics and automotive applications.  The company also showed its “M+” LCD technology for commercial displays, which adds a white subpixel to each conventional RGB triad, with signals converted from RGB inputs and optimized with a chip-based algorithm (Fig. 5).  An unusual feature is that the white subpixel is smaller than its RGB siblings.  The idea is to provide increased pixel density, lower power consumption, better color rendition, and higher luminance at low incremental cost.  Side-by-side demos were impressive.


Fig. 5:  LG’s M+ technology (in image at right) provides some of the benefits of QD enhancement at relatively low incremental cost for industrial displays.  Photo courtesy Ken Werner.

Materials and Components

You might not expect materials and components to be a major topic at CES, and on the show floor, they were not.  But with much of the electronic, and now automotive, world congregating in Las Vegas in January, it is an excellent opportunity for materials and component makers to rent hotel suites and meet with their customers – both current and potential.

Pixelworks introduced its “Iris” mobile display co-processor, which improves mobile display quality while reducing system cost, the company says.  Graham Loveridge, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Marketing and Business Development, says Iris is the world’s first mobile-display co-processor.  Many of Iris’s functions have been performed by television video-processing chips and cores for years.  But incorporating those functions and others in a chip that takes up sufficiently little space and consumes sufficiently little power for a mobile device is new.  Pixelworks calls the display performance that results from Iris processing “True Clarity.”

One of the more obvious things Iris does is up-convert mobile-display video from 15 or 30 frames per second (fps) to 60 fps.  In side-by-side demonstrations in the suite, this provided motion images with far less judder, much smoother scrolling, and motion that had much less blur.  This should not be a surprise since we have seen the same evolution in large-screen television, and Iris uses motion estimation and motion compensation (MEMC) algorithms to do its work, which is also used for TV.  Loveridge said that Iris is unique in that it does MEMC without producing a halo around moving images.

Pixelworks also claims enhanced colors and wider gamut through the use of a 3-D look-up table, better contrast, better high-ambient visibility, and custom color tuning.  The color tuning, Loveridge said, can be used to make sure that all displays in a production run look the same.  But more than that, the OEM can buy displays from different manufacturers and tune them so they all look alike.

What is surprising is that all of this can be done with a power reduction of roughly 25%.  Some of the savings come from the Iris chip off-loading functions from the GPU and CPU and performing them more efficiently.

Because the Iris chip permits savings elsewhere in the display electronics, it can save $6 on panel cost, says Loveridge.  The power savings permit a smaller battery, which can save another $2.  Depending on order size, the chip can be had for less than $6.  So, says Loveridge, “if a manufacturer is savvy he can improve system performance and simultaneously lower cost.”

TV-quality LCD cells are increasingly common in mobile devices.  With the addition of TV-quality video processing, it will be even more appealing for viewers to do more of their movie and “TV” viewing on mobile devices.

Quantum-Dot Makers

Nanosys:  Jason Hartlove, CEO of Nanosys (Milpitas, California) says Samsung has licensed Nanosys’s cadmium-free quantum dots, which Nanosys has been developing under the radar.  The license agreement gives Samsung access to the Nanosys technology and specifies that Samsung will be manufacturing the dots.  In addition, Nanosys is ramping up its line in Milpitas.  Capacity is now 25 tons/year, enough for 10-million TVs.

Hartlove was understandably pleased that Samsung had a major demo in its booth comparing quantum-dot-enhanced LCD TVs to other technologies, including plasma and OLED.  Samsung’s conclusion, boldly stated in the booth, is that quantum dots are better than OLED for television.

This position represents a solid strategy for Samsung.  Samsung has abandoned OLED TV as not being a feasible high-volume technology, at least for the present, leaving LG in possession of the OLED field.  But it’s a field whose value is debatable.  By taking a strong position on the outright superiority of QD-enhanced LCD – rather than saying, as LG is, that it is the best technology until OLED is ready for the mainstream – Samsung is attempting to reduce the value of LG’s OLED field even more.  Nanosys’s media guru Jeff Yurek added, “We’re very excited by HDR.  OLED has troubles.”

