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From ‘Smart Screens’ to ‘AR/VR,’ Here are My Final 5 Observations from CES 2018

Following up on part one of my CES wrap from yesterday where I discussed how little things—like an inch of rain and no power—can be disruptive, how high-end audio seems to be disappearing from the show, voice control is going even more mainstream, how to find the little guys at Eureka Park, and getting a glimpse into Future Tech, here are five more of my favorite takeaways from this year’s CES!

If you missed my posts from the show, check out, “Hey, Google! Welcome to CES 2018” and “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend” for more in depth show coverage.

1. Smart Screens

With LED and OLED screens now available in myriads of shapes and sizes, their applications are now far beyond just phones, watches, and TV watching. In the past couple of years at CES we saw refrigerators get into the smart screen act, as they are trying to become the hub of the connected kitchen.

Now the next great frontier for screens appears to be vehicle interiors. Whether it is smart, adjustable gauges, multi-display indicators, moving maps, or in-vehicle entertainment, automobiles will benefit from a myriad of screen applications in the coming years. And some of this is not too far off, as Harman showed a Maserati in its offsite booth (outfitted with Samsung displays) that looks ready for the showroom floor. The rearview “mirror” is now a screen tied into a variety of cameras to display different views, and the dash is a living cluster of gauges and displays that can expand to provide a full entertainment experience for the person riding shotgun. Panasonic pushed this concept even further with the entire cabin being alive with screens ready to help entertain or keep passengers productive during a trip.

2A. Video Continues Breaking Boundaries

CES continues to be the place where the Big Three–LG, Samsung, and Sony–come to outdo each other. And where it used to be all about “Mine is bigger than yours,” now it’s more about black level, pixel count, thinness, and brightness. As expected, this year’s show had no shortage of stunning video displays, with a variety of cutting edge technologies on display from each company.

My “Best of Show” award has to go to Sony’s Full-Spec HDR 8K Display. This monster put out a scorching 10,000 nits, which is the first display to meet the maximum HDR spec. Compare that to one of the current brightest sets on the market, Sony’s Z9 series, which delivers close to 2,000 nits. And to really drive the point home, Sony displayed the Full-Spec set right next to a Z9 which looked like it had a veil on it in comparison. The brightness details—chrome highlights, reflections, sunlight, headlights—were absolutely stunning. The abundance of nits also raised the color saturation, producing images that were beyond lifelike with realism never seen before. Another big part of the Sony story was the new X1 Ultimate Picture Processor, a new chip designed to handle 8K resolution and squeeze every drop of detail out of an image.

LG once again had a terrific entrance to the booth where you walked through a cave of curved OLEDs, creating a really cool immersive experience. LG’s biggest video breakthroughs weren’t on display at the company’s massive booth, but rather an offsite private location. Here they showed a rollable OLED display that could disappear into a housing when not in use. Even cooler was that you could “unroll” as much of the display as needed, say a small strip for showing info like weather or stock reports, more to produce a 21:9 aspect for widescreen films, and fully for 16×9. LG also debuted the world’s first 8K OLED display. Of the “something you can actually buy” variety, LG’s new A9 processing chip looks to greatly improve picture quality on the company’s upcoming OLED lineup, and the W8 “Wallpaper OLED” is as thin and stunning as its name would suggest.

Not to be left behind by Sony or LG, Samsung also brought its A-game to CES, showing off micro-LED display technology that could change the future of home and cinematic presentations and be the eventual killer of front projection. These tiles can be stacked together Lego-style to create a display of virtually any size. The black level, brightness, and color detail were all phenomenal on the 146-inch 4K “The Wall” with no visible seams in the structure at all.

2B. Most WTF Video Booth Comment

So, I’m walking along and I come to a pretty impressive booth in the South Hall that proclaims the company, Skyworth, is celebrating its 30-year anniversary. The company has some incredibly impressive micro-thin OLED panels on display—I mean so thin that when they turn sideways they are literally un-photographical. So, I approach the woman manning the desk and say I’ve never heard of Skyworth but that I’m super impressed with what they are showing. She then tells me the company has indeed been around for years, and that they are not that known in the States but they are—not kidding—huge in the prison and men’s truck stop restroom display category, and they are now going more mass-market. If she was pulling my leg, I give her mad props.

4. Atmos Expands

Dolby Atmos has been around for a while, but unless you have some seriously deep pockets—or what I like to call “Trinnov money”—then your system has maxed out at 11 channels in a 7.x.4 configuration. Sure, this is great for most rooms, but in a larger room or with multiple rows, you can quickly see how more Atmos could be better Atmos. At CES there were three “affordable, sub-$5,000 options that expand Atmos to 13 channels, supporting either 7.x.6 or 9.x.4 configurations. Behold the back of the new Marantz AV8805 to see what this kind of connector layout looks like! Also on display were the new Denon AVR-X8500H 13-channel AV receiver, and new Emotiva 16-channel (includes three sub channels) flagship RMC-1 pre-pro. Unfortunately, none of these were being actively demonstrated at the show, but all should be available by Q2.

5. AR/VR

While not something I particularly sought out, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) were in quite a few booths this year, and while it seems clear the AR and VR are going to be the “next big thing,” companies are still trying to figure out how exactly to use it and what people want to do with it.

Samsung had a massive interactive display out in the hallway where people rode a virtual dragon and were tossed around in a real roller coaster style attraction. Some companies in the health space used the technology as a treadmill running simulator. Others an advancement of the “Google Glass” concept where a wearable would provide overlays—such as directions—as you navigate your daily life.

A huge part of the Intel booth was dedicated to showing how VR will be used at the upcoming Winter Olympics, letting viewers experience the games like never before. Intel also had a driving simulator where you could learn how to drive in a safe environment. (I tried it and the experience left me feeling more nauseous than safe.) Panasonic had several displays that showed off how augmented reality technology could be used to improve live experiences, such as watching a sporting event at a video where multiple screens would flash up bits of information germane to the action. Panasonic also showed how VR might be used in the future of air travel, both before and during the trip.

5. HDMI 2.1 Coming…But Not Yet

I expected HDMI 2.1 to be a big talking point at CES but truth is, not so much. As the standard was just finalized a month prior to the show, there was literally no time for any finalized hardware to make its way to Vegas. In fact, it is unlikely we’ll see any HDMI 2.1 outfitted components before 2019. The biggest benefit of this new spec, of course, is a much larger—48Gbps versus the current 18Gbps of 2.0b—data pipe which can carry far more information, including resolutions up to 10K and frame rates up to 120Hz. Most of this spec is very forward looking, so it is unlikely we will soon see sources capable of pushing these boundaries. The biggest question for integrators, of course, will be how to move 48Gbps worth of data from point A to B, and it appears that at least in the near term, fiber optic cabling will have the best chance for success over distance.