CES2009: Tech Faces Economic Reality

Web, mobile video, 3D mix with DTV transition

LAS VEGAS Six weeks before the long-awaited analog TV shutoff, two weeks after the most tumultuous Christmas shopping season in decades and smack in the midst of an historic political transition, the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show, Jan. 8-11, will reflect its curious moment in time.

The attending hordes—expected to number about 130,000—will be severely aware of holiday sales figures (expected to be grim) and eager to find new opportunities, while acutely sensitive to industry restructuring and its impact on technology rollouts.

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Karen Chupka, senior vice president of the Consumer Electronics Association, addresses the press at a CES 2009 media preview event last month. Video technology is high on the agenda for 2009 after a couple years in which new product introductions plateaued, and the only great leaps forward seemed to involve a couple inches larger in the size of LCD screens.

TV sets will get thinner, greener and multi-dimensional and more of them will have direct Internet access. Mobile TV will loom closer. And the growing integration of content and technology will run rampant as Hollywood—and its copy protecting minions—drill deeper into home electronics distribution. The never-ending battle over copy protection will have a new warrior: a cross-industry consortium under the banner "Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem" (DECE). Industry earthquakes—such as Panasonic's acquisition of Sanyo and the continuing ascent of Chinese electronics brands—will also shape the mood and outlook of the show.


Karen Chupka, senior vice president of the Consumer Electronics Association which produces CES, acknowledged that this is "such an unusual time," but emphasized that, "The ultimate reality is that our products are exciting, and people still like them."

She cited a slew of new developments, including a "lot of interest in 3D technology" and "personalization to move content between devices." Chupka, who is overseeing her 20th CES, pointed to the evolution that has taken place in the marketplace. She noted that over the years there have been "big discussions about TV versus PC."

"Now it's kind of fun to see that really happening, with the new opportunities being created as a result," she said. Chupka also complimented the ways in which "content companies are working with manufacturers on how to deliver what consumers want."

These content/hardware alliances—ready to be viewed at CES—are resulting in new Internet-ready TV sets, such as Panasonic's "VIERA Cast" receiver, which is preloaded to tune into online services including YouTube, Weather.com, Bloomberg and Google's Picasa photo site. Panasonic said it is constantly adding content sites for direct connection in addition to allowing viewers to log into any online service via a computer connected to the TV set.

Sony is expected to expand its Bravia VideoLink capability, which similarly bundles YouTube and other online access directly to a digital TV set. Other manufacturers will offer Web connections, although they are holding off product and content announcements until closer to CES's opening date.

The CES program is laced with other timely—and newsworthy—presentations. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, will make his CES debut at the opening night event previously anchored by retired Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Sony Corporation Chairman/CEO Sir Howard Stringer makes a return appearance with a Thursday morning keynote in which he traditionally offers witty perceptions about the outlook for hardware and Sony's extensive content agenda. Adding to the content orientation of the agenda, on Thursday afternoon, Anne Sweeney, Disney Media Networks Co-chair and Disney-ABC Television Group President, will share her views on media's direction.

And at a time when automotive electronics—along with the auto industry itself—are much in the spotlight, Ford Motor Company President and CEO Alan Mulally speaks at a Thursday afternoon session. (At last year's show, the comparable automotive executive was General Motors' now-beleaguered CEO Rick Wagoner.)


Reflecting the consumer electronics industry's new "green" agenda, many manufacturers will introduce TV equipment with greatly reduced power requirements. Details are not yet available about features and pricing. In addition, the drive for thinner sets will advance, epitomized by Panasonic, which will exhibit several ultra-thin plasma monitors—as narrow as 24 millimeters for a 50-inch monitor.

Panasonic continues to work with the cable TV industry's "tru2Way" broadband rollout. The company also plans to exhibit a "3D Theater" using a Blu-ray player and its 103-inch plasma screen. It is not clear whether this system will be ready for delivery in 2009.

Advanced display themes will pop up in CES's sprawling exhibit halls and at conference sessions. "How Will We See 3D TV?," a Thursday afternoon panel session, looks into the ways that Hollywood and TV makers are developing three-dimensional entertainment. One angle to be discussed is whether 3D can bolster the declining projection TV market. Panel participants come from Texas Instruments, Mitsubishi Digital Electronics, Insight Media, Sensio Technologies and ProjectionDesign.

Many of the 20 market-specific "TechZones" on the show floor will focus on emerging opportunities, including content development. For example, the "Advanced Display Technologies" pavilion will showcase new formats such as a-Si TFT (amorphous silicon Thin Film Transfer) LCDs, LTPS (Low Temperature PolySilicon) TFT LCDs, Active Matrix Organic light emitting diode (AMOLEDs) and Passive Matrix OLEDs, plasma, flexible, reflective and 3D displays for a wide variety of applications ranging from mobile phones to TV monitors. CES says these "displays of tomorrow" will "drive the display supply chain and change the way we view entertainment and information."

For those who want to hear about—not just look at—next-generation displays, CES will offer a Friday afternoon session on "Emerging Display Technologies to Watch." The flat-screen battle, now being joined by OLED, 3D holography and "electronic paper," is extending beyond the LCD versus plasma skirmish. Speakers from Mitsubishi, Sharp, 3M and e-ink will assess the commercial viability and timetable for their products, along with a competitive analysis of how their visions match up with the current industry leaders.


