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I have been at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) all week. For 116 days through the winter so far, there has been no rain at all in Las Vegas. But once 170,000 attendees came to town, the heavens opened. Getting between the halls became more of a challenge than normal, since the parking lots had 4" of water, and getting around on the streets became impossible. I heard of people taking two hours to get from their hotel to the convention center. I took the monorail, which works pretty well to get to the convention center, but rather less well to get to the big hotels where the keynotes were presented, the Venetian, and the Monte Carlo. Neither of them have a monorail stations that can be reached without a lot of walking outside. Or you could take an Uber or a taxi...but see above about trying to get a taxi through traffic in the rain.
Luckily, too, I arrived on Monday when the rain was just starting. On Tuesday when the rain was torrential, many flights were canceled. I know from previous experience that if your flight to or from CES gets canceled, then it will be hard to find another once since they are all full. Hotels, too. I talked to one person whose company had made a big block booking well in advance, but they were still all paying $800 per night.
So beyond the rain, and expensive hotel rooms, what were the big new things at CES 2018?
Karen Chupka, who is in charge of CES, gave us some (big) numbers. 2.75M feed of exhbit space. When she said 2.4 billion people, I knew it was too much even for CES attendees, it just seems like that. But that is the number of people who used a smartphone last year. The media attendance is huge, with 7,000 people from around the world (not counting me, since they won't give me a media pass since I don't work for a "media company" even though I only come here to cover the show </rant>). It seems to be obligatory to talk about sustainability all the time these days, and consumer electroncs has actually reduced by 25% their share of US home electronics. That is despite, obviously, us all having more devices.
The market for consumer tech should be $2.51T in retail revenues in 2018 (that's not quite a generous way to measure the market since it is folding in lots of Walmart, BestBuy, Amazon, etc's revenue, too). Given what a bit part of the show is now cars, and was PCs, I have no idea what is included in it. But it is a big number, it has a lot of semiconductor content, so I'll take it.
One of the big themes of pretty much any show on almost any topic these days is automotive. CES was no exception. In the automotive hall, there were concept cars, trucks, and even helicopters, with various level of electric and autonomous operation. Attendees at the Cadence suite had to make do with a model car, but it did have a real SoC in it. This was the one designed by Dream Chip and manufactured by GLOBALFOUNDRIES (both designed and manufactured in Germany). The demo was showing four cameras around a car, fusing the images from the cameras to give an all-around picture of what was in the environment around the vehicle. Integrating images from multiple cameras (and radar and lidar, too) is a key part of autonomous driving.
Automotive occupies almost an entire hall. Every year there are all the big names in automotive from Toyota to Mercedes-Benz to Hyundai. The big semiconductor companies in automotive are NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Intel (Mobileye). Intel gave the opening keynote for CES on Monday evening, which I'll cover tomorrow.
Plus there is always a new company or two trying to do a Tesla, enter the market on the strength of their electronics. This year it was Chinese company Byton, whose claim to fame seemed to be having a huge screen that stretched right across the dashboard. Most of the interaction seemed to take place through Amazon's Alexa. They had a big panel showing their features:
So that would be just like every other automotive platform. For the incumbent car manufacturers (OEMs in the jargon), the big issue is how quickly they can master the semiconductor and software required for adding increasing levels of automated driving. Meanwhile, for Tesla, and new entrants like Byton, it is whether they can master volume manufacturing at the quality levels required. So far Tesla has missed all its model 3 production milestones.Not having to manufacture state-of-the-art internal combustion engines should make it a lot easier, but they still need state-of-the-art bodywork, seats, wheels, and more, to go with the electronics and the electric drivetrain and batteries.
Historically, CES has not been the place where mobile is front and center. I think that is mainly that Mobile World Congress comes up just a few weeks later each year, in Barcelona. However, 5G is changing the importance of mobile since it will be in more and more things, in particular cars, IoT edge devices, robots, and more. On Wednesday, the "keynote" was a panel session about 5G with panelists from Baidu, Verizon, and Qualcomm. That covers the range from a chip company, a mobile network, and a service provider building technologies on top of other networks (primarily in China for now). I will write about that one day next week.
Some segments where there was some interesting technology that I saw and that merits keeping an eye on are:
Flexible TV screens. LG, in particular, had a tunnel of dozens of big screens sculpted into a sort of canyon you walked through, with full-on Dolby Atmos sound (also being demoed in the Cadence booth running on just a laptop). However, I'm not quite sure it is not a solution chasing a problem, hoping customers will like it and buy it, just like a few years ago you couldn't move for 3D televisions and virtual reality goggles, none of which have really caught on.
Augmented reality. Talking of virtual reality, there was some grouped in with gaming, plus some of the big companies had huge setups simulating rollercoasters and so on, complete with moving seats. But augmented reality definitely seems to be an area where more and more companies are providing solutions. It is an odd experience to look through goggles or a tiny pair of spectacles, and also be able to see a superimposed display of information. The AR system is also looking where you are, either by sensing eye movement, or sensing headset movement, or both. So what gets displayed depends on where you look. It feels a little weird at first.
Holography. Full-color holography seems to be becoming a thing. In fact I first noticed it in one of the casinos where there were menu items in space beside the escalator. The small projectors cost around $2500 per unit, to make a small object, but the big ones have 24 of the projectors. If you doubt what you are seeing, you can take note of the fact that the objects being displayed are going about the top of the booth walls in free space. Take a look at the seasonally-inappropriate Christmas wreath above. Don't forget, you are not looking at a screen, this image is in front of and bigger than the laser projectors behind it.
Drones. Drones are still around but seemingly in smaller numbers. I think that the market is no longer experimental. After all, you can go and buy them in Brookstone in a shopping mall near you. DJI (from Shenzhen) seems to be regarded as the leader, at least for drones that are used for commercial purposes, not just as toys. Their latest ones will take off from your hand if you hold it out, like a bird, and eventually land back on it. In the meantime, you can use it for photography.
3D printing. The automotive hall shared its space with 3D printing. These have got faster and more flexible, but in particular they have come down in price. 3D printers with capacity for commercial work are under $3,000 meaning that a "factory" of dozens or even hundreds is financially viable. Of course, there will always be a space for true high-volume manufacturing through various forms of molding, but I think additive manufacturing (where you build up the part by 3D printing) is going to take over from subtractive manufacturing (traditional machines tools where you start with a block of material and cut away at it).
Finally, there were a lot of robots around this year. Many are human-like (or android like, with a small "a" to distinguish it from Google's operating system). But here is laundroid. Now that's a robot I wouldn't mind having in my house. They bill themselves as the world's first laundry-folding robot. On the booth, they had a live video feed from inside the folding machine, but it was pixellated so you couldn't tell what was going on, as you can see.
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