With computing power and internet connectivity spreading to everything from televisions to cars, it’s no wonder the annual Consumer Electronics Show – which kicks off in Las Vegas on Jan. 9 – is expected to usher in the “year of the interface.”
The big electronics companies – Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and the like – have for the past few years been showing off so-called smart TVs, or flat panels that connect to the internet and run applications such as Facebook, YouTube and even email. TV remote controls are already complicated enough, so manufacturers are having to think up better input options.
Some are likely to use CES, one of the world’s largest technology shows, to demonstrate them.
“Anyone who has actually checked email on a television knows that’s not that great of an experience,” said Shawn Dubravac, chief economist at the Consumer Electronics Association, the group that organizes CES. “The next big push with connected TVs will be focusing on the interface.”
Dubravac expects to see television makers show off flat panels that can be controlled either with hand gestures or voice commands, similar to the Kinect system introduced by Microsoft in 2010 for its Xbox 360 video game console. The result will be televisions that can be controlled “with a wave of your hand.”
The internet-connected TVs that such interfaces will control have been selling well, Dubravac said. In 2011, smart TVs grew to 30 per cent of total shipments in North America, up from 12 per cent the year before. In 2012, the CEA expects the percentage to grow to almost 50 per cent.
Motion and voice controls are likely to start as niche features for early adopters, but if done well, they could follow a similar growth curve as smart TVs over all, Dubravac said.
3D technology still evolving
3D capability, introduced by a number of manufacturers at CES two years ago, will also continue to improve, Dubravac added. The push is on toward screens that don’t require glasses, a sticking point for many consumers.
“It’s gotten better and some of the prototypes I’ve seen are very compelling.”
Voice control is likely to further weave its way into common consumer electronics, such as TV remote controls and tablet computers. Tablets were the big story at last year’s event and will continue to be this year, with competitors still looking for devices that can compete strongly with Apple’s iPad, which kickstarted the category.
Two tablet trends to expect at this year’s show, Dubravac said, are specialized devices that are designed for specific uses (such as watching movies) and lower prices.
“We’ve seen that tablets can sell well when attractively priced, so there will be a big push to drive tablets at a compelling price, but that offer all of the high-end usability and features that they offer today,” he said.
Elliott Chun, corporate communications manager at Future Shop, thinks big changes are also in store for audio electronics. While most people have gotten comfortable with docking their phones or iPods in stereo units to charge or play them, many are still showing a preference for wireless capability.
Streaming music around your house
Electronics makers are therefore working to create sound systems that can stream media wireless around the user’s house, something Chun expects to see a lot of at CES.
“People want to conveniently hold their device and dock it only to charge it,” he said. “The word ‘docking’ will have a new meaning in 2012.”
Microsoft is also expected to make a big splash at CES, its last such event. The company said over the holidays that the show is often ill timed for its product releases, so it is pulling out after 2012. Industry observers expect the company to go out in style.
“It’s going to be a coming-out party for Windows 8,” said California-based technology analyst Rob Enderle.
The software giant gave glimpses of its next-generation operating system, which is being built from the ground up to work with touch screens, in 2011. Enderle expects the “beta,” or test version of the software, to be released in February, which company chief executive Steve Ballmer could announce during his opening keynote on Jan. 9.
A number of companies are likely to show off devices using Windows 8, particularly hybrid gadgets that are halfway between tablets and laptops, Enderle said. One possibility are tablets that, once attached to keyboards, look like notebook computers.
“Microsoft will be saying, ‘Don’t get a laptop, don’t get a tablet, get the best of both in a single configuration. Get a common user interface across both,’” he said.
Still, Microsoft’s imminent exit from CES will be a big blow to the show. The sheer size of the event – more than 2,700 exhibitors and around 120,000 attendees – means that even the biggest announcements can get lost in the din.
Many companies are therefore starting to wonder whether the expense of the show is worth it, especially with its early January timing. For example, a December leak of a new product to be unveiled at the show can devastate preceding fourth-quarter sales.
“For most companies, the show is ill-timed for their fall releases,” Enderle said. “Microsoft has become the most visible canary in the coal mine.”