CES 2011: The Big Stories and Trends

This year's Consumer Electronics Show was all about tablets, but it also saw superphones, cameras everywhere, and a reinvention of the humble eyeglass lens

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for

IEEE Spectrum

's "This Week in Technology."

More than 2700 companies, from one-person start-ups to Microsoft and Panasonic, showed their new products to 140 000 attendees, last week at the annual mega-convention known as the Consumer Electronics Show.

To be sure, not everyone is interested in the latest and greatest and instead will stick with the gadget equivalent of the rich and famous—an attitude that was hilariously satirized by an Xtranormal cartoon that was wildly popular on YouTube this summer when Apple's iPhone 4 came out.

Audio clip: What is that? Is it an iPhone? No it is that 4G phone on Sprint. If It's not an iPhone why would I want it? Well it's similar to an iPhone but has a bigger screen. I don't care. The Internet speeds are around three times faster. I don't care. It has a higher resolution camera on both the front and the back. I don't care. And it doesn't require you to be on Wi-Fi to use video chat. I don't care.

Steven Cherry: Here in the studio to sort out the best and brightest from the merely rich and famous is my colleague Josh Romero, who just returned from Las Vegas laden with gadgets, press packs, and probably more than a few pounds of hype.

Josh, welcome back.

Josh Romero: Thanks.

Steven Cherry: Josh, the big consumer electronics news last year—even bigger than the iPhone 4—was Apple's iPad. This year's CES saw an outpouring of Android tablets. Many of them have cameras, 2-megapixel screens, replaceable batteries. They take memory cards, and run flash, none of which is true for the iPad. Are we going to see some of that same consumer resistance that the makers of the Xtranormal cartoon were making fun of?

Josh Romero: Well, I think we'll have to wait and see a little bit. There are already rumors that Apple will come out with the iPad 2 this year, the second version of it—I don't know if it'll be called that. But, you know last year at CES you saw the hints at tablets. Big companies knew that the iPad was coming, they didn't know what exactly it would be, how it would do, but they knew they had to get ready and, you know, they didn't have anything ready by last year basically. Then the iPad came out, took the world by storm, sold way more units than I think people expected it to. And so this year finally you see the first alternatives coming out, but, you know, they're already playing catch-up. They're already, you know, one version behind. That being said, there were some really great looking tablets there.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, a lot of people are saying good things about the Motorola Zoom, and that's a company that could use some good news by the way. Was that your favorite or did you like something else?

Josh Romero: So the Zoom was the first tablet announced with Google's Android 3.0 operating system. Now Android up until now has really only been designed for phones. It doesn't really work that well on a larger tablet form factor. So getting a chance to see 3.0 it looked really promising, and the Motorola Zoom tablet looked really good. Now to be fair, all the demos we saw even though the tablet was running Android 3.0, they would only show as video demos of 3.0 running on the tablet. So even though it was actually running 3.0 we couldn't see that in reality.

Steven Cherry: Were there any other tablets that caught your eye?

Josh Romero: You know, one that's really interesting is Research in Motion's Playbook tablet. So they're kind of going in a completely different direction than everyone else. Most of the tablets you saw at the show were running some flavor of Android, whether it was 3.0, the tablet optimized version, or, you know, a skimmed version of Android 2.1 or 2.2 or, you know, Windows 7—you saw a lot of Windows 7 tablets. What made the Playbook different is it's running a QNX operating system, so this is a completely different direction than anyone's going. The QNX system really looked impressive in terms of performance; it could do real multitasking. They actually demoed it with a tablet simultaneously playing videos, running Quake in the background, and also pulling up additional applications at the same time. Real multitasking, not kind of application pausing or that type of thing, so that one was also worth looking at for sure.

Steven Cherry: You know, Josh we were talking about tablets and we end up talking about operating systems. We've mentioned Apple's IOS, and Android, and what RIM has got going on. We haven't talked about that little operating system company known as Microsoft…

Josh Romero: Yeah, there were a lot of Microsoft tablets there. To me the biggest problem with any of the Microsoft 7–running tablets is that it's not an OS that was really designed for a touch experience. So you saw some Windows tablets using styluses, which actually to me makes more sense. The ones without styluses—the problem is a lot of the applications that run on Windows, you know, the menus are very small and a fingertip size is not the most accurate pointing device. And so I'm a little skeptical about how fun it will be to use Windows tablets when you have to be so precise with your finger movements.

Steven Cherry: Now it's kind of weird you're talking about Windows 7. Microsoft has a mobile operating system.

Josh Romero: Yeah, and I think that's what a lot of us would like to see. If the whole idea behind getting a Windows tablet is to run your applications and stuff, you know, the Windows mobile operating system looks great and so I think that's what consumers would prefer to have.

