CES Impressions 2003

January 2003 I had the luck to be sent to CES with the mission of walking around looking at what is there with a view to picking up ideas, suppliers and generally seeing who's doing what. This is my report:

A few hours of waiting, 13 hours of flights and a load of lugging computers later and we were there in Las Vegas ready to hit the show. The first impression of CES is it's sheer size. It's very big, in fact it's very, very big. There is 1.25 million square feet of exhibition space taken up by some 2,283 exhibitors being viewed by 116,000 visitors from 128 countries.

The show is divided into a number of large halls and some other sub halls and meeting rooms, There are 4 main halls:

North Hall
The North Hall houses Car Stereo equipment. I didn't spend much time in this hall as it wasn't much interest to us, Given the amount of companies showing speakers and the size of some of the speakers this is obviously a big and loud business, in fact everyone attending the show was wearing a badge strap sponsored by a car audio manufacturer. There were a number of cars which had umpteen speakers fitted and some others with multiple LCD monitors but one enterprising company turned a VW into something between a portable entertainment centre and a disco with not only speakers and monitors but also an integrated X-Box and flashing lights, unfortunately not the most comfortable of cars as they seemed to remove the seats in order to do this! It's Interesting how the aesthetics are in this market, generally in the consumer market you don't want things to be too technical (something the computer market outside Apple has yet to understand) yet with Car Audio the more complex and technical something looks the better.

Central Hall
The Central hall was the biggest and best. All the big names were there with sometimes massive, spectacular stands. The Panasonic stand alone took up the full breath of the hall and was bigger than most shows I've been to. Microsoft had a big stand pushing their new Media Centre complete with different rooms for the house, Microsoft were present all over the place as they had other small booths showing the Microsoft Network and PocketPC PDAs (complete with an offer for a free game pack). Windows Media Centre showed up at various stands at the show not least at Intel who also had a decent sized stand and constant presentations, Intel of course will get plenty of business from the Windows media edition given the amount of gear you need to run it.

Several TV / Monitor companies had huge stands with spectacular displays of monitors, Samsung had a spiral of LCD screens going up nearly to the roof. Sharp on the other hand had giant "steps" of Screens. Sharp also had some other interesting stuff on show including their Zarus line of PDAs, this even included the Keyboard based model. Another part of the Sharp stand which was small and hidden away got plenty of attention due to them showing 3D LCD screens which did not require glasses. You need to stand in the right spot to get the best effect but watching Quake in "real" 3D was really quite impressive.

3D showed up a few other times, X3D Technologies was showing movies and games displayed with shuttered LCD glasses, they sell a pack for $99 which includes 15 games and the glasses. They also have software which analyzes DVD streams and converts them into 3D, I didn't see much of this but it was impressive. The best however was the 3D demo running on the PC as you got the full resolution and the higher frame rate meant less flicker. Another company called Sensio was showing 3D movies shown through their 3D video processor, this also requires LCD glasses but is aimed at the home market plugging into a DVD player, they are converting existing 3D movies into their own format and working with IMAX producers for more. A couple more 3D systems I seen which didn't require glasses was a large but low res TV and a display system for adverts. It'll be interesting to see how these formats pan out in the future.

One thing the Americans have over us Europeans is much better TVs.
HDTV was very much in presence with numerous gigantic TVs. We have big TVs here but they are limited in that they are still relatively low resolution. HDTVs run at a higher resolution and this is evident when you see huge screens displaying sharp, crystal clear images. Of course to record and play these formats you'll need new recorders and a few companies were showing ultra high resolution recordable disc formats, with up to 20Gbytes per side!

Just to the North of the Central hall was a corridor with TechTV and other stands as well as a wireless pavilion where you could get internet access. Somewhere along here was a room which held the Sony stand. All their stuff was there, big TVs, Camcorders etc (no doubt they're working on an HD-DV camcorder). Sony even had their own Zoo of robotic Dogs, Cats and even a robotic person who waved once in a while.

I went to the Sony stand looking for one thing - the Sony-Ericsson P800 Smart-Phone. I've an interest in this not only because I'm working on a PDA like product but also because I'm a geek who likes gadgets and happens to have the predecessor, the Ericsson R380. Compaq/HP and Palm may do nice PDAs but they are going to have their work cut out for them trying to compete with this Symbian OS based device. It's smaller than a PDA, bigger than a phone but is very light and the battery lasts eons, given other Symbian devices it's also likely to be damn near uncrashable. It's priced below top end PDAs and with operator subsidies is liable to give the PDA makers something of a headache. I want one!

There were many other PDA makers around including one who had added GPS as standard and Watch maker Fossil who were showing a Palm which had been squeezed into a watch case.

Innovation showcase
The innovation showcase was a best of show exhibit with all sorts of products from all over the show. It was really a microcosm of the entire show with all the best bits in one place. The Best TVs, speakers, amplifiers, gadgets etc. if you wanted to see it all in one go it was all there.

