Top ten highs and lows from CES 2011

Are you peddling iPhone 4 cases? No? Then GTFO!

Despite the many gadget and tech sites who were dancing about half-sober, clamoring over a spectacular CES show fraught with innovation, I’m going to go ahead and take a different stand.  There were intriguing bits to be sure, but overall I left with the opinion that the gadgets in Vegas might as well stay in Vegas this year.  Herein I will break down what I felt were the top ten highlights, and the top ten lows at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, just be warned that these are my opinions and don’t necessarily reflect the views of others at S|A or other sentient life forms in general.

Before jumping into the lists, I would like to give a little credit where credit is due and address the issue of Apple.  Apple does not rent floor space at these conventions, and frankly it does not need to.  The floor was absolutely dominated by two bit vendors hawking Apple accessories such as cheap iPhone cases, radio docks, and apps. Combining these vendors with the swarm of bloggers and journalists whipping out their iPeen at any opportunity, Apple had more advertising presence at the show than any other organization bar none.   While other companies dropped millions upon millions of dollars for booth design, construction, floor space, parties, booth babes, and so on, El Jobso was able to sit back and relax at his favorite coffee spot and build his brand without dropping a dime in Vegas.  Despite my personal biases against Apple, I have to acknowledge the subtle genius of their minimalistic product portfolio which allows for a large chunk of their marketing to be shifted to the backs of third party vendors trying to make a buck on accessories.  Most of these vendors will not survive to see next year’s CES, but more will inevitably fill the vacant spots and Apple will continue laughing all the way to the bank.  Ethics? Nope, it’s business, well done.

Top Ten Highlights of CES 2011

10. Thin bezels/panels
Thin is in when it comes to displays.  TV and monitor makers were showing off some ridiculously thin (both in depth and bezel size) LED backlit panels at this year’s show and all I can say is “keep ‘em coming.”  Be on the lookout for LG’s E2290 monitor in the near future; with its crazy-thin stainless casing you’ll probably spend more time admiring the monitor than doing work on it, but who cares.  Sign me up for a quartet of them when they hit the market.

9. Green-Peen

Companies have been droning on and on about being “green” for quite some time now, and frankly it is annoying. So why is this in my highlights list?  Simple:  innovation.  I sat in on Panasonics green-peen presentation and while I was thoroughly underwhelmed at the “greener than thou” message I took away from it, I was impressed with the innovations such “green” thinking is inspiring.  From better solar panels, home fuel cells, efficient lighting, and standardized modular Lithium Ion energy storage packs (big-ass batteries), the major companies are at war with each other to create efficient technologies to preserve future growth potential. Innovation in this field trickles down into everything we use giving us better battery life (and hopefully new methods of storing energy in the near future) as well as more ways to maintain our quality of life without doing as much damage to the world around us.  We are all a bit burned out from the corporate green-peen battles, but the harsh reality is that our current methods of energy conversion and storage are simply inadequate for long-term sustainability.  Thanks to somewhat efficient markets, transitioning to alternative sources of energy and better ways to use and store that energy will be a virtually seamless affair and the companies leading the charge should be encouraged.

8. Motorola Atrix
Motorola’s concept phone caught the attention of most people at the show.  The idea of having a standard docking port that will turn your cellphone into a full blown computer or laptop at will is very cool, and possibly the next big trend beyond tablets.  The problem with this is that Android has no standards or design constraints dictating port location or function, it would be up to the individual manufactures of phones and accessories to settle on such an arrangement to create the viable third party ecosystem of docks and accessories mandatory for platform survival.  Apple CAN pull this off, and the inclusion of DisplayPort on iPhone 5 should give Motorola and others reason to worry.  People always complain that fragmentation will be the undoing of Android, and while it is totally avoidable with collaboration and cooperation between companies, I predict that this emerging market will belong to Apple as well unless unprecedented measures are taken by Android phone manufacturers.  Nevertheless, this is one very cool technology and I applaud Motorola for showing a spark of creativity.

7. Maker-Bot
Maker-Bot has been around in various forms for a couple of years, but this was their first CES show.  For those who haven’t heard of them, they provide a DIY kit to build a 3D printer that builds your designs out of melted ABS plastic.  The designs are stored in an open format and shared amongst an online community, this way you can build gears and other small components easily and cheaply for rapid prototyping of whatever you’d like.  These kits have a very “garage” feel to them as they are composed of laser cut wood, and screws.  This is not a refined product in any sense, but the fact that several inventive geeks can get enough interest, capital, and have a cool enough product to warrant a CES booth with a fair amount of press attention is reason enough to be in my top ten list.  This company has a very grass-roots feel to it and dare I say, a soul, which is something largely lacking in the industry these days.

