This year’s annual Consumer Electronics Show, which kicks off in Las Vegas on Monday, will be an expo of two stories.
One will be the tale of the supposedly next big thing in electronics – Ultra High-Definition television – while the other will be the more subtle "sensor-ization" of existing gadgets, appliances and other items.
If Vegas odds-makers were to quantify which will get more media attention, the TV story would certainly be the smarter bet. The sensor trend, however, will be the far more interesting one to follow.
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On the TV side, the big electronics companies that make up the core of CES – the likes of Sony, Panasonic and Sharp – are under considerable pressure to push Ultra HD, which promises twice the resolution of existing HD.
With the majority of their revenue coming from flat panels, which are declining in sales now that everyone has at least one, these companies have good reason to want to spur a new wave of TV purchases.
But will consumers buy into this line of thinking? Industry observers aren’t so sure.
"Most people can't see the difference and if they can, they don't think it's worth the incremental extra [cost] for the content," says Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based tracking firm Solution Research Group.
"In some 20,000 interviews we do annually on subjects related to tech, I don't recall one person complaining about not being able to get a good-looking picture on an existing HD device."
How high-res is too high?
That won’t stop the manufacturers from trying. Earlier this year, Sony rolled out its 4K television – so named because of the 4,000 or so pixels across the width of the screen, which is double the density of regular 1080p displays. This 84-inch television sells for a whopping $24,000, meaning it has a very limited market.
Questions abound as to whether manufacturers can squeeze the extra resolution into smaller screens – and do so at an affordable price.
Some manufacturers believe the technology is maturing, which means it’s just about ready for the mainstream market. Just like regular HD needed peripherals for content creation – video cameras and the like – to come along before it took off, that too is likely to be the case for Ultra HD.
"These are products that are coming to fruition," says Chris Matto, director of brand and corporate communications at Sharp Canada.
Regardless of their resolution, televisions will also likely be the gateway to that other big trend at CES. Previous shows have seen manufacturers take baby steps into alternative display controls, with rudimentary voice and gesture recognition sensors being incorporated on top of the tried-and-true handheld remote.
With computing expanding away from just computers and into other objects, the need for different inputs is growing considerably.
The sensor-ization wave
"We all have this want and desire to touch and to move and to shift with our digits instead of the mouse," Matto says. "The mouse isn’t going to last as long as we think."
That’s where sensor-ization comes in. With new input technologies – gesture recognition, gyroscopes, accelerometers and the like – becoming better and cheaper, they’re being incorporated into a growing list of gadgets, appliances and everyday items.
U.S. television provider Verizon, for example, has patented a DVR that can scan a room with its camera, which could be used to better tailor ads to the television viewers present.
San Francisco-based startup Lockitron, meanwhile, is working on a door lock that can connect to near-field communications sensors, which would let users control their front doors with smartphones instead of keys.
The addition of such sensor technologies and connectivity is part of a shift toward "relative computing," or the migration of a computer’s power from the desktop or laptop into everyday items.
The rise of ‘relative computing’
"Sensor density is increasing – it’s most obvious on phones, but it’s spilling over into other stuff," says Shawn Dubravac, chief economist for the Consumer Electronics Association, the show’s organizer.
"New capabilities are becoming more real and achievable as we dive deeper into relative computing."
The possibilities are limited only by entrepreneurs’ imaginations, he adds. Some of the sensorization examples Dubravac has seen – which could make their way onto the CES show floor – include plant pots that tell their owners when they need water or surfboards that instruct users on where to stand via weight distribution monitors.
"You can adjust your surfing ability based on the information being captured in a digital way," he says.
The CEA expects both trends to fuel a big show, with 150,000 attendees and 3,000 exhibitors. While some of the biggest names in technology – including Apple, Google and Microsoft – won’t be exhibiting, an estimated 20,000 new products will be launched at CES 2013.