News Column

CES: Tech Stage Set for 'the Mother of All Trade Shows'

Jan. 4, 2013

Mike Snider, USA TODAY

Consumer Electronics Show

Over the years, some of the most successful home-electronics products -- the compact disc, satellite TV, DVD, high-definition TV -- have launched at the four-day extravaganza known as the International Consumer Electronics Show.

And while this year's CES in Las Vegas, already the largest trade show in the U.S., is expected to draw a near-record 150,000 attendees, plenty of attention will be paid to what -- and who -- is not in attendance.

Some of the most-popular electronics products in recent memory -- Android smartphones, Apple iPhones and iPads, Amazon.com's Kindles -- have hit the market without using CES as a launching pad. Apple has rarely been an official participant and will again be absent, although iPad- and iPhone-related products will be abundant.

This will be the first annual gathering without Microsoft playing a major role in nearly two decades. The software giant, which released its Windows 8 operating system in the fall, will not have a booth, nor will CEO Steve Ballmer be a keynote speaker -- something the company has done since then-CEO Bill Gates' first CES keynote in 1998. In the keynote slot this year is Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs, a signal of the importance that mobile technology plays at the show.

On hand, but not making any major announcements -- with a single meeting room each and no booth -- are Amazon and Google, two more companies behind many of the most-successful gadgets brought to market in recent years. Not registered: Facebook.

Still, many of those companies will have representatives participating in panel discussions and meetings -- and scouting the competition. Microsoft, for example, is sponsoring the show's innovations design and engineering showcase.

Despite some high-profile holdouts, the show goes on.

"A lot of manufacturers like Samsung and Philips and Panasonic will relax, and they won't have to be in Microsoft's shadow for once," says Richard Doherty, director and co-founder of engineering and research firm the Envisioneering Group.

This year's CES, which officially begins Tuesday, promises to be the largest ever. Its 1.8 million square footage is the equivalent of more than 31 football fields or 393 basketball courts -- with 3,000 exhibitors ranging from audio and speaker company Altec Lansing to tangle-free headphones maker Zipbuds. Also revved up for CES: a fleet of seven of the world's top 10 automakers, including Audi, Chrysler, Ford Motor, General Motors, Hyundai, Kia and Subaru.

An expected crowd of 150,000 compares with last year's record 156,000. About 20,000 products are expected to be on display.

Beyond the slew of audio, video and mobile devices, specific areas will be devoted to start-ups, green technology and digital health innovations. "It's not an overstatement to call today's CES 'the mother of all trade shows,'" says John Taylor, vice president of LG Electronics USA.

Televisions typically steal the show at CES. This year, TV makers are catering to consumers with smarter and better-looking sets. Smart TVs aren't new but continue to evolve despite evidence consumers aren't that enamored of them.

Only about 15% of HDTV owners connect their TVs directly to the Internet, according to The NPD Group. Many of those who watch services such as Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Video deliver them to their TV via other devices, including video game consoles, streaming-media set-top boxes and Blu-ray Disc players.

Regardless, smart TVs aren't going away anytime soon. That's because, "If you are not a smart TV," says Doherty, "you are presumed to be a dumb TV."

Among the products evolving is LG's Magic Remote, which gained voice recognition last year and will get improved voice functions. Viewers can ask the TV to look for programs featuring an actor or director and also tell the remote, "Switch to ESPN" or "Recommend something."

For example, it will show you Tom Cruise movies not only on your regular TV channels but from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other Internet sources.

Improved remotes

The new remotes will also be universal remotes that control your provider's set-top box, as well as your Blu-ray Disc player or DVD player. "The people who are really going to be able to stand out in this area are those (who) make it the most easy and intuitive for the user," says Tim Alessi, director of new product development for LG Electronics. "We don't want people to feel like their TV has gotten too smart for them."

Samsung boasts a more intuitive interface on its smart TVs that launches when you turn on the set. The new smart hub, based on user behavior studies from Samsung's smartphone division, will offer recommendations of current and upcoming programming, based on viewing habits -- and like LG's models, across standard pay TV programming, video-on-demand and services such as Netflix. "Our focus is on bringing that human experience back to watching TV," says Joe Stinziano, senior vice president for home entertainment at Samsung Electronics America.

Samsung, Toshiba, Westinghouse and Vizio will also join the TV makers offering new Ultra HD sets, which deliver four times the resolution of standard HDTVs. At 85 inches, Samsung's display (no price or release date yet) is slightly larger than 84-inch models that arrived in select stores last fall from LG and Sony, with prices starting at about $20,000 and $25,000, respectively.

