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A View From The Road - Volume 3, Number 1

January 19, 2009 | Chris Payatagool

Thumbnail image for ces2009.jpgBy David Danto

Observations on technology trends from the latest conferences and seminars.

What if you threw a trade show and nobody came?  Well maybe that's an exaggeration but the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show was certainly more lightly attended - both by exhibiters and attendees.  The 42nd annual version of this exhibition displayed something never seen before.  No, not technology and gadgets, as this show had so much more of the same old stuff that even I was getting tired of it.  "Come take a look at us!  We have larger, thinner, brighter flat panels this year, yada, yada, yada..."  What was truly seen here for the first time in recent memory was empty exhibit space on the show floor - presumably from exhibitors that decided not to attend:

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Official attendance reports put the number of attendees at about 130K, down about 7% from last years 140K.  However, some of my pals at the Las Vegas Hilton confided in me that the hotel was only 80% full - including casino guests.  For the main hotel at the world's largest trade conference this 20% down figure is really a better indicator of attendance and also of how badly the economy is doing.  Amazingly, few of the manufacturers and speakers addressed this issue - with most looking past the current downturn and hoping for the best.  Because of this there were a few notable announcements and plenty of items to highlight.

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Though often discussed before, I believe mobile TV has finally hit critical mass and will become a reality this year.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly there is now an Open Mobile Video Coalition - an alliance of US broadcasters and manufacturers - which announced that 63 TV stations in 22 markets will launch services in 2009.  These services would include news, weather and traffic updates and selected entertainment content - and would most likely be free.  A small number of manufacturers have signed-on to the process - most notably LG with phones and Kenwood and Delphi with units for cars.  It is expected that more devices will hit the market once the signals are actually available. 

The second reason is one I have personally been waiting for for a long time.  Sling showed a working version of the SlingPlayer for the iPhone.

iphone_sparrow.jpg 

They promise to send it into Apple for approval by the end of the first quarter this year.  This is a groundbreaking announcement, as it has implications that may not be obvious.  It will not just bring cable TV to one of the most popular mobile devices (watch your favorite game or soap opera) but it will be a tremendously inexpensive way to move personal content to anywhere a person is.  Can't make a live video conference or web conference?  Send a feed to your TV and then watch it on your iPhone.  Can't attend a forum or town hall?  Make it available via video then watch it on your commuter train.  Want to see your daughter's new prom dress while on a business trip?  Have your family connect a video camera to your SlingBox.  While this will be a one way, awkward and somewhat lower resolution solution it still does represent a very disruptive advance in transportable content that visionary technologists will surely utilize in ways Sling has not even considered. 

 
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One thing that was very visible at CES for the first time was the theme of "Environmental Sustainability."  Whether one called it "saving the planet" or "Eco" this or that, it was everywhere.

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In fact, as opposed to song downloads or electronic doo-dads, Sony was giving away "recycled bamboo tote bags" at its booth.  And speaking of bamboo, just in case you hadn't seen it before, Asus was showing their bamboo finished netbook PC.



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On the second day of the show I had the opportunity to be present for Cisco CEO John Chambers' keynote presentation to close the Technology in Emerging Countries session.  As I've said before, Mr. Chambers is a brilliant person that is always enjoyable to listen to, but he has a tendency to take a technology that's already been on the market for a while and announce that it is a Cisco creation.  (I'll leave it to all of you to decide if that should be judged as annoying or just good marketing.)  His very detailed presentation included a demonstration of a prototype Cisco "HealthPresence" system that combined one of their TelePresence codecs with a number of medical diagnostic tools.  It showed many of the Telemedicine features one would see on any of the systems already widely used in countries like Canada - where patients are much further away from doctors and the society is much less litigious than in the USA.  One true innovation demonstrated for this unit was real-time language translation built in to the codec - which is a marvelous idea if it can be done.  Mr. Chambers also commented a few times - treating it as if it were an inside joke between he and his Cisco colleagues - that "Home TelePresence" would be available in fifteen months.  Clearly he wanted this concept floated out but provided no details on what it would be like. 

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While the folks at Cisco work on their eventual home solution - sure to be aiming for a high-end experience - the world of inexpensive video conferencing took a few strides ahead with a number of products in the sub $1k range: 

  • Asus showed a Skype video appliance for people who want to have video conferences with Skype users but don't have the skills to or just prefer not to use a PC.

asus.jpg
  • Creative Labs again showed their "In-Person" video appliance.  They also said there would be an HD version later this year.  It may be time to take them a bit more seriously, as Michael Baker (formerly of Polycom) has joined their sales/marketing team.



creativelabs.jpg 

  • Sony showed their "Playstation Eye" camera for the Playstation 3.  (It's not new, but was never shown at CES before.)  As a $30 add on to the gaming console, it enables people on Sony's free gaming network to use the Playstation as a free video conference device.  For some unknown reason Sony has put no marketing behind this groundbreaking availability, and doesn't even talk about how there is an h.264 codec built in to the Playstation. 