Steven Cherry: Now the personal computer era was dominated by two companies, Microsoft and Intel. We've talked about Microsoft not looking so great. How's Intel doing?

Josh Romero: Well Intel has a particular challenge in that they would still love to push their Atom processors, and get Atoms into smartphones, tablets. So one strategy they have for doing that is with the Migo operating system, which is kind of a collaboration between Intel and Motorola. But so far the future of Atom in mobile devices is not looking so great. Microsoft announced at the show that they'll start supporting Arm as well. You just get this sense that in the mobile space people are just not that interested in Atom at the point.

Steven Cherry: A lot of people have walked out of CES saying that the big story was tablets and smartphones. We've talked about tablets. What's going on in smartphones?

Josh Romero: At the show, smartphones were again being slightly rebranded into superphones this year. In the January issue of Spectrum, I actually wrote a story about how smartphones were the most important technology to come out of the last decade. And you really see this evolution from a phone that can do other things to a full pocketable computer that, oh happens to connect to 4G networks and do voice calls and all the rest. So we saw a few phones that will have dual-core processors coming out. We saw a phone like Motorola's Atrix 4G, a really cool-looking phone that they've imagined as kind of the center of your whole technological ecosystem. So one thing that's cool about smartphones is they're very personal devices. You tend to carry them with you wherever you go when you have it. And as they get more and more computing power, it makes sense to leverage that not just, you know, as a handheld device but everywhere that you might want to use technology. So the Atrix 4G was demoed with a dock for a monitor so you could view it larger. There was also a laptop dock where it was basically just a dumb keyboard and screen and extra battery. And you stick the phone in the back and, hey it's already got enough computing power to do more than most netbooks, so why have a separate device when you've got all your data right there already.

Steven Cherry: Now the new smartphones, some of them will have dual-core processors, some of them will have dual cameras as well, right?

Josh Romero: Yeah, one of the things that really stood out to me this year is just the falling price and size of integrated video cameras. So almost every tablet we saw demoed had both a rear-facing and front-facing camera, which is kind of a luxury that you only do because the cameras are so cheap. You know, there's not really that much added cost to put one in the back and the front. You even saw when it comes to consumer point-and-shoot cameras where now you start seeing 3-D cameras. Well part of the reason they can do 3-D cameras is putting in a second sensor and lens system in just isn't that much more expensive.

Steven Cherry: Now with cameras in all of our phones and pretty good cameras at that, standalone cameras should be pretty much done with, right?

Josh Romero: Yeah, and I've been wondering what would happen to the Flip camera. You know when it first came out a couple years ago it was really revolutionary. You know, you could have a video camera anywhere you went, but now we're really starting to see not just cameras in phones but wearable cameras get a lot better. So there's a company called Looksee that has an over-the-ear video camera that basically looks like a Bluetooth headset, but once you arm it, it's constantly recording video. And if you see something good that you actually want to share you push a little button and it automatically sends that last 30 seconds of video to your smartphone that you can share with all your friends right away. And even more interesting, at the show they announced that they are actually going to support a life-casting service which is, you know, people have talked about this idea of life casting of, kind of recording almost every moment in a first-person point of view but we're really getting there.

Steven Cherry: Basically we've been talking about sort of an update year so far. Better tablets, better smartphones, better cameras…surely there must have been something at CES that was really new…

Josh Romero: The one thing that really captured my attention most was a pair of glasses actually. A company called Pixel Optics has spent over 11 years working on basically smart glasses. So at the touch of a capacitive button they will change the prescription from, you know, whatever your normal prescription is to kind of a reading glasses mode. And what was most impressive was not that you know these can change between two particular prescriptions—there have been other prototypes that have done similar things—but really the form factor of these glasses, if you see them on someone you would never guess that they weren't just a plain old pair of glasses. And in addition to having the power electronics that can switch the prescription back and forth and the technology that makes that possible, they even have a tiny accelerometer in them, so when you're looking out straight it knows you're looking for distance, then when you look down at a publication or book in your hand it will switch into reading mode. And furthermore if you flip them upside down and lay them on a table they'll shut off to save power. Not to mention they go in a rechargeable dock where they recharge contactlessly.

Steven Cherry: Do you have any clue what glasses like that are going to cost?

Josh Romero: I was told there would be about a 30 percent premium over today's high-end transition lenses. So they will definitely be more expensive, but we're not talking orders of magnitude here.

Steven Cherry: That's terrific. Well thanks a lot Josh.

Josh Romero: Thanks.

Steven Cherry: I've been speaking with my colleague, Spectrum Associate Editor Josh Romero, about the new generation of tablets, superphones, and super-eyeglasses, and other shiny new gadgets being shown at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

For more gadget news, check out our complete coverage of the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.

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