What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? In the case of the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, what happens in Vegas is likely to end up in your living room.
What began in 1967 in New York City with a mere 200 exhibitors and 17,500 attendees has exploded into an annual geek pilgrimage drawing 140,000 attendees from 81 countries.
Try keeping a lid on that.
The show, once an industry-only event, now overflows with consumers looking for glimpses of the latest, greatest, coolest and newest gadgets and gizmos. Hide your bowl of cereal — anything that snaps, crackles and pops is fodder for sellers, buyers, journalists, bloggers and fanboys.
"It was insane. It was extremely busy," said Ryan Gustafson, president of Screen Innovations, an Austin company that manufactures screens for home-theater projection systems. "We were waiting in lines for over an hour pretty much anywhere you wanted to go. I haven't seen it like that in years." In fact, attendance numbers haven't been this high since 2008.
Gustafson attends the event annually, exhibiting his company's wares, including Black Diamond, a screen technology that allows home-theater projectors to be used in any lighting environment, not just dark cubbyholes or special screening rooms. Gustafson is happy to negotiate the CES crowds as long as all of those people start buying, he says.
Exactly what they'll be buying is up in the air. No revolutionary TV-related announcements or technologies emerged from this year's event, just incremental improvements in (or adjustments to) tech gear that could already be in your living room.
Introduced with much fanfare at the 2010 CES, 3-D TV hasn't exactly caught fire, at least partially due to the newness of the technology, the lack of 3-D content and the soft economy — new technology is not cheap. But that doesn't mean it's going away. Manufacturers of home 3-D devices continue to push the technology, even as they find themselves caught in a format war.
The original 3-D-capable televisions introduced at last year's show employed active 3-D, a technology backed by Sony, Mitsubishi, Panasonic, Samsung and Sharp. The glasses that must be worn to view 3-D content on these sets consume power and have shutters that open and close quickly, alternating the images to the left and right eyes to create the immersive effect. The glasses have their drawbacks: They are expensive — about $100 per pair — and heavy, and models from certain vendors are incompatible with TVs from other vendors. Still, active 3-D delivers the most high-resolution, realistic experience.
Passive 3-D, backed by LG, Vizio and Toshiba, uses the type of lightweight, disposable polarized glasses familiar to moviegoers. The picture quality is not as good as active 3-D, providing a resolution just above DVD quality, but pricing for the sets — a flurry of them were announced this year — might not be much higher than that of current 2-D models.
Technology moves quickly, and the big news this year is a third addition to the 3-D market that might soon render both of these technologies obsolete. Gustafson said a Sony prototype with this technology was the coolest thing he saw at the trade show. "They showed a 2,000-by-4,000 resolution 60-inch flat panel that was multilayered to where you could actually watch 3-D with no glasses," he said. "That was cool. The image quality wasn't as good, but it was a good start."
As Gustafson points out, glasses-free 3-D is not quite ready for prime time. The 3-D effect degrades as the panels get larger, and the viewer needs to be at a certain distance and angle to experience the optimum 3-D effect. And the technology carries a warning: Nintendo recently advised against allowing children younger than 6 to use its upcoming glasses-free Nintendo 3DS, warning that developing eyes could be permanently damaged by the effect (although it can be argued that the same holds true for any 3-D technology). Still, Toshiba, which also demonstrated this technology at CES, plans to have a consumer model out this year, according to website Ars Technica.
Gustafson thinks the industry is going to keep pushing 3D technology, despite its slow adoption. "I personally don't enjoy watching it at all. It gives me a headache," he said. "But overall, I think it's kind of a buzz and I think that people will want to make sure their TV has it, but I'm not going to necessarily say that they're really going to use it."
Sonny DiFranco, of Home Theatre Guru in Bastrop, agrees. He skipped CES but regularly attends the more exclusive Consumer Electronic Designer Installer Association Expo, held each fall. "I must admit that I'm not — at least not yet — a big fan of 3-D in the home, so I'm not promoting that to clients, though of course I would work with any who wished to go in that direction," DiFranco said.
He might have to if Jacob Atkinson of Melodic Vistas Consulting has an accurate characterization of CES. Atkinson, whose Round Rock company advises builders and consumers who are looking to get the biggest bang for their home-theater bucks, described the 3-D push at this year's Expo as "aggressive."
"There are going to be a lot more 3-D channels," Atkinson learned at CES. "HBO's going to have a 3-D channel; ESPN, of course, already has their 3-D channel. They said there were going to be at least 10 TV channels with 3-D probably before the end of the year, maybe more."
Time Warner Cable, Dish Network and DirecTV all offer limited 3-D programming. As more content becomes available and 3-D technology is built into more televisions, you're probably going to end up with it whether you use it or not.
Other TV-related CES items
Mobile TV: Manufacturers showed a couple of dozen gadgets for receiving mobile television, according to the Wall Street Journal. Dedicated mobile TV devices such as tablets, or mobile-TV-enabled devices such as iPads and iPhones with special attachments, can receive digital broadcast signals and show live TV on the go. The paper says that only 50 stations across the country broadcast a DTV signal. Local ABC affiliate KVUE tested the technology in 2010 in conjunction with Dell.
Projection TV: Advancements such as Screen Innovations' Black Diamond technology expand the capabilities of home theater projectors. "Though these special screens are a bit pricey and are not perfect for every room, they offer the potential for many more homes to have a ‘real' movie screen installed without a dedicated light-controlled room being available," said DiFranco, who noted that quality home cinema projectors have dropped in price over the past 18 months, creating another option for those who might want a more cinematic experience than a flat-panel HDTV can provide.
OLED: Organic light-emitting diode is a type of screen technology similar to the LED (light-emitting diode) technology currently used along with plasma technology to create flat-panel television screens. But OLED consumes less power than LED, has a better picture and a very thin profile, Gustafson says.
Connected TV: More vendors announced HDTVs that connect to the Internet and allow users to access content directly from streaming providers such as Netflix and Hulu. Some of these devices will allow consumers to begin watching a show on the television and pick up where they left off on tablet devices or even touch-based remote controls with small screens. Others will include Web browsers. Developers, including Yahoo, are introducing apps and widgets that will allow viewers to obtain information related to the programming or commercials they're watching from the Internet.