6. Glasses-free 3D
First let me clear the air.  I HATE 3D in its current incarnation.  I will discuss my feelings on this in greater detail in my “Lows” list, but despite still sucking visually, glasses-free 3D earns a spot in my top ten list based on the innovation involved and the hope of perfecting this in the future.  These displays address the primary complaint of users that 3D glasses are simply a pain in the ass to use, and for everyday TV vegetating it is not worth the hassle.  Through the use of reticular lenses and some voodoo magic, these screens can show the same 3D image as their eyewear requiring counterparts. The caveat here is that viewing angles suck more than a Dyson vacuum, and the slightest movement out of the sweet spot will destroy your 3D experience.  Toshiba had an interesting implementation of this on a laptop where the webcam tracked your head and eyes and adjusted the picture accordingly.  This was anything but fluid, and the display became a flickering mess when moving about, but it did work to some degree.  In short, this technology is not there yet, but promising and if the option exists to turn off the 3D effect entirely it may be quite popular in television sets and other screens of the future.

5. Flash/SSD proliferation
Flash memory was everywhere this year, and I could not be happier (daddy wants a new SSD).  One encouraging sign of SSD proliferation in particular was a chat I had with the CEO of a Chinese upstart producing SandForce based SSD’s for use in OEM machines.  The fact that low cost manufacturers are taking to SSDs may scare some from a quality perspective, but it means that price pressure is being put on top tier manufacturers as well, and as a result we all win as prices fall.  Products such as OCZ’s Vertex 3 drive in conjunction with broader acceptance of SATA 6Gbps on new motherboards signals a next generation wave of SSDs that are about to descend on us which should also drive down prices of older tech and hopefully prompt software innovation as hard disks no longer become the data bottlenecks they once were.  As an interesting flash-related side note, without asking for them or harassing exhibitors I managed to collect 9 USB flash drives containing press kit informtion for a grand total of 50.75GB of storage over the course of CES.  Mean size: 5.6GB, Median size: 2GB, Smallest Drive: 256MB, Largest Drive: 32GB.

4. OpenCL
OpenCL seemed to pop up quite frequently.  Companies such as Nuvixa that I wrote about previously are using OpenCL to accelerate the processing of visual data to improve the way we interact with machines in the future.  Sonic Solutions also announced an OpenCL compatible H.264 encoder.  With AMD’s launch of the “Brazos” fusion chips, OpenCL may get quite a bit more relevant as future computers will have a vast amount of computing potential generally untapped by other programming frameworks.   OpenCL could also be a potential nightmare to security folks as the massively parallel nature of GPUs and forthcoming APUs could be more easily harnessed in an increasing number of brute force attacks on weak encryption schemes.

3. “Little China”
Perhaps the most amusing strolls I took at CES were through the International sections we dubbed “Little China.”  These were sections of the floor that were dedicated to smaller booths primarily occupied by companies from China and Korea.  These vendors were mostly peddling manufacturing capabilities, hoping to attract the eye of some inventor or business person looking for a way to produce products, but there were also a number of odd booths looking to find retail partners for things like flashlights, cell phone accessories, LCD/TV wall mounts, and electronic gadgets.  Many of these booths were quite boring but others harbored nifty devices like an LCD encased in a clear plastic that blinked some specific message (sounds dumb, but the juvenile possibilities of these are endless), or battery manufacturers showing off unique form factors for lithium ion/polymer cells.  My favorite booth however contained a Asian vendor demonstrating his karaoke machines by singing his heart out to various American pop songs using the best of his abilities with the English language.  He was having a blast, and intrigued onlookers were into it and encouraging him, but the booths surrounding him were full of vendors with palm marks all over their faces, obviously at wits end.  After the concert as I was walking off, a neighboring vendor asked me “How would you like to sit next that that all day?”  I’m convinced he was just jealous.

2. The people
For me, and most other members of the press, the show was dominated by meetings, and introductions to people from companies far and wide (I would hate to be responsible for alphabetizing Charlie’s Rolodex.)  Most of the people at the show were great, although there seemed to be three distinct classes of people you’ll run into.  The Suits:  These are the CEO’s, CTO’s or other higher-ups you bump into that are either running a smaller company presenting on the floor, or are there scoping out competitors and looking for industry trends. They are generally cordial, but are anxious to move along and don’t have a strong desire for idle chit-chat.  The Marketers:  These people are the ones I spent my time trying to avoid.  Unfortunately the only way to talk with the people you really want is to go through them.  As a general rule these people know all about the products they are selling until the information in the product brochure is exhausted and fail to be of assistance when presented with meaningful technical questions. The Engineers: largely locked away and underappreciated, these are the people you want to talk to if you have a question about how a product works, or what’s next on the horizon.  I should also mention that there are marketing/PR people with a “Technical” prefix to their title, and these folks are also quite pleasant and informative to chat with.  I learned an incredible amount about various products and the industry as a whole by talking with the engineers, they might not have a holistic view of the business scene, but they were far better at putting to rest any questions and concerns I had about specific products or technologies being shown.

