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CES 2016 suggests technology business is alive and well

Looking for a drone? Angling for an HDR enabled TV or a virtual reality headset? Want the latest in smart home devices or to find out more about recent developments in autonomous vehicles, then the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held in Las Vegas last month, wouldn’t have disappointed.

But while there was plenty on display, Jonny McClintock, sales and marketing director for Qualcomm aptX, suggested this year’s show could be described as an ‘inbetweener’.

“CES tends to be cyclical; whether that is driven by macro-economic developments or by the unveiling of a disruptive technology. Whenever a disruptive event comes along, it takes a while for the technology to become product ready – there is a period of mortality, will it fly or crash and burn? I would suggest that this year’s show was simply building on the announcements made over the past few years. We are currently seeing a lull in the innovation cycle.”

Despite that, there was a diversity of products on display, explaining the decision by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to change its name to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) to better reflect the broader scope of products at the show.

Kicking off the year with a bang

“I still think CES kicks off the electronics year with a bang, showcasing the latest in audio, visual, automotive, IoT and a plethora of other inventive products,“ suggested Nigel Watts, group managing director of Ismosys. Gordon Hands, President of the MHL Consortium, noted: “This year, we saw a continued push towards immersive content. Two great examples were a plethora of VR demonstrations – a technology which is getting closer to mainstream adoption – and the 8K TVs on display from the major TV suppliers.”

In the past, CES was dominated by traditional consumer electronics companies; today, the computer, telecom and communications industries, and, over the past 10 years, leading automotive manufacturers, are in attendance. In fact, most major car makers were at this year’s show demonstrating the latest developments in smart technology and how their vehicles are looking to employ embedded cellular or Wi-Fi services.

“Automakers are now a part of the CES fabric, with OEMs making major announcements,” said Alan Amici, vice president of engineering with TE Connectivity. “GM announced a $500million partnership with Lyft, the ride-sharing company, and unveiled its latest EV offering, the Chevy Bolt.Ford announced a tripling of its autonomous vehicle fleet for development testing and unveiled work with Velodyne on a smaller, less expensive LIDAR sensor that could be a potential game changer.

“Delphi, Bosch, Conti, Nvidia and others were also in attendance and are developing systems that use camera, radar, lidar and ultrasonic sensing technology, together with sophisticated algorithms for objection detection, driver warning and crash avoidance systems.”

A lot of the talk at this year’s show was about grabbing a share of the transportation service industry, which is now worth more than $5trillion . To that end, there was speculation that Ford was set to announce a tie-up with Google. It didn’t materialise, but it did reveal a tie up with Amazon in which the latter’s Echo voice-activated speaker would enhance communications between vehicles and the owner’s home.

Toyota announced it was investing £1bn in the Toyota Research Institute, concentrating on teaching autonomous vehicles how to respond to unexpected events through the use of artificial intelligence. BMW, meanwhile, unveiled AirTouch, a type of gesture control that uses sensors embedded in the dashboard to enable drivers to navigate menus, choose navigation or music – all without touching a button or dial.

At the show’s official opening, Gary Shapiro, the CTA’s president and CEO, talked of the importance to the electronics consumer industry of unleashing creativity. ‘Changing the world through innovation’ and ‘intelligence and data’ were the new currency, he contended. During his talk, he argued the old rules and ways of doing business needed to be swept to one side and described the sharing economy as the ‘green shoot in a post industrial age’.

Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich believes that, in the smart and connected worlds, technologies with human-like senses and ultra-personal computing were set to shape the future.

“There is a rapidly growing role for technology that is at once transformative, unprecedented and accessible,” he explained. “With people choosing experiences over products more than ever before, technology will be a catalyst to making amazing new experiences possible, and ultimately improving people’s lives.”

While Apple, Microsoft, Dell and HP decided not to attend CES, Intel used the show to highlight an array of collaborations, products and technologies.

Healthcare took centre stage and, in a move designed to transform the way people train, view and compete in sports, Krzanich unveiled a series of collaborations with industry brands using Intel’s technology and data analytics to improve people’s health, fitness and athletic performance.

Intel revealed a project with athletic footwear specialist New Balance to develop wearable technologies that connect athletes with technology to improve their performance and with sunglass brand Oakley to develop smart eyewear that features a voice-activated, real-time coaching system.