Nanosys supplies 3M with the quantum dots it uses in its Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF).  (Although “QDEF” is consistent with the names of other 3M optical enhancement products, Nanosys actually owns the name.)  Hisense is using QDEF for its ULED TVs and is fully committed to continuing the film-based approach.  Changhong and LG are also using the film approach, as will Samsung when it begins manufacturing this year.

Hartlove said that QDEF sets are now delivering 90% of Rec. 2020.  Nanosys, working with Dolby and the chip vender, customized the dots to do this.  With a better blue filter, they can do 97% of Rec.2020, says Hartlove, and this has been shown in a demonstration unit.

Some vendors have spoken of “QD on chip” – putting the quantum dots directly on the LED chip – as the ideal solution.  Hartlove thinks there is lots of work that needs to be done before this can be achieved.  For Hartlove, the ultimate solution is the emissive quantum-dot display, in which the QDs are energized by an electric field instead of optically.  He feels this is more interesting than QD on chip.  The emissive QD display is sometimes called “QLED,” a name that has been copyrighted by QD Vision.  In the nearer term, Nanosys is aiming to make QD-enhanced systems cost-neutral.

Although Nanosys started out producing cadmium-based QDs, the company is now developing cadmium-free materials as well.  The underlying equipment is similar for both products, Hartlove said.  Cadmium is a bit more efficient and provides a larger color gamut, so it is needed for Rec. 2020.  Samsung’s new QD-enhanced sets will display the DCI P3 gamut, which is used for digital cinemas.  (Although generous, DCI P3 is not as large as Rec. 2020.)

QD Vision:  Steve Ward is the new Executive Chairman of QD Vision (Lexington, Massachusetts).  He was formerly with ThinkPad and Lenovo (until 10 years ago), was former CIO at IBM, and spent time with E Ink.  Advanced Development Manager John Ho says the company finds the QD-on-chip approach very interesting and that QD Vision’s quantum dots are particularly suited for the approach.  Ho says, as the company has said repeatedly in the past, that QD Vision has spent significant effort to make its dots more resistant to heat and luminous flux than its competitors’ dots because using the dots in the company’s Color IQ element, which sits close to the LEDs and experiences high levels of heat and flux, requires it.  These are just the characteristics, in enhanced form, that are required for the QD-on-chip approach.

Ho showed me a side-by-side demo of a QD-enhanced TV and an OLED TV.  The OLED set indeed had deeper blacks, but the QD-enhanced set was brighter and had a larger color gamut, while still having black levels that were quite good.

QD Vision is obtaining new customers for its Color IQ approach, says CMO John Volkmann.  The company believes the economies of this approach over the film approach will eventually result in it dominating the market.

Quantum Materials Corp.:  Steve Squires, founder and CEO of Quantum Materials Corporation (San Marcos, Texas), and Toshi Ando, Senior Director of Asian Business Development, wanted to talk about micro-reactors.  The continuous production from micro-reactors is much more economical than the batch processing of other manufacturers, Squires says.  “Continuous production is disruptive without a doubt.”

Late last year, Quantum Materials VP for R&D David Doderer said, “One continuous-flow microreactor can produce 100 kg of highly uniform tetrapod quantum dots/day, or around 30,000 kg/year.  Assuming a design that coats the entire display surface with QD film, this is enough to create approximately 10-million QD-LED TVs, outpacing projected market demand over the next few years.”  At CES, Squires announced the company is increasing its annual production capacity to 2000 kg beginning in Q2.

Squires thinks the QD-in-photoresist approach is very interesting.  In addition to displays, Squires is attracted to applications in anti-counterfeiting and lighting, and says there are so many interesting possibilities that the company must be disciplined and not try to chase too many of them.  “I think we are in an enviable position as a company right now,” he says.

ITO Alternatives at CES

There has been much development and even more talk about new transparent-conductor technologies to replace the brittle and not-all-that-conductive indium tin oxide (ITO), which has been the dominant display technology for many years and remains so today.