1.  The “Fusion” era begins

AMD and Intel both presented the world with their first CPU’s gluing together GPU and CPU in perfect harmony.  We have been hearing about this technology for years and it is finally here.  Intel’s chips offer killer performance for the mainstream desktop and notebook crowd, while AMD’s first chips are positioned to rip Intel a new one in the netbook and nettop segments.  There were also quite a few notebook designs based on larger 15 inch screens that incorporated Brazos chips.  Llano was also present at the show, though hidden away in dark backrooms.  Intel/AMD brouhaha aside, this earns the number 1 spot on my list mostly because I’m a CPU nerd, but also because it is going to fundamentally change the way we compute going forward.  With the ubiquity of GPU’s in consumer level (lowest common denominator) systems, it will finally make sense on the software side to put these added resources to good use (as in new ways to interact with a computer in real-time.)  The goal of consumer-level software designers is to make the computer transparent to the user, and make the experience of using that particular piece of software as easy and productive as possible, and these chips will aide greatly in that cause.

Top Ten Lows of CES 2011

10. Roller bags
Hey you, yeah you, roller bag guy running over people’s feet and taking up as much floor space as 3 non-roller-bag-equipped individuals, GTFO!  These guys (and gals) were everywhere unfortunately and normally I wouldn’t bat an eye, but in an environment where every square foot of floor space is taken by meandering herds of people, roller bags are simply not appropriate.  If you don’t want to carry swag around all day, get a back-pack. If your back is that bad, you shouldn’t be walking around the Las Vegas convention center to begin with.  Roller-Rage (similar to road rage) is something I struggled with constantly and as such these a-“chasms” earned a spot on my “Lows” list.

9. Apple accessories
As I discussed at the beginning of this epically long (for me) article, Apple owned the show floor with its endless fields of bedazzled iPhone and iPad cases and accessories.  This is partially Apples fault for creating an enticing standardized product thus making it easy to create third party companion products, but mostly I viewed it as highly annoying.  In the future if they could round up all companies selling crappy phone covers and screen protectors into a single hall that everybody can avoid, it would make the experience much more enjoyable, and much faster to navigate.  Many companies were offering iPhone cases as prizes/swag under the assumption that iPhone is the only handset in existence and were befuddled when I took out my Galaxy S and asked for a case for that instead.  

8. Tablets
With few exceptions, the Consumer Electronics Show was dominated by poorly thought out, cheap as hell, clunky, ugly Android tablets.  The smarter vendors like Motorola and Acer are waiting for Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” to come out before attempting to go up against iPad, but most others are simply content with turning cheap Chinese photo frames into Android tablets.  This might work in the rare instance where the form factor and hardware is all that matters and user-interface is of secondary concern, but if I had to use any of the Android tablets I played with on a daily basis, I would have less hair and quite a few holes in the wall to patch up.  Android 2.x is simply not a tablet OS, let alone the 1.5/1.6 versions that some no-name vendors were trying to get away with.  If you absolutely must have a tablet, get an iPad, or wait a couple months and see what “Honeycomb” holds in store.  As of now the current-gen Android tablets suck, period.

7. 3D TV

Go to Hell Hollywood. 3D started as an amusing curiosity, a Happy Days throw-back, but thanks to strong-arm tactics and desperation to collect on the deep investments made in the technology, it has become a monster.  Movies like Tron didn’t even have a 2D version when I went to see it in theaters, despite 3D not adding anything meaningful to the storyline or overall experience (in fact it detracted from the experience in my opinion.)  It is totally gratuitous, obtrusive, detrimental, worthless garbage and now, in its current bogus form, it is trying to invade our living rooms.  Every major TV manufacturer’s booth was bursting at the seams with 3D televisions and monitors as if Spielberg and Cameron were back-stage with guns pointed at corporate heads.  The simple fact of the matter is that 3D in its current form is broken.  Screens have a finite viewing area, and as soon as the image goes beyond the bezel the effect is lost. Add to that the fact that having to focus on the Z axis of a movie blurs details and takes away some of the ability to actually watch the part of the frame that you want.  Correcting this would require a hemispherical (or better) screen that encompasses the whole of our peripheral vision, and different shooting and editing techniques which are not practical at this point.  The technology simple does not yet exist to make a 3D screen look as comparably uniform and comfortable to everyone’s eyes as the traditional 2D models, but the industry has bet so heavily on the success of 3D that it has to push products we don’t necessarily want  in order to recoup some its investment.  The upside is that most “3D” TVs will display 2D just fine, and in fact have higher refresh rates which could be viewed as a good thing. However the industry’s desperate focus on pushing broken 3D as the next big thing is extremely annoying and has earned it a spot in my bottom 10 list.