Drones for all

With more than 25 drone companies at CES and reports that sales had reached 400,000 last year in the US alone, the market for unmanned aerial vehicles is growing rapidly. Applications include: rooftop to rooftop deliveries in built up areas; search and rescue; and disaster relief.

Intel demonstrated the Yuneec Typhoon H, which uses its RealSense technology to enable collision-avoidance capabilities, while Belgian company, Fleye, demonstrated a drone that encloses its spinning blades within both a shell and a cage to reduce the risk of injury – although it didn’t stop one journalist from breaking it!

One particularly impressive drone was the Disco from Parrot. Its fixed wing design means it can both fly further and faster than most existing helicopter type drones. Capable of staying airborne for up to 45 minutes and, via GPS waypoints, capable of following a pre-planned flight path, it has an on-board camera embedded into its nose that enables it to capture video in 1080p high definition.

Commenting on what he described as a ‘high-octane drone’, Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Research, said: “Drones are a fast growing market opportunity over the next few years and Parrot is certainly a sign of things to come.”

AR and VR

After many false starts, the feeling at CES this year was that, at last, the ‘reality’ industry was reaching a tipping point in terms of the number of augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) products ready to be commercialised.

“These systems are becoming more mature and realistic,” said Amici. “An impressive mid-priced system was the Sony PlayStation VR, capable of providing a realistic experience with no visible lens borders.”

Two mainstream consumer VR headsets are set to be launched in 2016.

Planned for April, HTC’s VIVE headset enables the user to see objects in the room around them – objects near to the user can be ghosted at the press of a button, meaning they can also be seen in the VR environment.

Although technically impressive, doubts were raised about its cost.

Cost was also an issue when Palmer Luckey, founder of the market leading Oculus Rift, revealed the VR headset would sell for $599 – far higher than many had expected.

While price was an issue, a survey backed by Nvidia found that only 1% of home PCs have the power needed to provide an adequate VR experience and that potential users will have to upgrade.

While the consumer market for VR looks like remaining a challenge, the industrial market could be going places. Amici said: “VR has many potential applications outside of gaming, such as replacing drawings and physical models early in the concept and development stages. Other uses include realistic training and instructional guidance for technicians and operators involved in highly technical or repetitive tasks.”

Working with AR company Daqri, Intel launched the Smart Helmet. Capable of x-ray-like vision, thanks to the integrated RealSense 3D camera, Smart Helmet allows the wearer to, in effect, peer into the workings of a machine using real-time overlay of information such as wiring diagrams and schematics.

Embracing HD

It has become a tradition that CES hosts the latest developments in TV technology. In the past smart TVs and 3DTV have taken centre stage; this year, it was high dynamic range, with Samsung and LG both revealing that all their flagship TVs would support high dynamic range (HDR) video playback.

Screens using HDR can show more colours and more levels of brightness, providing the viewer with a picture quality closer to the detail our eyes can see in the real world.

Different display technologies – LCDs, OLED or quantum dots – make the universal adoption of HDR difficult to achieve and it will require co-operation between technologists and content players to deliver a service suitable for consumers.

A new standard under discussion – the adoption of which would enable consumers to buy an HDR compatible TV – would help the industry to avoid the problems associated with the sale of 4K TVs, many of which proved unable to decode transmissions.

Amazon has started streaming a limited number of shows in HDR via its Instant Video service and Netflix said it would start doing so later in the year.

Testing will be crucial and Rohde & Schwarz unveiled its VTx video tester family for testing the interoperability of the latest generation of HDR-capable consumer electronics products with HDMI 2.0a.

Data dilemma

All of the above systems are driving the need to analyse large amounts of data in real time. Whether it is the need to provide enhanced map data to a car, for example, to send real time sensor data to decision making ECUs on board a vehicle or to provide 4K resolution data to an instrument cluster and centre stack displays, today’s available bandwidth ‘will not be sufficient for the large amount of data consumption and processing’, according to Amici. “What is required is a high-bandwidth data connection that is capable of 1Gbyte/s throughput, eventually reaching 10Gbyte/s.Such demand is requiring OEMs to plan for architectures that can perform well beyond those of today.”

Qualcomm’s McClintock described CES 2016 as an ‘inbetweener’ type of show and, while the categories described here are growing, they are yet to fully deliver on the promises made by their backers and could be experiencing what one commentator called an ‘awkward adolescence’.

While CES may no longer be the home of the ‘next big thing’, it provides a global stage for a technology business that is alive and well.

Neil Tyler

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