International CES

Special Report: CES 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

The world’s largest consumer technology trade show is held in Las Vegas every January. Paul Dempsey reports from 2012 International CES.

Consumer electronics sales rising - but not in Europe

Consumer spending on electronics is set to top $1tr for the first time in 2012, according to global research group GfK and the US Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), but there will be a decline in Western Europe.From an estimated $993bn in 2011, spending is expected to rise by 5 per cent worldwide to $1,038bn, with emerging markets the ‘locus and focus’ of growth.

Steve Bambridge, Global Business director at GfK Boutique Research, said the Western European decline was partly attributable to the falling value of the euro, but added: “Several economies are in deep trouble, even the (non-euro) UK. Retail spending is taking a real hammering.”

GfK/CEA is forecasting a 3 per cent fall in western European spending this year, after modest 2 per cent growth last year. “And if Europe continues to weaken, it could be significantly below that,” Bambridge warned.

This concern was shared by several exhibitors at the 2012 International CES. Mostly privately, they said they are switching their prime marketing efforts to emerging markets and North America.

Justin Kim, design director with Uncle Oswald is My Hero, an Anglo-Korean venture converting unrecyclable bakelite telephone handsets into Bluetooth speakers, was one of the few willing to go public.

“We’ve been marketing in Europe for a while now but the market has got tough and we are emphasising the USA this year,” he said. “We have a source for the handsets and we think we can do better there now.”

However, US growth is also expected to be comparatively modest. In his CES keynote, CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro released a 2012 forecast of 3.7 per cent growth to $202bn.

Corel and AMD achieve multi-core performance leap

Imaging software specialist Corel looks to have secured a major performance breakthrough for programming running on multi-core software.

At CES, the company launched AfterShot Pro, a managing and editing suite for the RAW image files produced by digital SLR cameras. The key metric for what is, admittedly, a niche application is that the programme can process a RAW image in 1.77s on a single-core system, going down to 0.128s for one with 16 cores. This is at least eight times faster than current rivals.

The extra performance is the result of a collaboration between Corel and chip vendor AMD. While multi-core systems do speed up almost all programs, it has long been felt that they still have a lot of headroom.

There are no industry-standard schedulers for multi-core, and Corel wrote its own to get the performance boost. The company wants to use this knowledge across future generations of other products.

4k video making steady progress

Many observers remain sceptical about the proposed upgrade from 1080p HD resolution to 4k, but the technology could emerge from CES claiming solid pre-retail progress.

The most significant announcement was from JVC which, although made at the show, was not really aimed at consumers.

The company has developed a handheld 4k video camera that it will sell for around $5,000. By comparison, other recent 4k launches have all been above $20,000.

“The GY-HMQ10 is a breakthrough product that opens up 4k imaging to users who previously wouldn’t have considered it,” said Edgar Shane, general manager of engineering.

Although most cameras are today rented rather than bought, the price drop will, as Shane suggests, make 4k content generation much more viable for Web-only video and academic production in addition to full professional broadcast.

More users will mean more content and more content will help to drive 4k into the broader market.

The camera uses JVC’s Falconbrid high-speed signal processing chip and can output 3840x2160pi images in real-time at 24, 50 or 60fps.

Sony, which has so far put the greatest emphasis on 4k’s consumer possibilities, has now begun public demonstrations of a 4k projector targeting a display image of more than 4.5m. According to Phil Molyneux, chief operating officer, installations of its 4k movie projectors have now passed 10,000.

Meanwhile, even 4k might not be the end of this game. Sharp, in conjunction with Japanese broadcaster NHK, had the world’s first 8k Ultra HD LCD display on its CES stand.

Social networking set to drive TV market growth

Tablets will be the star of 2012 with near 60 per cent growth forecast, but leading consumer electronics players still want the TV to drive medium-term growth through better display technologies, more apps and 3D.

They need to refresh an HD display market that, according to the GfK/CEA data, has reached near saturation in developed countries. LCD sales are expected to grow just 2 per cent worldwide this year.

The most visually arresting launches at CES were organic-LED (OLED) displays from Samsung and LG, both at 55in and priced around $8,000.