World showcase
There was a relatively small hall which housed suppliers from various parts of the world arranged by country. Here you could find suppliers from various countries and if you wanted to there were trade directories so if you wanted all the manufacturers of a certain component in China (or whatever country) you could find them. They were mostly Far east companies but the UK had a small section with printer cartridge suppliers and one stand had interesting speaker technology which uses a laptop screen as a speaker, they had a demo running and it sounded pretty good. Other items in the world showcase was a stand of "weird" display technologies such as a wobbling display stand and fake fire. There were a few stands like this in the rest of the show but they seemed to be spread around the halls randomly. The best item I seen was a musical instrument which played notes according to the dripping of water.

Talking about displays I also visited the nVidia booth who were showing their GeforceFX card, nForce and other products. They had a demo called "Dawn" which is an almost scarily realistic butterfly-girl, the demo could be switched into wireframe mode and zoomed in where you could see the zillions of polygons that make up her face alone (even more scary was the fact was the fact "Dawn" looks like someone I know!). There seems to be no end to the rate at which graphics can get better. ATI were also present but were only showing their set-top-box solutions.

South Hall (Lower)
The South Hall is not quite so huge as the Central hall but to make up for it has 2 floors. The lower floor housed the High end HiFi kit and there were umpteen Speaker manufacturers showing their wares. A few stands also had hedphones and the latest trick seems to be active noise reduction where the headphones try to compensate for outside noise. I didn't really notice much effect on the ones I tried but I suspect the batteries were done. I did try another pair of headphones outside the show with the same feature and they were excellent. One company called Three-Five Systems had what could be described as "Eye-Phones", these were head mounted screens for the ultimate in portable computing, they also had dual displays for night vision with proper stereo image seperation for a real 3D display. The Discovery TV channel had a stand and seemed to have figured the trick of getting people into it - give out something to drink, not an entirely bad idea given the prices vendors charged for food and drink at the show. They also had a big screen showing their HTDV content which looked fantastic as you would expect.

Coolermaster had a small stand showing off their cases. There were some other fancy cases dotted around the show, one was completely clear and had flashing lights inside the fans. Evidently they need multiple fans given the monster heat sinks modern CPUs require.

SouthHall (Upper)
The Upper hall housed all sorts of different things under the guise of "breakthrough technologies".

Flashing lights were well in abundance as there were many stands featuring phone covers which were themselves covered in flashing multi-coloured LEDs, I know there was a lot of convergance at the show but I wasn't quite expecting phones to merge with Christmas trees...

GoldX had a very nice system for collecting your cables into one place, instead of having separate hubs for USB, Network etc. they have a stackable system which holds and powers many different modules: firewire, USB, LAN etc. They also do amazingly useful cables with interchangeable ends so instead carrying around different cables you can use one for both your printer and USB camera.

There were umpteen MP3 players in all shapes and sizes with a few throwing in FM radios as an added extra. If you wanted to make your own MP3 player you'd have no problem as there were many small stands taken up by component manufacturers of seemingly every type. Archos seem to have taken up this challenge but not only make HD equipped MP3 players but also do similar sized video players and are working on a PDA like device which also does video. Interestingly they are not far away from us being based just outside Paris.

If you want video RealNetworks were demonstrating their Real Media 9 and Helix technologies. They had a 5Mbit stream displaying on a HDTV and the result was pretty amazing. There were artefacts visible if you looked for them but some filtering should remove them and they didn't effect the detailed areas which remained clear as a bell even on the large screen. HDTV requires 140MBytes per second but Real was able to display it compressed to less than one 200th of that size and it still looked good. They also had a demo displaying DVD, MPEG4 and RealMedia9 against each other taking 4, 2 and 1Mbits respectively, I for one could not notice any difference.

Gibson guitars had a stand (actually a metal hut) in which they appeared to have a band playing which I of course missed. They were also showing off guitars with new pickups which can digitise and send out signals from individual strings. Beside them someone had set up a collection of guitars with "POD" effects units and headphones, The POD is a collection of different effects all crammed into one box and managed to turn even my badly remembered chords into "rock god"! Around the corner was a small Xilinx stand, I thought this a bit odd given Xilinx make chips but they seem to be used everywhere and it appears Gibson also use them. I mentioned that phone covers were all over the place but one company called wildseed had taken this idea much further and included a chip into their phone covers which changes the entire mood of the phone so changing the cover also changes the background image, ringtone and more. This isn't something I would use myself but given what sells in the phone market I can see them selling bucketloads of these, especially if they can support other phones.

One stand I visited quite a bit was the Genesi stand but then I do work for them :-) We were showing a number of Pegasos machines Running MorphOS, Linux and MacOnLinux. There always seemed to be some visitors and several times the stand was packed which is pretty good considering the stand was only booked a few weeks before the show - we even had some "interesting" visitors. We also were showing for the first time a new product in development called Psylent which as I found out when talking to people is actually pretty difficult to describe! It's really a home entertainment system with DVD, CD, TV, MP3 but also has computer like functions like Image / Movie editing and Internet access, walking around the show I seen several devices which had some of this functionality but none (with the possible exception of the MS Media centre) had all. If we can get this ready to ship in a reasonable time frame we could have a killer product on our hands.

After the business of the show some of us managed a short rest then packed up and went home. I came back with so many brochures and magazines that I had to buy a new bag to carry them all. By the time I've got through them all (and all the business cards) it'll be time for the next CES...

Nicholas Blachford 18/01/03

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