Westinghouse plans to unveil a 110-inch display, while Vizio's first Ultra HD set will be a 70-inch display, due in stores during the third quarter. Consumer interest in larger displays is driving TV makers' move to Ultra HD, says John Schindler, Vizio's vice president of products for home theater. "To get the extra clarity that you would in a midsize TV, Ultra HD is going to be important." Also on display from Vizio is one of the holy grails of TV technology: a 55-inch glasses-free 3-D TV (no price or ship date).

As with the launch of the initial HDTVs, there's not a lot of true Ultra HD content available yet. However, Sony will have its delivery system with the higher-definition "4K Ultra HD" movies on display at CES and other new entrants are expected.

The range in TV sizes will continue to expand, says Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy. He expects to see a 145-inch Ultra HD display from Panasonic, as well as small handheld high-def TVs and tablets from several makers. These trends will make "for a more interesting show than in past years, when the buzz was centered around 3-D TV," he says.

TV makers will continue to exploit viewers' use of smartphones and tablets while they watch TV. TV makers such as Panasonic, LG and Samsung let you use your smartphone to control their TVs, but you can expect better-integrated use of second-screen applications to be announced, Doherty says. TV makers "know you've got them (and) want to make you happy with them," he says.

Other trends expected at the show include a higher profile for security and surveillance technologies in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Remote cameras and other applications "will be featured a little bit more," McNealy says.

Expect audio to get more attention this year. As HDTV displays get larger but have less of a bezel framing them, there's less room for TV speakers -- and most built-in TV speakers fail when it comes to a premium sound experience anyway.

That means a bumper crop of sound-bar speakers that can be mounted or sit below the display. And many sound bars will be able to connect to TVs and other products over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Near-Field Communication radio waves.

There's a growing movement for better-sounding music, too. Portable music players that go beyond CD quality music will be on display, as will better-sounding speaker docks and other portable music innovations.

Making noise

Many music lovers who bought premium headphones such as the Beats By Dr. Dre products "are ready for the next level," says Noel Lee of Monster, which manufactured Beats By Dr. Dre products for five years before the two companies parted ways last year. "The feedback we are getting is, 'What's next? How do I get to higher quality?'" Lee says.

Increased attention to audio could suggest a slight shift toward CES' past. During the early days of the electronics show -- the first gathering was in New York in 1967 -- audio ruled. Now, audio and video products commingle with mobile devices and electronics integrated into cars and kitchen appliances. The increased size and variety of products at CES "drives companies to be better and not be stagnant, and drives awareness with consumers," Lee says.

Part of the reason many major product releases are done outside of CES is that the tech world moves too fast for companies to hold their unveilings for the annual show, says Stinziano of Samsung, which will leave new smartphones for other venues. "The pace of the industry is so fast," he says. "It's pretty difficult to keep anything secret from anybody anymore. Also, a lot of the innovation comes out of some technology demonstrations that we will do or others will do."

Many companies now use CES as a sounding board or proving ground. As a result, there are more products floated at the show than actually hit the market.

For instance, those slim, splashy OLED TVs that were all the rage at last year's CES will be on display again. Although several TV makers expected to ship them late last year, that has yet to happen. Earlier this week, LG announced that its first OLED TVs will go on sale in South Korea next month with U.S. pricing and availability to come.

"The real frustration is that there is a high double-digit percentage of stuff that is shown (at CES) but doesn't ship," Doherty says. "It's a really popular stage, but it is so darn noisy and crowded right now that consumers aren't as able to trust it as much as, say, five or 10 years ago, as to where they should put their dollars for April and May and August."

As with tech advances, CES evolves. Even in the always-connected world, face-to-face meetings between product makers, buyers, investors and analysts still mean something, says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES.

"The show is not just about innovation and technology, it's about human relationships and evaluating something in a five-sense environment where you could shake someone's hand," he says. "It's also about the discovery of things and serendipity."

As for the show's post-Microsoft popularity, business couldn't be better. International attendance is expected to surpass last year's mark of 35,000, and the show floor is completely sold. "If we had more space, we would have sold it," Shapiro says.

Among the exhibitors will be game company Razer, a CES returnee that last year introduced its conceptual Project Fiona gaming tablet and returns this year. Before graduating to a booth on the show floor several years ago, Razer showed off its PC and video game accessories in meeting rooms.

"It's a great venue for launching new products, because all the right people are there," says company co-founder and CEO Min-Liang Tan. "It tends to give a forward look at what the industry is headed towards. It's still the most important show of the year."

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.


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Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013


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