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What to Expect at CES 2015 and Beyond

The big trends we expect to see in Las Vegas

4 min read
What to Expect at CES 2015 and Beyond
Photo: Britta Pederson, Associated Press Photo

CES 2014 Britta Pedersen AP PhotoPhoto: Britta Pederson, Associated Press

At the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, there will be a sea of new devices and gizmos jostling for our attention. Many of them are simply the latest iteration of established technologies, but other newcomers represent emerging trends that are likely to influence entire categories of products—and even help forge new categories.

Some of the things I will be paying special attention to include announcements related to 4K televisions.  The increasing availability of 4K content for these TVs (thanks in part to the creation of compression technology that allows such high-resolution video to be transmitted via broadband Internet connections) is helping to stoke demand. In turn, this is driving costs down. Consequently, 4K televisions are beginning to enter the mainstream.

However, the “full scale” 4K experience—with, for example, higher-quality audio to accompany the jump in picture resolution—will likely only be available in high-end products subject to hefty pricing premiums. For the technically inclined, it looks like it will be more cost effective to assemble one’s own system from separate components, such as a 4K display and a 3rd party audio system, at least for now. And I’ll also be looking to see how 8K televisions are edging towards their turn on stage.

The progress in OLED TVs will also be something to watch closely. Last year saw the first curved OLED televisions—progress in such conformable screens could lead to the days when virtually any surface could be host to a display.

Staying on displays, virtual reality systems are of increasing interest, and as the world still awaits the release of a consumer version of VR Oculus’s Rift, I expect to see competitors at CES looking to steal a march on Oculus. VR Oculus may have pre-empted some challengers with its partnership with Samsung to create the entry-level Gear VR headset, which uses a Galaxy Note 4 in place of the Rift’s custom-built display, but how the various systems look and feel in practice will be important to experience.

Wearable computing will have a big presence, although one still firmly rooted in the technology’s origins in the health and fitness market. It remains to be seen if devices such as activity trackers can really make a positive impact on the health of wearers, and the ultimate solution may not lie in the tracker’s hardware, but in how well the accompanying software successfully motivates people to change for the better. So CES watchers should be on the look out for clever programming that can really leverage sensor data to induce healthier behavior.

In smartphones, some of the most interesting developments may be found not in the phones themselves, but in the accessories on offer. Traditionally, accessories are generally classed as just bling, but increasingly accessories are providing vital additional functionality. For example, phone cases with built-in batteries are already essential for getting through the day if you are using any power-hungry apps. Accessories which offer completely new capabilities will be worth keeping tabs on: in an organic version of the modular vision of Google’s Project Ara, the smartphone is becoming just the central processer around which users can customize their own mobile hardware.

Related to both smart phones and wearable computing is the Internet of Things, a sensor-rich, constantly connected constellation of devices. The basic technology has been available for a few years, so what will be of interest are new applications—one thing that I’ve been surprised not to see at previous CES’s are games that rely on Internet of Things technologies, so this may be the year.

The downside of the Internet of Things is that it could leak a lot of personal data about users. Products that can demonstrate that they can successfully aggregate and anonymize data may find an edge with consumers buffeted by a string of very public hacks on supposedly private and secured data.

Looking even further ahead, CES is followed by a partner IEEE event, the 2015 International Conference on Consumer Electronics organized by the IEEE Consumer Electronics Society.  The ICCE Conference aims to give a view of the future of consumer electronics 5 years from now or later.  The 2015 conference theme is “The Future of HealthCare.”  In addition to conference sessions covering future technologies to keep us well, and prolong our ability to be productive members of society, there will be a number of sessions on a number of other technology topics, as well as the second occurrence of a special IEEE Future Directions Convergence Event.

The IEEE Future Directions Convergence session on January 9, 2015 will focus on how Big Data will affect consumers. Included on this special session are Charles Despins, President and CEO of Prompt, Inc, a Canadian university-industry R&E consortium focusing on information and communications technology; Steven Collier, Director of Smart Grid Strategies at Milsoft Utility Solutions; Ling Liu, Professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, focusing on research on distributed data intensive systems; William Tonti, formerly at IBM and currently Director of IEEE Future Directions; May Wang, Associate Professor in the Joint Department of Biomedical Engineering, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Winship Institute, focusing on biomedical big data analytics and Kathy Grise, IEEE Future Directions Program Director.

Also at the ICCE conference there will be a special session on the Internet of Things as well as a keynote talk by Shuji Nakamura, a winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the blue laser, an important device in many consumer products.  Other ICCE sessions will talk about next-generation compression technology for transporting high-resolution video content, advanced acoustics for home entertainment, image enhancement and processing, as well as energy management and mobile power.  The IEEE Masaru Ibuka award will be presented to a man who has had a front row seat to some of the biggest changes in consumer technology: Martin Cooper—who made the first ever cell phone call in 1973 as a vice president at Motorola.

About the Author

Tom Coughlin is a senior member of the IEEE and the President of market and analysis firm Coughlin Associates. Along with many publications and several patents, he has been a leader in many technology organizations, including the IEEE and the Storage Networking Industry Association.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.