There’s a love-hate relationship with the Consumer Electronic Show, the annual celebration of digital delights and unstoppable innovation that engages Las Vegas with 150,000 rabid buyers, sellers and consumers. It’s the perfect mate for Sin City — equal parts overwhelming, inspiring and oftentimes ridiculous.
This year may be the most interesting in awhile because, by necessity, innovations are going in a vastly different direction than in the last decade. Instead of “specs,” the key word is “hybrid.”
The Race has Changed
This year marked the absence of both Apple and Microsoft booths from the showroom floor, with each company shunning the event in the belief they can each generate their own center of gravity. (They’re probably right.) With those companies out of the way, CES is now increasingly dominated by Asian manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Sharp and Haier that are happy to step into the spotlight.
2013 may well be remembered as an inflection point for the world of consumer electronics. For the first time in the modern digital era, there is no obvious “next step” for these companies in terms of multimedia innovation.
Consider that today, we have large LCD televisions, desktop computers, laptops, tablets, phones, media players and watches that are digital and intelligent. Pretty much any common form factor we’re used to holding in our hands or putting in our room has been digitalized and commoditized.
As for multimedia, our auditory and visual senses have been largely maxed out with megapixels and megabits, to the point where today’s high-fidelity audio and video is all the fidelity consumers really desire.
Digital competition over the last few decades has led to rich 16-bit (and better) audio, professional photos of dozens of megapixels, high dpi color printing, and rich high-definition video. Basically, the numbers and specifications race has largely ended, particularly in the megapixel count for photo cameras. We’ve reached the human factors limits for our eyes and ears, and the low-hanging fruit for these companies — upping the specs in digital products to entice that next consumer purchase — is over.
Is this utter blasphemy? Historically, it’s incredibly foolish to predict that we’ve reached some type of innovation end-point.
You risk being “that guy” — the one who’s quoted saying that “everything that can be invented has been invented,” or that “640 kilobytes ought to be enough for anybody.” (Nevermind that both of these have been debunked as non-genuine quotes. The myths live on!)
So while I’m not making an argument that innovation has stopped in its tracks, I am saying this: Compared to the obvious competitive megapixel race of the last decade, we’re entering into mysterious uncharted waters for tech innovation. This should be seen as a good and refreshing thing because it means we will start exploring wild and radical paths that were never tried before.
Pushing the Pixels
Now you may say, “You’re wrong. The escalation is still going on, just look at crazy CES and the marketplace.”
Is it, though?
Three years ago we saw an attempt to continue the visual arms race with 3D TV. I walked the CES showroom floor in 2010 and it was a bonanza of 3D television, riding on the wave of James Cameron’s “Avatar” movie that generated theater interest in blue, eye-popping 3D creatures.
But that didn’t translate well to the living room, and there’s been no significant uptake of the technology at home. For consumers, there were TVs with active glasses, passive glasses, and even with no glasses at all.
3D TV had a small burst between 2011 and 2012, but sales have been lackluster for the last few quarters. According to USA Today, the 2012 3D viewership numbers are so minuscule, “The Nielsen Co.‘s methods are unable to capture any meaningful data about viewers’ programming preferences.” 3D TV’s account for fewer than 6 percent of all sets. Not a great adoption rate over three years.
This year 4K video (aka Ultra HD) is an attempt to attract the buzz. The format promises four times the spatial resolution over the current HD standard manufacturers are trying to convince you is wimpy and inadequate: 1080P. But unless you’re watching on a 60-inch screen or larger, or moving your couch within two feet of the TV, you’re not going to see a difference between 1080P and 4K. In fact, it’s very likely most folks with expensive 1080 progressive flat screens aren’t even taking advantage of the current high-end features as it is. Complicating things as well — there’s no commonly agreed on standard format for delivering or storing that 4K video.
The truth is, history has shown high fidelity rarely drives consumer purchases. Just look at VHS and MP3. They’re subpar performers technically. VHS had a weak and wobbly 240 lines of resolution, using just half of the scanning capabilities of an analog TV. The MP3 audio format compresses music so much at the popular 128 kbps setting that cymbals often dissolve into a muddy crunch. However, the convenience of those formats made them market winners even when better alternatives were around.
What does this mean for consumers’ preferences? They’ve voted with their wallets for better user experiences. Netflix hardly has the best quality video, but what an instant library it has. The number of titles on demand at any time, on any device, makes the monthly rate of $7.99 a bargain to millions of users. Increasingly, people are viewing Netflix not on their living room TV sets as the company imagined, but on smaller screens — iPhone, Android devices and tablets on the go. Convenience over fidelity.
So if the megapixel race is over, where is the battle being waged?
The Hybridization of Everything
For consumer devices, the heart and soul of CES, we’re seeing the “hybridization of everything.”
After you’ve reached the end in the megapixel, HD resolution, display density race, you start moving laterally, across devices, capabilities, experiences and modes of interaction. And it’s in this cross-breeding process where you get some unexpected innovations. While these experiments are not always successful, it’s fascinating to see it unfold in real time as new players and concepts emerge.
Phablet, the phone tablet
This year may be the breakout year for the awkwardly named “phablet,” at least in the U.S. Call it a dinky tablet or a ridiculously oversized phone, the hybrid phone-tablet seems to have caught on.
