Hollywood's CES Cheat Sheet: 5 New Tech Trends

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Another year, another Consumer Electronics Show. Here’s what Hollywood should be paying attention to as the tech industry’s bright lights start hawking their wares from Jan. 8 - 11 in Las Vegas.

1. It isn’t about Apple anymore

In the world of electronics hardware, Apple has been driving the bus for six years (about a century in technology time). Ever since it announced the original iPhone during (but not at) the January 2006 CES, Apple has owned the conversation when it comes to personal technology and digital media consumption. In 2010, just as the rest of the cellphone market began to catch up, Apple released the iPad, revolutionizing and remaking the tablet computing market. Now the rest of the industry has caught up again, with several manufacturers making very competent Android-based iPad competitors. More importantly, though, Apple has run out of frontiers. “Apple is not going to hijack CES like they have in past years,” says Dan Ackerman, an editor at CNET. “The phone and tablet markets have become mature industries, so there’s not the same level of excitement and newsiness that you had before.” This isn’t to say Apple will stop being successful, it will continue to be the BMW of technology, making beautiful, expensive, high-performance equipment. But it is no longer the only game in town.

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2. The bargain market will supercharge digital media consumption

Pretty much everyone who can afford an iPad already has one. The real movement for the next few years will be at the low end of the market as the next slice of the economic pyramid buys the new breed of competent and low-cost Android-based tablets. This is already underway, of course. Amazon’s Kindle Fire starts at $160 (for its 7” version with ads) and the Nexus 7 (a 7” tablet made by Asus for Google) can be had for $200. “We’re hitting that crossover point of functionality and price,” says Ackerman. “We’ll probably see a $100 tablet this year.” According to technology analyst and consultant Scott Steinberg, $100 tablets will “explode the consumption models. We’re already seeing online media consumption undergoing massive growth. A $100 tablet could be the accelerant that makes it go supernova.” Greater usage of streaming services is a natural outgrowth of this. “Tablets rely on expensive flash memory for storage, and cheap tablets don’t have much of it onboard,” notes Joe Brown, editor in chief of tech blog Gizmodo. “That means people are no longer carrying around their music and movie libraries. They expect to get that content from the cloud now.”

3. Meaningful second-screen experiences are still AWOL

There’s been a lot of talk about “second-screen” experiences — content on phones and tablets meant to be consumed while you watch TV. You’re likely to hear more of it out of CES. Indeed, it’s estimated that as many as 80 percent of people have a phone, tablet or laptop on hand while they watch TV, usually to browse the web, send email or engage on social networks. As Ackerman puts it, “people use the second screen all the time, just not the one provided by content makers.” Creators have taken this as a cue that they should be providing tailor-made experiences for their users that enhance the original content. If only they could figure out how to do it well. “There is not a single good second screen entertainment experience yet,” says Brown. This is not helped by the inherent paradox of the model: any engagement with the second screen pulls you away from the first. If people are already distracted, they engage with email, Facebook or the Web. But if they are super-engaged with the first screen, the second screen is a distraction. Brown’s solution? “The real opportunity is during the commercial breaks. Commercials are when people get distracted and drift to other things. Engaging them on the second screen could keep them from turning the channel, as well as encourage more live-viewing. Advertisers may squawk, but anything that keeps the consumer on the channel and in the room while the commercial plays has to be good for them.”

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4. Is Internet the new cable? The jury is still out

Cable revolutionized entertainment by taking us from five channels to 500. The Internet promises to take us from 500 channels to 500,000. If only we could get it into our living rooms. Recent years have seen a sharp uptick in the quality of content being made exclusively for the Internet. At the same time we’ve seen the release of a number of “over-the-top” boxes that bring content to the TV via your Internet connection. However, most of what is available represents an on-demand alternative to the fundamental proposition of cable, i.e. wider choice than network, but nothing approaching the wide-open horizons of the Internet. “There has yet to be a breakout product that solves this problem,” says Ackerman. “People tend to like what TV channels do for them, produce and curate quality content.”

5. Upgraded display tech is a red herring, for now

To hear the hardware industry tell it, it’s never not a good time for people to buy a new TV. In the past few years, 3D and “smart” TVs were the big-hype tech. This year it’s 4K’s turn, and you’re bound to hear a lot about it. But it’s a hard thing to get too worked up about — for now. 4K resolution only really matters in TVs larger than 70", and these will be quite expensive for a while. In addition, there is currently little in the way of content for the upgraded sets. Plus, according to Steinberg, “you reach a point where things are good enough.” Still, there’s an argument to be made that the atavistic spirit at the heart of the American consumer will ultimately make 4K a success. “People always want the next biggest, fastest, more hi-res thing,” says Brown, pointing to the sales success of 3D TVs. While 4K might be a win for the hardware industry, though, it’s probably not time yet to re-encode everything at higher resolution. Plus, there likely will be another drool-worthy technology at the show to satisfy consumers' gadget lust at least another year. For instance, gigantic, superthin OLED displays from Toshiba and Samsung will be dazzling showgoers with crisp, bright visuals coming from a chassis that’s just three credit cards thick.

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