Tech Preview: What to Look For at the Consumer Electronics Show

From 3D TVs to VOD-enabling 4G phones and iPad-killing tablets, an insider’s guide to gadget-crazed Vegas.

For a technophobe, the annual Consumer Electronics Show can be an intimidating place. But an enthusiast might feel a bit more like a small child who has been unleashed at FAO Schwarz.

There's a frenetic vibe at the show -- and millions of dazzling lights -- as more than 100,000 visitors weave their way through the crowded Las Vegas Convention Center to check out cutting-edge technology on display during the four-day convention, running Thursday through Sunday.

This year, the most closely watched product categories will include tablets, smartphones, connected TVs and 3D TVs. Topics that will be discussed are the macro trends driving the future of consumer electronics and entertainment -- whether you're setting up your home entertainment system or completing your studio's 3D development budget. Here's a sneak peek.



Expect stakeholders to tub-thump the 3D format. A growing selection of 3D-ready technologies are now on the market following CES's 2010 preview of 3D TVs, laptops, Blu-ray players and consumer cameras.

3D glasses, however, have been a sticking point. While a few select pairs have been announced for universal use, such as eyewear from Xpand, they're generally incompatible across all TV brands. So if your neighbors don't have the same brand TV set you do, coming together for a Super Bowl party might not be a practical idea. They're pricey, too, some running $150 a pair. This dilemma could change as companies have been working to identify a standard that will work with all major set manufacturers' systems.

But why use glasses at all? Industry veteran Peter Fannon, Panasonic's vp technology policy, suggests that glasses-free 3D could soon come in the form of handheld devices and digital signage -- though not yet 3D TVs.

"Most manufacturers would say a real no-glasses 3D experience on a large TV is many years away," he said. "We can demo how it could work. But it isn't comfortable or an acceptable situation. It requires [viewers] to sit perfect still [and at a single angle]."



The fourth generation of wireless technology will be front and center at CES.

"It means getting closer to a broadband-like environment on a mobile device," explained Shawn DuBravac, CEA's chief economist and director of research. "If one can get a broadband experience on a mobile, it changes what that person can do on the device. You could see changes in services being offered."

"4G really paves the way for wireless HD," said Edward Lichty, online VOD service VUDU's general manager. "It would allow us to leverage our strength in HD."

Still, there's room for debate as to the importance of 4G, as some technology veterans see it as simply an incremental speed improvement versus 3G.


Connected Everything

Imagine being able to access the Web anywhere, anytime, from any device. TVs? Connected. Phones? You bet. Tablets, video game consoles, Blu-ray players? Absolutely.

But that's just the start.

Soon, "other devices like outlets, alarm clocks and coffee pots [will be connected] as we build an 'Internet of things' they will do things on our behalf," DuBravac said. "We will start to see the first level of artificial intelligence integrated into these devices."


In-Vehicle Technology

Your car will soon be as connected as your office.

"The future is a vehicle that is connected all the time and information that is brought to the driver and passengers in a way that useful to them," said Jim Buczkowski, Henry Ford fellow and director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford Motor Co. That could means streaming entertainment to passengers or real-time information such as traffic reports to drivers.

"The move from 3G to 4G is a strong enabler," he added. "As the technology moves forward, so does our ability to provide more services to the vehicle" including WiFi connections and new apps.

The automotive sector is also looking at voice and gestural controllers as a safety feature.

"Voice recognition is probably one of the leading ways to reduce driven distraction," Buczkowski said. "At CES, gestural recognition is also becoming more important and that is creeping into automotive."


Gestural Interfaces

Picture yourself conducting your home computer the way Tom Cruise did as he used hand motions to control his in 2002's Minority Report -- it's in the not-too-distant future, experts said.

With product such as Nintendo's Wii game console, Microsoft's Xbox Kinect and Sony's Move already employing motion-based controllers -- tracking systems that use external camera devices and/or internal sensors -- the gaming industry is ahead of the curve. Word on the street, however, is that the technology is being outfitted for televisions and other consumer devices.

"Once demand is there, people will start to look at other solutions," DuBravac said. "We've only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms gestural-based controls."



With an estimated 17 million units sold worldwide and about 10.5 million sold in the U.S. alone, tablets were undeniably one of the hottest electronics trends in 2010. And though Apple's iPad was the dominant product (by some accounts commanding 95% of the market share), the tablet business continues to widen.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see 80 new tablets at CES," DuBravac said, suggesting that a variety of sizes and configurations should be expected.

"The success of the category is very new," he said. "How consumers will use the category is still undefined. Some tablets will probably be focused on specific use cases or environments (i.e. students, nursing, retail)."

VUDU's Lichty said: "In general, any device that can connect to the Internet will be somewhere we want to be. It's a safe bet you'll see partner announcements with tablets, around CES. A lot is going to happen."