Nearly six years after Apple's iPhone turned the smartphone into a hub of the high-tech universe, mobile technology continues to capture an outsize share of a trillion-dollar global consumer-tech market. But this year's Consumer Electronics Show, which opens here Tuesday, demonstrates that the focus on mobile apps hasn't slowed innovations of every variety.
Reports on the eve of CES 2013 showed that spending on smartphones and tablets continued to surge everywhere in 2012, even as Europe struggled with a recession, U.S. growth sagged, and sales of single-function devices such as cameras and GPS units slumped -- cannibalized by the growing capacities of apps on mobile devices.
But sneak peeks of the massive exhibition offered to some of 5,000 media representatives expected from around the world showed that energy and investment continue to flow to all sorts of innovations and devices -- some designed to work with or enhance mobile technology, and others to stand on their own.
One stand-alone device showed off by Lenovo could literally double as a table, if you added legs. The Chinese company that acquired IBM's personal-computer business seven years ago is pitching what it calls its first "interpersonal computer": the Horizon Table PC, a 27-inch device designed to lie flat and allow several people to play games together.
Lenovo is also previewing a 39-inch version at the show -- large enough to cover much of a sizable card table. Both should be suitable either for fast-paced, multiplayer computer games or digitized versions of old standbys -- including a Windows 8 app version of Monopoly.
More and bigger are always key watchwords for the TV and home-entertainment sector, and this year's show is no exception. In televisions, the new new thing for 2013 promises to be "Ultra HD" television, with sets that meet a standard endorsed last year by the Consumer Electronics Association, host of CES.
At least 10 TV makers are using the exhibition to show off Ultra HD screens, which boast eight million pixels -- about four times the resolution of today's high-definition sets. But with prices likely to be as elevated as the standard -- LG Electronics debuted an 84-incher last fall at $20,000, and Sony offered one at $25,000 -- the new sets won't reach the mass market anytime soon.
"We are not expecting this to be a technology that ramps very quickly," Shawn G. DuBravac, chief economist and research director for the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a preshow presentation. Even by 2016, he said, he expects Ultra HD to capture only about 5 percent of the U.S. television market, and 2 percent globally.
Beneath the pricing stratosphere, there is still plenty of technology to impress -- including some at the other end of the size spectrum.
For instance, HzO is one of at least two companies displaying nanotechnology they say can make cellphones, smartphones, and tablets friendlier to clumsy consumer who drop their devices into puddles or, well, something worse.
HzO, based in Draper, Utah, demonstrated its WaterBlock technology by dipping working smartphones into water and other liquids. HzO describes the material, applied by manufacturers, as "an impermeable coating of bonded molecules sealed on electronic assemblies." It says WaterBlock will enable consumers to use devices worry-free "at the beach, by the pool, hiking, exercising, or working in inclement weather."
Protecting smartphones in all environments is increasingly important because, as DuBravac put it, the smartphone "has become the viewfinder of your digital life," and management centers for systems near or far. Devices on display this week will show smartphones operating everything from toy helicopter drones or balls to home-automation and security systems controllable from halfway around the world.
Thanks to increasingly affordable sensors built into the devices, such as high-resolution cameras, gyroscopes, and accelerometers, and to connectable sensors that can monitor such things as vital signs and fitness data, smartphones also serve as control units for a wide range of innovations.
But DuBravac said those same sensors, and the resulting rise in "sensor density," also opened the door for innovations that didn't have anything to do with smartphones or tablets.
For instance, a record eight of the world's top 10 automakers will be among the record 3,260 companies exhibiting at CES. DuBravac said sensors' ability to capture vast amounts of data were a key element of the technologies they would be showing off.
Sensors that can continually monitor a driver's posture could recognize how that driver might slump just before falling asleep at the wheel.
Ubiquitous sensors eventually help drivers not to have to drive at all. DuBravac said Google's driverless automobile, which last year logged more than 300,000 accident-free miles, "is nothing but a series of sensors connected to a traditional Prius."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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