6. Convolution of space-time
This is perhaps better illustrated by a picture.  We are all taught in elementary geometry classes that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but while navigating at CES this fundamental rule changes.  Obstacles including booth locations, pedestrian traffic jams, booth babe sightings, roller bag convoys, wandering texters, and uninformative show floor maps are able to rewrite some fundamental physical laws.

5. Key note speeches
ZzzzzzzzzzZzzzzzzzzz, oh, is it over?

4. Booth stage presenters
I am convinced that the Japanese have perfected the humanoid robot and have sold them as product presenters to all the major electronics companies for shows like these.  The people on stage touting the benefits of the company who hired them all had several things in common:  lifeless gaze, obnoxiously scripted delivery, no connection to the audience.  The actors/actresses being hired had absolutely zero genuine emotion and it showed.  I would much rather listen to an engineer with stage fright and acne problems talk about the product they helped create and the passion they have for what they are doing than listen to an attractive lady regurgitate canned marketing lines without having a clue what she is saying, nor caring as long as the check cashes at the end of the day.  I do have to give a tip of the hat to Samsung however, who’s “Future Boy” character actually kind of worked for them during their keynote.  Tip: For future shows, a little emotion and passion goes a long way towards connecting with your audience.  Boobs are a good hook, but there should be something of substance there as well for a truly effective presentation.

3. Cheapness
There has been a trend lately to reduce the cost of products by any means necessary.  The result of this was an assortment of gadgets of questionable quality on display at the show.  I could rant for a while here, but I will limit my wrath to one company in particular, MSI.  MSI is an interesting case, they make excellent motherboards and video cards, and have a solid brand reputation on the back of that.  The notebooks on display in their booth however were insanely cheap feeling.  Pressing the “H” would result in the entire keyboard flexing as though there was nothing but air holding it up.  I’ll admit I am a bit of a keyboard snob, but that was simply unacceptable by any measure.  Beyond that the general build quality of their laptops and netbooks (low end and high end) was creaky and appalling for a company with their industry standing.  For a decade or so, “quality focus” was the management catch-phrase of choice, but since the economy turned south 2 years ago it seems to have shifted to a cost reduction focus at the expense of quality.  Another issue manufacturers are having (particularly in China) is supplier sabotage.  This is where the factories that produce the products start cutting corners to save a little money on each item produced by using thinner plastic, cheaper components, or any number of cost shaving measures. Often times this goes initially undetected by the company until complaints or failed QC checks start rolling in.  There are still quality products out there, and maybe by nature CES is a cheap “crapgadget” showcase, but I hope this trend reverses, and quickly at that.

2. Telepresence
Companies like Skype and Cisco were at the show attempting to make waves and convince us that video calling is the only way to communicate.  I respectfully disagree.  I will admit there are situations where it’s handy, such as talking with family members whom I haven’t seen for quite some time, but having to see and be seen every time the phone rings is not a technology I’m interested it at all.  Most major television makers are integrating Skype, or some other form of telepresence into their new models, but I just don’t see this becoming a useful everyday technology.  Besides, just envision a Chatroulette + webcam enabled TV set. This is not something I’d prefer to dwell on very long, and you know it’s going to happen before long.

1. Lack of imagination
Drum roll please, oh wait, I’ve already stated the number one thing I disliked about CES this year.  There is not a whole lot to discuss on this point, but overall the gadgets we were presented with were not revolutionary, merely incremental improvements to existing tech, or totally worthless crap.  With booth after booth filled with generic cell phone and tablet accessories, TV mounts, crappy-but-cheap electronics it became very repetitive to walk up and down the aisles.  I got the impression that there is a business book being circulated in Asia telling its readers that the secret to success is to source cheap, crappy electronic gizmos, add a gimmick, and sell it to stupid Americans.  The amount of rebadged, repurposed, copycat technologies towered above the few slivers of actual innovation that existed on the show floor.  Others I spoke with shared this sentiment, and perhaps this was merely an “off year” for the show, but regardless my biggest takeaway from the experience was the utter lack of vision and imagination displayed by the vast majority of vendors at the show. S|A

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