CES 2010: The Challenge of Naming Technology

Consumer electronics technology evolves more quickly, more quickly, it seems, than the industry’s vocabulary. So this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has been full of vocabulary lessons—some for me, some for the folks in the booths. It’s all a little confusing right now, and I hope it gets sorted out before it has to get translated to those salespeople at Best Buy, and, in turn, to the consumer.

3D television is ubiquitous at the Show, and it will certainly be appearing on retail shelves this year. (I’m not saying that it will fly off those shelves to consumer’s homes; whether it will or not is another discussion. But people indeed are talking about it.

The moniker 3D itself; that’s easy. Manufacturers have done a good job of explaining the glasses; there are two basic kinds, passive and active. The passive kind are the type handed out in most movie theaters—they are cheap and disposable and have polarized lenses that are weird to wear out in the sun. The active kind has a battery and an on switch; that’s because they have little shutters inside that open and close rapidly. Whew, that was simple.

In the countless panels on 3D television’s rollout held yesterday, however, a few more terms distinguishing different technologies were tossed about—over/under and side-by-side. I finally pulled someone aside who explained to me that in 3D TV each standard frame is split into two to fit the 3D image into a standard transmission, then, when it arrives at the TV, the halves are displayed individually, stretched to fill out the screen. Over/under and side-by-side refers to whether the split is horizontal or vertical. (There’s also alternating lines, but that was more self-explanatory.)

Sometimes, the first term grabbed out of the vernacular to describe a technology doesn’t work out and needs to be replaced. Last year, TV manufacturers called their capabilities to display YouTube videos and the like widgets; this year the software formally known as a widget is now an App; unifying itself with the smart-phone terminology.

TV manufacturers also seem to be using a new tag for some of their LCD TVs; they used to call LCD’s backlit with LEDs just that, LCD’s with an LED backlight. Now they’re calling them LED TVs, reserving the LCD name for those backlit by fluorescent tubes. It’ll sound to the consumer like an entire new technology, not simply familiar technology with a different light bulb. But I guess that’s the idea.

In the picoprojector (those little projectors that can be built into small devices, unveiled at the 2009 show) and e-book fields, there are a variety of technical approaches that don’t have catchy names, however, I did expect the folks in the booths (at least those who aren’t hired demonstrators) to at least know the names. So I was a little dismayed when I was checking out the very cool Nikon camera/projector and the otherwise knowledgeable Nikon representative couldn’t tell me what type of projector Nikon had chosen for the device.

“It’s pico,” the representative told me.

“Uh, no,” I said. “Pico is a class of products. Pico is not a technology.”

He referred me to another representative, who he said was the technical guy who handles all the technical questions.

“It’s not pico,” he said.

Not pico is not a technology either. I started to excuse myself and move away, when they called to a third rep in the back. Did he have an answer?

“LCOS,” he said.

“Very good!” I finally had an answer. I left while rep number three was explaining Liquid Crystal on Silicon to reps number two and one. I do understand that this isn’t the greatest acronym, and consumers really don’t need to know exactly how it works. But OLED isn’t a great acronym and consumers don’t know how it works, but they know it’s an alternative to LCD, not some vague TV technology called flat.

Ten minutes later I was checking out a color e-book at Fujitsu, available in Japan only. It’s not a great e-book; it’s slow and dim. But it’s color, which other e-book technology, so far, can’t do. I was dying to know what it was. Not having learned my lesson, I asked the rep in the booth.

“It’s e-paper,” he said.

“No, e-paper is not a technology, it’s…..never mind.”

I left. I found out later, by the way, that Fujitsu is using cholesteric liquid crystal to generate the color; and you’ll learn more about that in the March issue of Spectrum.


Photo: Till Niermann

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