Sony unveiled Crystal-LED technology, which uses LEDs at the front of the display rather than in the backlight. It has reduced OLED development because of concerns over manufacturability.

LG’s OLED took best-in-show, but Samsung’s rival offering was also lauded. Both firms screened 2D and Samsung ran 3D footage from Thai flood relief efforts at the concurrent Storage Visions conference. Thinness is also a big factor: the LG is less than 8mm, the Samsung less than 16mm.

Apps and 3D are seen as driving mass-market sales today, given the yield-based challenges in reducing OLED costs.

A bigger drive will be the integration of TV viewing with social networking as OEMs look to capitalise on mushrooming growth in tablets. CEA research found that consumers tend to use tablets more in the home than as mobile devices.

Justin Timberlake and Tom Hanks gave some celebrity glamour to the tablets-to-TVs apps trend. Timberlake, now co-owner of MySpace.com, announced availability on Panasonic displays for MySpace.tv. This will give big-screen access to the site’s traditional music content but the firm is also seeking interactive deals with broadcasters.

“We’re going to take television and entertainment to the next step by upgrading it to a social networking experience,” Timberlake said. “Why text or email friends to talk about favourite programmes after they’ve aired when you could be sharing the experience with real-time interactivity?”

Meanwhile Hanks launched Digital City, his animated Web-only TV show that forms a tentpole for the roll-out of Yahoo Broadcast Interactivity. It will feature on Sony’s Bravia TVs.

At least a dozen start-ups are chasing the integration of TV and social networking. They want to insert themselves ahead of giants such as Facebook and Twitter. Display makers see new-generation apps as an opportunity to build deeper online content stores to rival iTunes, particularly while Apple remains outside the traditional display market.

Finally, 3D continues to mature. Panasonic launched a glasses-free panel in the 20-24in range, but acknowledged that it will be primarily for medical use. All major manufacturers had glasses-free concept displays in the 40in range and Sony unveiled a Vaio PC for 3D gaming that uses laser triangulation to adjust the image to movements of the head.

CES Top Five

Intel announced its first smartphone chip customers, Lenovo and Motorola Mobility (being acquired by Google). Both will use the new Medfield generation of Atom processors, which claim to give a fortnight of standby, seven hours of speech and eight hours of video time from a single charge. Finally, a proper challenge to ARM. However, Ultrabooks will be Intel’s main marketing focus in 2012 as it throws as much behind the ultra-thin laptops as it did behind the Centrino launch.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet may be selling at the rate of one million a week, but content providers unanimously described Android-based apps as big development losers last year. A panel with representatives from News International, Time and CNET agreed that having to develop content for different OEMs’ bespoke flavours within Android had been a waste of time and effort due to disappointing hardware sales. At a separate CES event, US chief information officer Steven VanRoekel said he feels the same. To control federal software development costs, he would like to see app development coalescing around HTML5 with small wrappers for each device family.

Picoprojectors is one of those markets that had never seemed likely to happen but suddenly there’s a demand to get higher resolution (720p+) content off mobile devices. US firm MicroVision claims not only to have the resolution but also a system using sensors that allows you to display and then manipulate the images with your hand on the projected material. It calls the system PicoMagic and says it could be as appealing to parents whose kids want second TVs as road warriors who want to throw a PowerPoint on a wall.

Gear4’s Sleep Clock is an interesting example of medical technology being moved into the mainstream. Its use of a Doppler radar to track your sleep patterns has been available to hospitals for a decade, but the company has linked the analysis to an iPhone app that can tell you what quality of doze you are getting. You can even set the clock to wake you up within certain time bands, typically 30 minutes, and it will pick the point that best suits your sleep needs based on records to date.

Ford is developing a new type of ‘green zone’ to help hybrid vehicle owners get the most efficiency out of their cars. The idea is that you predetermine areas where you would prefer your car to run on electric – perhaps there’s a lower speed limit or another factor. Rather than running the batteries flat and then switching to petrol, the car can determine when each of the two modes is optimal and change between them to get maximum mileage. In keeping with a new trend towards ‘invisible’, non-distracting apps for automotive, the idea is that you set your zones once and then let the car do the consumption management.

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