They come in their thousands to Las Vegas partake in the annual circus of consumer electronics. And that is just the exhibitors.
This week, more than 20 000 new gadgets, devices, contraptions and applications will be launched across half a dozen convention centres and venues sprawling across the gambling and meetings mecca. Amid the noise and buzz of new ways of doing robots, virtual reality, smart cars and smart homes, one may just be able to discern the shape of the future emerging.
The Consumer Electronics Show, or International CES as the organisers prefer it to be branded, is the runway from which much of the Western World’s new technology takes off, setting the scene for the year in tech. The most glaring exceptions are smartphones, which tend to wait for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, and anything from Apple – which is always conspicuous by its absence from tech expos.
However, the shadow of Apple will be highly visible: it is trying to persuade innovators and manufacturers to build its HomeKit smart-home system into their new products. That technology will be at the heart of the company’s new HomePod smart speaker, but it already faces an uphill battle, which visitors to CES will be able to witness first hand.
It is expected that the world’s two leading voice activated “intelligent agents”, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, will not only give Apple a run for its innovation, but will in fact point the way. Already at the 2017 edition of CES, Alexa was making its appearance in anything from pool cleaners to washing machines. This year it would like to show it can be even more innovative – and more useful.
Google, for its part, is making its biggest appearance yet at CES. Banners reading “Hey Google!” – the wake-up call for devices like the Google Home smart speakers – are plastered across Las Vegas. Both the Home and the new Home Mini are aggressively targeting the market share of Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot.
This outdoor marketing blitz will be matched in the expo halls by the number of products on display bearing the Google logo and some form of smart functionality.
The war between Amazon and Google will be played out on numerous devices, with each trying to gain market share in categories ranging from headphones to smart TVs. That is ironic, since the TV category itself is one of the biggest battlegrounds of CES. In the last few years, Samsung and LG have slugged it out for boasting owners for biggest, sharpest, brightest, thinnest, smartest and other adjectives that serve as a proxy for technology leadership.
This year they are rejoined in earnest by Panasonic, which is both competing with and collaborating with Samsung, among other. In one of the early announcements of CES, the two companies agreed with 20th Century Fox to update the High Dynamic Range (HDR) platform called HDR10+, which will allow content creators and device manufacturers to offer a premium experience for viewers.
Not least, Panasonic’s own devices will benefit from the new specifications. At a press conference on Monday, it unveiled a 2018 line up of eight new televisions using the OLED format, light-emitting technology that allows for thin, flexible and vivid displays. Four of these – the FZ950 and FZ800 ranges, in 65-inch and 55-inch screen sizes – will be the first OLED screens that support HDR10+.
There is a strategic advantage to what seems an esoteric technology enhancement: Amazon’s Prime Video movie-on-demand service already has a catalogue of several hundred hours of HDR10+ content.
Panasonic also claims line honours for another esoteric area of TV display competitiveness: the quest for a better black. The blacker the blacks in an image or video, the more realistic the colours overall. This year, Panasonic’s OLED screens introduce an Absolute Black Filter, which it says helps ensure the purest, most accurate black levels by absorbing ambient light in order to eliminate reflections. This comes into its own in brightly lit rooms, when the level of reflection often makes big screens more of an irritation than a pleasure.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Panasonic has also teamed up with Amazon in a category that is not normally associated with either company: automotive technology.
Panasonic announced on Monday that it is integrating the Alexa voice service with the next generation of in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, it will make allow users to interact with the smart assistant finside the vehicle, with some not needing any Internet connectivity.
At Panasonic’s CES press conference, Amazon’s Alexa Onboard technology was demonstrated with the Panasonic Skip Generation IVI technology released last year. Drivers and passengers can use their voices to control car features like air conditioning, entertainment systems, communication and navigation.
“When drivers have access to familiar Alexa contextual commands and responses from inside the car, it opens up a new world of experiences,” said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Corporation of North America.
- Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.
What you can ask Alexa in your car
Alexa Onboard technology integrated into Panasonic Skip Gen technology allows a range of voice functionality for in-car users. Panasonic suggested the following questions that customers can ask Alexa while on the move:
- Navigation: Say, “Alexa, find the nearest coffee shop,” and instantly get directions using only your voice.
- Music: Ask Alexa to play music from your select streaming services
- Smart home: Control your smart home on the go with Alexa. Just ask Alexa to warm up your home while commuting, check if your front door is locked, turn the lights on and more.
- News: Say, “Alexa, what’s the news?” to hear your daily flash briefings.
- Ordering: Order a meal delivered before you even arrive home from meal delivery services.