The most commercially advanced alternative is the ClearOhm silver nanowire (AgNW) ink from Cambrios.  Very-fine nanowires as small as a few atoms in diameter are dispersed in a carrier.  This ink is applied to either a glass or polymer substrate and can then be patterned.

In the Cambrios suite, CEO John Le Moncheck told us the market has expanded in the last half-year, as has Cambrios production.  In 2013, the company could produce 22,000 liters/year; in 2014, it was 175,000 liters.  The company announced that its collaboration with the chemical and electronic materials business division of LG Electronics had produced a production rate of more than a million units of AgNW touch panels per year.

LG is shipping large volumes of touch panels to Tier One OEMs in the U.S., China, Taiwan, and Korea.  Le Moncheck says that the use of AgNWs had “real champions at LG, who wanted to sell [touch sensors] outside the company.”  And the fact that LG already had a roll-to-roll manufacturing facility helped a lot.

The company also announced that CN Innovations (CNI), a company known for making touch sensors using laser technology with both roll-to-roll and sheet manufacturing, is delivering touch panels based on ClearOhm to Tier One OEMs.  LeMoncheck said that the laser patterning CNI is known for is hard to do with ITO, but is easy with AgNWs.

He also says that the single-layer film (GF1) touch sensors that can be made with AgNWs are very interesting to cost-conscious Chinese manufacturers whose products are targeted at the value end of the spectrum.  GF1 delivers a small amount of crosstalk, but it is well suited to value-oriented products.  Other architectures deliver higher levels of performance.  The two-layer architecture is effective for large displays.  One customer is making a 65-in. touch display.

Le Moncheck notes that the current “Jupiter” ink produces a little haze in the OFF-state in bright ambients because the ambient light reflects from the wires.  The new “Mercury” wires are thinner – only a few atoms thick – and these provide a “jet-black OFF-state in bright light.”  This allows Cambrios to go after high-end applications, Le Moncheck says.

In addition, the touch-sensor-maker TPK has a joint venture with Cambrios.  The JV is ramping up and could produce hundreds of thousands of units this year.

Le Moncheck notes that the capital equipment cost for AgNW-based touch sensors is perhaps one-tenth that for ITO.  Thus, he is hopeful that when sensor makers have to add capacity or replace worn-out equipment, they will turn to AgNW.  “A robust supply chain is in place,”  Le Moncheck says, “and AgNWs are the obvious technology to use for the coming wave of flexible devices.”

Cima NanoTech

This company takes a different approach to transparent conductors, using a conductive nanoparticle technology that self-assembles into a random mesh-like network when coated onto a substrate.  In addition to touch screens, Cima is targeting capacitive proximity sensors, transparent antennas, wearables, transparent microwave and EMI shielding, OLED lighting, and transparent heating.  In its suite at CES, Cima planned to showcase a 58-in. interactive tabletop and 42-in. interactive digital signage.  “For large-format touch screens to become a mainstream product, we knew we needed to provide a cost-effective solution that can be easily integrated and creates an engaging user experience,” says Cima CEO Jon Brodd.

Back in the laboratories, other approaches – including organic conductors and graphene – are being investigated, but it is technologies such as Cambrios and Cima NanoTech’s that will be leading the charge against ITO for the foreseeable future.

The Future of CES

So, what is CES?  CES is morphing from a consumer-electronics show to a show of everything (SoE).  It’s still a place to see consumer-electronic products that will appear in stores very soon, as well as display technology that has found its way into real products, but the focus has definitely broadened.  Given the commitment of its sponsoring organization, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), to growth above all, we can expect this evolution to continue.  Will CES evolve into a brontosaurus and eventually collapse from its own weight?  Many of us have been predicting that for years, but it has not happened yet.  •


Ken Werner is the Founder and Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, which specializes in the display industry, display technology, and display applications.  He can be reached at kwerner@nutmegconsultants.com.