To Asian users, this isn’t a new trend. For a few years now, in my travels across the Pacific, I’ve been fascinated by the men and women (but especially women) who sport massive touchscreen phones with 5-inch displays that have a tough time fitting into your average pocket. For Asian urban denizens, who typically spend 14 hours a day outside the home and on public transit, the phablet is their pocketable large-screen TV and Internet terminal. Their philosophy — splurge on the screen you have on your person, rather than the one that sits unused in the living room. It also helps that text input for Asian languages benefits from a larger form factor.
The U.S. is just starting to catch this wave. The Samsung Galaxy Note II is a massive phone that would have been laughed at a few years ago. But it’s gotten rave reviews from tech outlets and digital mavens. Why has the attitude changed? People realize their phone is now used for mostly un-phone-like things — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, web surfing, casual gaming, movie watching, texting. Using their phone to actually make voice calls is an increasingly small part of their phone’s life. Why not have a larger screen if 90 percent of what you do is reading, watching, tapping and interacting?
Android app-enabled, smartphone cameras
The Samsung Galaxy Camera debuted in 2012, and is the electronics equivalent of a mythical centaur — a peculiar-looking device made by grafting a smartphone to a high-quality camera and lens.
On one side, this device is an Android handset with a beautiful 4.8-inch LCD screen, Verizon 4G LTE and WiFi capability. Anything you find in the Google Play or Samsung store for an Android handset runs on this — social media, games, you name it. Flip the device to the other side, and there’s a full-fledged 16-megapixel point-and-shoot camera. Its high-quality optics can zoom to 21x, and you can go full manual, or aperture/shutter priority modes, just like you’d expect with a digital SLR.
With this device, forget about posting Instagram or Facebook photos from a wimpy mobile phone camera with a lens the size of a lentil. This true photo camera has a lens protruding from it that reminds you of a hockey puck. It can do high-dynamic range images and 120 frames-per-second slow-motion video.
Now, it’s not all perfect. This is still the first generation of the “smartphone camera” hybrid, so there are still kinks to be worked out. For example, fire up Instagram and you’re still stuck with the basic snapshot mode — no optical zooming or any of the fancy features provided by the camera’s smart shooting modes. (You can, however, switch the device into the full camera mode, take a high-quality picture, and have Instagram use that photo from your stored photos. However, this is rather cumbersome.) Because of this, there is still a schizophrenic dual identity with this device. But as these hybrids becomes more common, you have to imagine apps will find a way to more seamlessly tap into the power of the camera hardware.
Hybridizing Touch and Interaction
Take a 27-inch all-in-one desktop computer, lay it flat on a table, and make it touch-enabled for up to 10 fingers. You’ve got Lenovo’s IdeaCentre Horizon Table PC, which debuted at CES this year.
The ThinkPad maker’s new device is a realization of Microsoft’s original Surface “tabletop computer” concept that invites collaboration with multiple users huddled around the screen. Think digital board games or draggable photos and videos on a light table. The device even has a built-in two-hour battery so you can unplug it and move it to a quiet corner of your home, effectively making it a massive tablet computer running Windows 8.
While this is a neat technology demo, there doesn’t appear to be an overwhelming immediate use case. However, one has to imagine that as a platform for serious video editing, there are some folks at Avid and Adobe drooling about the possibilities.
Hybridization also drives innovation for interaction methods. Two technologies being shown at CES are pushing the envelope.
Leap Motion 3D makes gesture-based input with your hands possible by providing a sensor that tracks all 10 of your fingers without requiring you to touch a screen. Think of Tom Cruise in the movie “Minority Report” but doing it one better, because you don’t need any special gloves for tracking. The startup claims it gets much higher resolution than Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 and the device can work with existing desktop and laptop computers.
Touch interfaces are great, but tapping on a flat glass surface means you have to be looking at what you’re pressing. That’s changed, with one of the head-turners at CES — Tactus. Its technology can dynamically create raised areas on a glass screen to provide tactile feedback to the user. The demo had a virtual on-screen keyboard for a tablet device that provided raised bumps for each of the keys, but could also magically revert to an all-flat screen when typing was done. While this is a neat enhancement for your handheld device, it can be a huge boost for automobiles, where the tactile feedback of real physical buttons on a touchscreen means drivers can keep their eyes on the road and navigate touchscreen controls by feel.
Today, there are less obvious paths for hardware innovation, but that also makes it an exciting time.
It’s no accident that Samsung has figured prominently in this new hardware landscape, and Google, through the form of the Android OS and its many online services, finds itself in a position of strength.
The absence of easy low-hanging fruit (namely, chasing specs) has compelled companies to find other branches and go up the technology innovation tree. From there, they are seeing new horizons and making connections they never would have made if they had stayed on comfortable ground.
Photo of 3D TV viewing by the Nvidia Corporation on Flickr and used with Creative Commons license.
Andrew Lih is a new media journalist, and associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism where he directs the new media program. He is the author of The Wikipedia Revolution: How a bunch of nobodies created the world’s greatest encyclopedia, (Hyperion 2009, Aurum UK 2009) and is a noted expert on online collaboration and journalism. He is a veteran of AT&T Bell Laboratories and in 1994 created the first online city guide for New York City (www.ny.com). He holds degrees in computer science from Columbia University, where he also helped start the journalism school’s new media program in 1995. His multimedia reporting and photography of China and the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics has appeared in the Wall Street Journal.