CES Avoids the Hype; Ultra HD Takes Steps Forward

Today marks the end of CES 2014, the annual gathering of the consumer-electronics industry that is held at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Venetian hotel.

It’s only fitting that the show is held in Las Vegas. The show floor is filled with exhibitors that are, ultimately, gambling that somehow their product or technology will catch on. And, while the herd mentality may be the equivalent of betting on the “sure thing,” it has become clear in recent years that the “big trends” at the show — most notably 3DTV, e-readers that aren’t called Kindle or Nook, and smart TVs — don’t always pan out. More important, arguably the most important consumer-product introduction, the Apple iPad, didn’t even occur at the show.

So increasingly one has to approach the show cautiously, especially if the goal is to understand how the new offerings will change the way content is produced and distributed.

For those in sports and TV production, the big focus was learning more about the new Ultra HD sets. The next-generation format that delivers 4K signals (someday potentially at 120 frames per second and with much improved color and contrast) is beginning to draw the attention of both content creators and distributors.

Ultra HD was a major emphasis at the Sony, LG Electronics, and Samsung booths, with each supplier offering displays that allowed attendees to compare the new Ultra HD offerings with previous products (and even 1080p). More than 30 Ultra HD sets were introduced this year, and Vizio took the prize for both lowest price (less than $1,000 for a 50-in. set) and largest set (120 in.).

Many of the new sets also were curved, another big trend among the manufacturers. The reason for the curve is to create a more immersive viewing experience, and, while it seems to work for the larger sets (85 in. and above), it seemed to create a less immersive experience on a 55- or 65-in. set.

As for the actual demonstration material, it tended to focus on beautiful landscapes with minimal objects moving quickly (Sony’s Confederation Cup demo was the exception). So the overall focus was, clearly, on resolution and doing everything possible to put the emphasis on clarity. It was also nice to see both Sony and Samsung demonstrating next-generation improvements in color and contrast.

The new Ultra HD sets are still lacking 10- and 12-bit processing, steps that would go a long way towards truly enhancing image quality. And there was no emphasis on the need to offer a content service that, ultimately, will embrace the 120-frames-per-second aspects of the format. That was most likely for a very good reason: any potential 120-fps production is probably two or three years away.

As for content services, exhibitors demonstrated Ultra HD streaming services from Netflix and Amazon, so the industry can expect both of those services, expected to be available soon, to play a big role in delivering actual 4K content at 24 fps to homes.

And the good news overall is that the messaging around Ultra HD seemed to avoid much of the hype that surrounded 3D. That may very well be because the sets will remain outrageously expensive for much of 2014. It may also be because the industry understands that over-promising and under-delivering are two quick ways to kill a market.

Tablets, Phablets, and Smartphones
Along with lots of cases for tablets and smartphones, there were plenty of actual devices in these product categories, and it was the official arrival of the “phablet” (basically phones with 5- or 6-in. displays) that is most interesting.

But the most important development was Samsung’s new Galaxy NotePro, with its 12.2-in., 2560×1600-pixel display. The big news is its 2.3-GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor, which allows it to do things like have up to four program windows on the screen at once. For sports-production professionals who increasingly rely on a tablet to do actual work, the ability to have four programs on the screen at the same time will be a godsend. And the capability is great for sports fans who want to stream an event in the browser while launching another window for social media or other related content. One can expect that functionality to migrate down to the smaller tablets.

The Look Ahead
So what does all this mean for those involved in sports production? Fortunately, not much when it comes to impacting workflows and product-buying decisions. The Ultra HD movement seems still to be about a year away, and the consumer-electronics manufacturers seem to understand that tempered expectations will win out. The upshot of the content-everywhere-on-any-device movement is also a positive because, ultimately, it means that sports fans will be able to stay more and more in touch with their favorite sports, teams, athletes, and content providers.

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