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With the DTV transition on the horizon, DTV antenna products could steal the spotlight from their more sophisticated CE brethren. This Terk FDTV1a antenna will make its debut at the event.
Two Friday sessions will dig into the momentous DTV transition. At noon, a session entitled "Are We Ready?" will include executives from a KLAS-TV, Dish Network, Panasonic and the American Association of Retired Persons. They will explore the implications of the transition and what the electronics industry can learn for future technology migrations. The session will seek to predict whether the analog shutoff will be "like Y2K: much ado about nothing?"

A few hours later, FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, House of Representatives Commerce Committee Senior Counsel Amy Levine, along with John Taylor of LG Electronics USA and Mike Vitelli of Best Buy will discuss the DTV transition policy and business impact at "Bringing Down the Curtain on Analog." They will evaluate the success of the government's coupon program and ruminate on "what to expect on Feb. 17," the day of the full-power analog shutoff.

On the show floor, a few manufacturers may still be seeking to sell off their remaining stocks of DTV converter boxes. The demand for such devices is expected to plummet by spring when the last government $40 discount coupons expire and almost every home that needs such a box will have acquired one.

But there may still be a market for DTV antennae, which are expected to have a higher visibility at the show as the last wave of converter buyers realize they may need a better way to grab signals. RCA antennae, now sold under that brand name by Audiovox, are smaller than a pizza box, and some models resemble a 5x7-inch photo frame. The Flat Multi-Directional Digital TV Antennae, such as the RCA ANT1450B, can lock onto broadcasts from 360-degrees and lists for about $45.


Mobile TV "means different things to different industries and consumers," according to CES's description of its "Mobile TV Primer" session on Thursday. Diverse viewpoints are likely to emerge during the discussion among executives from Verizon, AT&T Mobility, MediaFLO plus standards group and content providers. Several TechZones feature mobile video and related clusters of service providers, including pavilions for content and entertainment professionals including "Wireless Mobility" and "GSMA Mobile Broadband."

The Open Mobile Video Coalition will update its progress, in collaboration with LG Electronics, Harris Corp. and Samsung. OMVC, whose members include broadcast groups and technology suppliers, will showcase ATSC mobile DTV and demonstrate technology, including LG mobile handsets, computer attachments, a navigation device and Kenwood's aftermarket in-vehicle video player. Harris, Roundbox and TV Guide will demonstrate a guide for use on PCs, and there will be live simulcasts from local broadcasters, including affiliates of ABC, NBC, Fox, MyNetworkTV, The CW and Qubo channel, among others.

Organizations, including a broadcaster-oriented mobile video consortium are expected to monitor technology developments, with a likely appearance of the LG Electronics mobile van to show off on-the-go reception of DTV signals.


Reprising their 2008 debuts, both Sony Pictures Television and NBC-Universal will expand their presence at CES. SPT will showcase its cross-platform content and produce daily episodes of "Celebrity Jeopardy!" on a specially built set on the CES show floor. NBC-U will introduce an interactive exhibition, highlighting digital programming produced by its television, cable and motion picture properties. In addition, as CES's "Official Broadcast Partner," NBC will originate broadcast and cable programs live from the CES exhibition floor, including segments of the Today show and NBC Nightly News, as well as CNBC and MSNBC shows.

"The merging of digital entertainment and technology will be more apparent than ever," said CEA President Gary Shapiro, noting that SPT's and NBC-U's activities confirm CES's role as "the global intersection for the entertainment and technology markets." CEA expects that the 2009 CES will attract about 9,000 entertainment and broadcasting executives, about the same number as showed up last year.

If there is content, there is likely to be contention about copyright and fair usage. A new solution—in the form of the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE)—will be unveiled during CES. This coalition of consumer electronics and information technology makers, retailers and service providers will seek to establish a process to allow consumers store and access their digital content from various locations – in essence skirting the Digital Rights Management requirements that content owners have demanded. The consortium, originally called "Open Market," includes Alcatel-Lucent, Best Buy, Cisco, Comcast, Fox Entertainment Group, HP, Intel, Lionsgate, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Paramount Pictures, Philips, Sony, Toshiba, VeriSign and Warner Bros. Entertainment

Meanwhile, the ongoing debate about content distribution will be the subject of many CES sessions. "The Great Rewrite" will probe the ways in which "digitization and changing consumer behaviors are revising the entertainment industry's script." Executives from Sony Pictures Television, Sulake Corp. and Bellrock Media will discuss the balance of consumer demands with studio restrictions.


Although the predicted 130,000 people turnout at CES would represent a seven percent attendance decline from last year, at that level the 2009 edition would be the third-largest CES ever, after the 2008 and 2007 shows. The 2,700 exhibitors will occupy 1.7 million square feet of exhibit space, again slightly reduced from the 2008 show.

Ever-ebullient Chupka puts a positive spin on the show. Acknowledging the economic concerns, she envisions "an opportunity to have a new mood because it is 2009.

"2008 is over," she said, citing her own evaluation of previous years when a strong Christmas season did not trigger a boost in attendance the following month. Hence, a slow season may not prompt people to resist the lure of Las Vegas and the chance to see the next wave of electronics frenzy.