There were a number additional details from the show floor that you may not see in mainstream media coverage - and some very cool items:
 

  • First there was the SD card, and then came the even greater capacity SDHC card.  Now the SD Association announced SDXE - an SD card with a capacity up to two terabytes.  Two TB on something about the size of my thumbnail is really amazing.  In the early 90's we only imagined terabytes of data...last year my 12 year old son and I installed our first $130 1TB drive at home...in the near future an SD card the size of my thumbnail will double that capacity and probably cost less.  To think that some believed Moore's Law couldn't continue...
  • SanDisk revealed a series of third generation Solid State Drives that in their words "will be the inflection point for the death of the hard drive."   They have a 260GB model that will list for $499, last 10 years, survive being dropped from six feet and will operate at a comparable virtual RPM of 40,000 (as opposed to one of the quicker disk's speed of 7,200RPM.)  There will be smaller sizes for lower prices as well.

    
    

  • A few companies showed wristwatch mobile phones that would make a Dick Tracy fan proud.  Some examples include LG's "Wearable Mobile Communicator" and Nutec's "WristPhone".
     
  • A number of exhibitors - including Panasonic this time - were showing 3D displays and associated technologies.  It was a concerted effort to push 3D as a viable consumer technology.  In my opinion though, these demonstrations were still in the "cute idea" phase - I see no hope for a real 3D product in the next few years.  
     
  • IO gear showed a Wireless USB video transceiver that allows high resolution screens to be wirelessly transmitted from a PC to a nearby display.  Notable is the addition of stereo audio transmission in the same module, available mid year.
  • Samson expanded their very functional line of audio recording products with a high quality USB microphone for notebook PCs (along side their already released ultra high quality USB production microphone.)  These will come in very handy for the mobile user that needs better audio than a notebook's microphone will provide.
  • Soundolier showed some very innovative room lamps that double as wireless speakers - which looked and sounded excellent.  This represents an excellent option for rooms where speakers are needed but do not match the required aesthetic theme.
  • From the cast of manufacturers that brought you the 120hz refresh rate for LCD displays last year - representing being  "as good as Plasma for motion," we now have them telling us about their new 240Hz refresh rate - Sony calling theirs "motion flow."  While I'm sure this is a valuable (though barely perceptible) improvement I couldn't stop thinking about how Spinal Tap's amplifiers go up to eleven.
     
  • Lastly, I'm happy to report that a new firm purchased the "Sharper Image" name from the now bankrupt company and launched 24 new products at this show.  Granted they're only little things such as iPod docks, clocks and speakers, but it was good to see in any case.  I didn't want my children growing up in a world without the Sharper Image.

The Final Word

To wrap-up this romp through technology requires me to get on my own personal soapbox for a moment.  While I was out at CES some internet mail spammer decided to spoof my family's email address on a huge amount of spam mail.  This resulted in the real email to and from myself and my family being summarily rejected by the wizards that handle such things on the internet.  I don't even want to think about how much important information I have missed and friends and colleagues I have not responded to.  For the time being, if anyone needs me, please use the alternate address Davedanto @ yahoo.com.  I hope I can find a way to restore the use of my own domain.  It is a sad commentary that I may have to give up the use of a name I own because email technology is so abused and we are often powerless to defend ourselves from attacks.  It seems that the more our technology advances the more we have to worry about the nefariousness from the dark side that will always find a way to abuse it.

A View From The Road is written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has spent 30 years in the audio visual and broadcasting industries. He has designed facilities for firms such as AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU and Lehman Brothers. He has recently joined JPMorgan Chase &  Company and is the IMCCA's Director of Emerging Technology. Email David at [email protected]

About the IMCCA

The Interactive Multimedia & Collaborative Communications Alliance (IMCCA) is a not-for-profit user application and industry focused association with membership comprised of service and product providers, consultants, and users. Members benefit from the understanding and the use of various interactive and collaborative communications technologies in their professional and everyday lives.

For further information please contact Carol Zelkin, IMCCA Executive Director, at 516-818- 8184 or [email protected]. Visit the IMCCA web site at www.imcca.org







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