CES: A Gadget Extravaganza

IEEE Spectrum editor handicaps this week's Consumer Electronics Show

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology." The Consumer Electronics Association's annual mega trade show starts January 5th in Las Vegas, Nevada. Every year, thousands of journalists spend much of November and December poring through thousands of press releases as though they were tea leaves, trying to discern the big trends for next year and where to spend their precious hours on a show floor that, if last year's numbers hold up, will have 2500 exhibitors filling 1.4 million square feet of exhibition space. One of those journalists is our own Josh Romero. He joins me in the studio today, eyes bleary from reading all those press releases, and shoulders probably already sagging in recollection of all the gear he carried there last year. Video camera, regular camera, audio equipment, laptop, smartphone, and this year maybe a tablet as well. Josh, good to have you back on the podcast.

Josh Romero: Nice to be here.

Steven Cherry: Josh, let's get right to it. Are the tea leaves telling you anything this year?

Josh Romero: Yeah, I mean, I think there's a couple things that are going to be big features of the show that are kind of obvious at this point. We're going to see a lot of tablet computers from a lot of different device makers, and the one thing that's always tricky about CES is that there's probably going to be some that are fully functional devices that'll actually be coming to market in 2011, but there's going to be a lot of stuff that's prototypes, reference models, those types of things. Even last year, people knew the iPad was coming out, and you saw companies trying to scramble and get things together and put out ideas of what a tablet could be. But when the iPad did come out, you kind of realized how far the other companies were behind.

Steven Cherry: Tablets are a big deal because they're in effect a whole new category, but CES is always full of surprises when it comes to traditional categories—cameras and TVs and GPS systems and music and you name it…

Josh Romero: Yeah, I think with cameras, one of the big things we should see this year is a lot more devices that allow consumers to shoot photos and video in 3-D. We had one consumer-purchasable 3-D camera that came out this year from Panasonic, but I expect that to be the kind of thing that every manufacturer has—at least their 3-D capable models now. And part of that's driven by a huge push by the consumer electronics companies to get 3-D TVs in homes. So if you've already bought a 3-D–capable TV, the idea would be that, you know, may as well be shooting your family photographs and home videos in 3-D as well.

Steven Cherry: There's a lot going on with TVs, and with the living room in general, there's sort of a quiet little fight for what device is going to be in charge…

Josh Romero: Yeah, this has been one of those long-term evolving trends at CES. I mean, every year you go, people talk about, you know, "living room convergence" or "media coming together on your TV," and so, you know, there's a lot of TVs with built-in Internet connections now. There's a lot of devices that are trying to bridge the gap, so you have things like the Boxee Box or the Roku player that are really built on a variety of other online video services, so Netflix, Hulu.…And so all these are kind of competing, but I think that it may be a lot of potential ways to solve a problem that a lot of people don't already need. I mean, to me, one of the best things that Sony and Microsoft did with their video-game consoles is they basically have established a foothold in the living room already. And the fact is that a lot of households already have these Internet-connected gaming devices that are certainly capable of delivering content. So not everyone is able to watch streaming video or Internet video on their TVs, but I wonder how much market there is still left to be claimed, because these video-game consoles are really quickly gobbling up all sorts of other content as well.

Steven Cherry: Well, now, that's an interesting thing. Between the video-game players and things like the Roku box, it seems like there are a lot of ways to move Internet content to the TV, kind of bypassing the computer.…

Josh Romero: Yeah, yeah, I mean, for a while I think everyone was talking about wireless HD as a way of kind of moving video signals around with the idea being maybe you have some HD signal on your computer and you can transmit it wirelessly across the room. But I really think that for most people, you have enough devices connected to your TV already, and many of them have Internet connectivity already, so you can buy a Blu-ray player with Internet connectivity, you can buy a PS3, which is a Blu-ray player as well, and like I said, a lot of TVs are coming with that baked in as well. So I'm wondering how that will kind of affect the home wireless area, as well, because that's kind of one of the big use cases for it. And if you don't need to move a bunch of content around wirelessly, then there's not as much incentive to make those devices really work.

Steven Cherry: And yet the reverse is also happening. There are devices—a company called Orb has one now—that will take anything that comes into your computer and just throw it onto the TV.

Josh Romero: Yeah, I mean I think that there's definitely a lot of different consumers that have different needs. So for instance, some people have multiple different TVs in different rooms. So in that case, obviously you're not going to have your PlayStation, your Xbox hooked up to a TV in each room, or you're not going to carry it around from TV to TV, so there are certainly cases where it makes sense to get content one place and be able to send it anywhere else within the system.

Steven Cherry: Last year it was easier to see things. You and I both saw, for example, e-books as one big trend, e-readers, and 3-D as another. I'm not sure we saw the iPad quite as clearly.

Josh Romero: No, I mean obviously one gaping hole in the kind of crystal ball of CES is that Apple doesn't come to the show. And so even then, though the iPad cast a very long shadow on last year's CES, it was certainly on the minds of competitors. That's why we saw, you know, even the tablet designs we did see, because people had an idea it was coming and were already worried. I think it still caught them by surprise, but I think Apple does tend to cast a bit of a shadow over the…

Steven Cherry: Do you think that'll happen again this year?

Josh Romero: Um, I think it's tough to say. I think it'll actually be difficult for other device makers to even this year compete with the iPad. For one, the operating system options out there aren't really…there's not a good alternative to iOS for tablet makers, so they can use Android—all the tablets we saw at CES last year were Android devices— but Google has said time and time again that current versions of Android are not really designed for a tablet experience. They can use Windows, but, you know, Windows is still very much based on a mouse-and-pointer type of interface and not really optimized for touch-screen devices. I'm a little skeptical that companies will be able to fight back yet.

Steven Cherry: You know, it takes almost maybe a half an hour to walk through all three exhibition halls even if you don't stop and look at stuff…

Josh Romero: I think you'd have to be running to make it through in a half hour…

Steven Cherry: What booths would you love to stop at that you probably won't?

Josh Romero: Boy, that's a tough one. I mean, there are a lot of things that I think are worth seeing that are kind of off the beaten path. I mean, everyone kind of wants to go to the big names, so the giant Microsoft booth or Intel booth and stuff like that. But I do like going to the pavilions that are set up for less mature technologies. At Spectrum we love covering robotics, and there'll certainly be lots of new robots this year that we've already seen press releases from, for example, a new massage robot that crawls around your back without falling off. But that's another area where you see devices at CES that are maybe great technologies, but it's very hard for those companies to actually get their products out on market for them to succeed.

Steven Cherry: And speaking of which, we sometimes do just see pure technologies being demonstrated. Is there anything on that horizon?

Josh Romero: There's always kind of the things that I wish would be there or would hope to see. I mean, I would love to see some great advances in battery technology, in maybe consolidating energy storage in general. One of my big problems in going to CES is, you know, I take multiple cameras and computers, and for each device that I take, I have to haul a different AC/DC converter. So my dream CES device would be something, you know, one thing that I plug into the wall and can plug all my DC rechargeable devices into. That'd be really handy because a lot of things can't charge off USB, and that's really the only universal charging option, so…

Steven Cherry: Josh, I know we're going to cut into your valuable CES time with a live podcast from the show floor. Are you going to be blogging as well?

Josh Romero: Yeah, we're going to be posting blogs. We'll be tweeting. We'll be shooting video of the most interesting things there, so we'll have coverage throughout the show and definitely check back to hear more.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So I guess instead of saying thanks and good-bye, I'll say thanks and talk to you soon.

Josh Romero: Sounds great.

Steven Cherry: We've been talking to Spectrum editor Josh Romero about what to expect at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

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