Forget other trade shows. CES is the one with energy. As you navigate the bustling booths and crowded aisles, with the pulse of the show beating in the LVCC floorboards, ou can't help but feel that the blasé economic conditions of the last several years are now long gone. People are hungry for new ways to enjoy content and the industry is here, ready to provide it, at the more than 1500 exhibits to more than 130,000 attendees.
True to its name, the Consumer Electronics Show is primarily a consumer event that teems with gadgets for the home and car. But there are also plenty of important products and trends here for content creators. The key messages for the digital studio professional are as follows:
1. HDTV is here.
2. Optical storage has won.
3. Hard drives are in everything.
4. We don't know how to plug it all in together.
There were dozens of Asian HDTV component and plasma screen vendors. (I had one offer to do an EMedia 50" display if I would order 1000 units.) This means that prices are going to plummet by Christmas 2004.
This also suggests greatly increased consumer demand for higher-quality video (as well as the higher-quality surround sound) for content. Given that TV programming production has doubled in the last ten years, this next trend promises to fuel further work for studios.
Both analysts and vendors say that DVD recording will be big: 100 million systems by 2007. It isn't pirating that drives this growth, it's the abundant miniature digital and video cameras will need some place to put all that content and then share it. Those same cameras and recorders also will have either standard hard drives or one of the 1" square multi-gigabyte removable drives inside, eliminating hassles with tape.
Unfortunately, the battle over the next generation of DVD has heated up, which may mean we're in for more of the format confusion and conflict that plagued writable DVD until mid-2003. But that SD (standard density) DVD stuff is old news. To handle HD content, DVDs need more capacity. Enter Blu-Ray DVDs with 27GB--enough for four hours of HD on a 120mm Blu-Ray disc. Blu-Ray has powerful patent-holders (among them Sony and Philips) and strategic allies (HP and Dell), but the downside is that Blu-Ray requires new equipment to make the discs, so upgrading will take years, at least in the U.S. (Sony says they've been shipping Blu-Ray drives in Japan since April 2003.)
The good (or bad) news is that Blu-Ray is not the only game in town. In comes NEC with HD-DVD. HD-DVD only holds 15GB, but that's enough room for two hours of hi-def content. The big plus is today's current DVD production lines can make HD-DVD discs with little change, according to NEC (and HD-DVD partner Toshiba), so they can start almost immediately. Both the Blu-Ray backers and NEC had sample units running videos but no commercial versions for the North American market as yet. Since we've all lived with the DVD±R/RW format war for so long I'm almost starting to miss it, for nostalgia's sake, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will share my "Why Can't We All Just Get Along" award for CES 2004.
At CES, as anywhere in the consumer electronics world these days, everything that rises must converge. But to converge, these products have to connect. Sadly, there appeared to be no consensus at CES about how we are going to plug displays, PCs, media servers, and other components together. No less than five separate technologies--wired and wireless--vied for the title of the universal connection. No question that we do need to plug it all together, but how?
To answer one problem, there's a great solution from DeCorp Americas: flatwire. Rather than being a round cable, flatwire is, well, flat. Imagine a roll the size and thickness of shipping tape that actually is coax cable or 12AWG speaker wire--or better yet, a 110-volt power cable. Stick it to the wall, make right angle turns with it, then paint over it. This gets my Best in Show-Technology award for "Rescuing Me from Ugly Cable Hell."
Freecom also had a better idea for portable storage. I have a keyfob flash drive, but it is bulky in the pocket. Freecom redid this idea as the USBCard which fits in a wallet like a rather thick credit card. There's a pop-out USB connector and up to 1GB inside. For more capacity, the oddly named FHD-XS is Zip-Disk-sized cassette but holding 40GB and a pop-out USB connector as well. These two win my "No Flash in the Pan" Future of Portable Storage award.
Need a really portable keyboard for on-location? Try the iBiz Virtual Keyboard. Selling for under $100, it projects an image of a keyboard on any flat surface from a tiny two-ounce box. It then follows your fingers to record the keystrokes. It's kind of spooky, and there's no tactile feel or response, but if you just need to enter a few commands or file names, it's a great option. This gets my "Dave's Gotta Have It" award.
The same could be said for 321 Studios' growing family of software: DVD X Copy Platinum for backups, DVD X Rescue for unreadable discs, and DVD X Show for quick documentary creation. After playing with these products for a few minutes, I feel that they are essential tools for any professional. They win my "They Made an X-Phile Out of Me" Best in Show-Software Utilities Award.
Speaking of software, I give my "They Get It, They Really Get It" award to Muvee Technologies for their autoProducer package. You have to see it, but the software can pan, zoom, and cut video content and then match it to a music track by itself to create a finished home movie. Granted, it's for the novice. But the fact that the software is able to do so much of the basics suggests that in the future we can get a prosumer version that also executes much of the tedious part of production.
If you've got lots of DVDs or CDs, try Popio's wonderful drop-in trays. I like how they are designed to fit right in lateral file cabinets or on shelves and hold 24-48 discs that pop out when pressed. (Pop in/out--PopIO, get it?). For about $15, they earn my "Great Touch of Class" award for the Most Wonderful Non-electronic Tool at an Electronics Show.
I thought Hy-Tek's 30" TFT PC/TV at Comdex was wonderful, but their newest, 37" version, is simply a knock-out and a must-have for conference rooms or demo areas. At around $8000, it is a good value for a Pentium 4 with premium sound (Klipsch) and that incredible screen. Get this--there's a carrying-case available for it.
On the production side, MCE Technologies showed off their nice QuickStreamDV portable hard disk. Its eye-catching design and industry-standard screw socket for attaching to existing equipment wins my "You Must Take it With You" Best Add-On award for DV.
And where was VillageTronic a few months ago when I desperately searched for a way to connect my laptop to my Cinema Display? The VT Book DVI Graphics Card is a wonderful invention to do exactly that. You'll still need your DVI to ADC adapter, but the VT Book wins my "Read ‘em and Weep" award for being the cards that do what many other cards probably wish they could do, but—apparently--cannot.
Another much-sought-after product is OTC Wireless' WiJet. If you've ever tried to run a conference or show with multiple laptops, you'll love this. The WiJet is a 802.11 wireless adapter with a standard VGA port for projectors and displays. You use your regular 802.11-equipped laptop or PC to send PowerPoint or other content over the air to the WiJet and then onscreen. No plugging/unplugging, reconfiguring, etc. This is marvelous and wins my "Wi I Oughta…" Best Professional Tool award.
Finally, my "Do My Eyes Deceive Me?" Exhilarating Display Technology award goes to Norcent. To date, Norcent, whose product line covers virtually everything electronic, hasn't been known for innovations. But at CES they had a demo set up with their own new technology that vastly improves the image onscreen. According to Norcent, they can boost displays from 16 million colors to over one billion. Onscreen, the images seemed to pop out in almost three dimensions and become compelling to watch (like seeing HDTV the first time). A conventional high-end display next to it seemed blurry and washed out in comparison. Units won't ship until late this year, but this has to be one of the year's most anticipated enhancements.