Based on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held this week in Las Vegas, Nevada, consumers in 2010 can look forward to a bounty of ebook readers, 3-D HDTVs, and computers in a wide range of body types. However, technologies just now breaking out of the lab promise to make many of these new consumer electronics obsolete, perhaps even before they are officially launched for sale.
Electronic Ink and Ebook Readers
Amazon’s Kindle made E Ink display technology popular. This year several consumer electronics companies and publishers previewed their own take on the technology. Plenty of ereaders retain the cluttered button-strewn interface of the Kindle. Others look more like Sony’s Reader, with fewer buttons and a touchscreen that allows swiping through pages. In an attempt to save the newspaper and magazine industries, ereaders are also getting bigger. The Skiff Reader measures 11.5 inches diagonal and will retain much of the complex layout of these media. Plastic Logic will market the Que for business use, where PDFs and other documents can be stored and displayed on a large electronic ink display. The Que is also the first device that places the electronic ink technology on plastic, rather than on glass. This should make the device more resistant to accidental damage and it marks the beginning of an era in flexible and bendable electronics.
All electronic ink ereaders are readable in direct sunlight due to the reflective nature of the electronic ink and high pixels-per-inch values. They can run on a single charge for days and the best can access cellular networks to make purchasing a new ebook easy. However, electronic ink is limited to a few shades of gray between black and white, and the refresh rate is very slow. These devices are also limited in what they can display. To address some of these issues, ereaders like Barnes & Noble’s Nook add a second display. This small color LCD panel is placed below the electronic ink display. The second display allows for a more vibrant and faster interface for ebook browsing, though the ebook text itself remains confined to the top display. Spring Design’s Alex reader adds the Android operating system for web browsing and running apps on the 3.5″ LCD. Battery life depends on how the reader is used; relying more on the LCD will require a recharge after only several hours. New ereaders like the enTourage eDGe go so far as to pair an electronic ink screen by a hinge to a full-sized LCD. The LCD side features tablet-like capabilities. As expected, such devices are bulky and battery life is measured in hours.
The ultimate ereader, of course, is one that offers readability, full color, video, and multimedia with battery life measured in days. Tablets (sometimes referred to as “slate PCs” at CES 2010) can offer some of these features but to date remain too bulky and battery draining. A combination of the upgraded Tegra platform from Nvidia with the display made by Pixel Qi appears to fair much better. Pixel Qi provides a 10.5-inch screen that combines the best of LCD technology with the best of electronic ink, all in one display. The display switches between modes automatically or manually depending on how it is being used, resulting in unheard of battery life for such a device. By making use of existing LCD production processes, the new displays are expected to be affordable almost immediately.
Qualcomm took a different approach with Mirasol. Mirasol is a grid of microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices that reflect red, green, and blue light. When a voltage is applied, the two plates in an individual MEMS device are pulled together to produce black. By manipulating the state of these MEMS devices, other colors can be created. This activity is fast enough to support video. The result is a full-color and high resolution display that uses less power than electronic ink. There is only one mode and all use cases between reading and watching movies are supported. In footage filmed by the Engadget technology blog of a tablet using Mirasol at CES, the display had a yellow tint and was somewhat less vibrant than LCD. However, the technology at this early stage already offers a compelling number of capabilities future consumer electronics are expected to include.
Confined to ereaders, electronic ink may turn out to be a short-lived technology as future tablets with first generation technologies likes those from Pixel Qi and Qualcomm combine a variety of features together into one device. This convergence of comfortable and portable reading, browsing, watching, gaming, communicating, and other activities is already a hallmark of smartphones and is expected to make its way into larger and more powerful devices. Based on what was shown at CES, by the end of 2010 tablets with cutting-edge display and interface technologies may have replaced dedicated ereaders completely.
3-D arrived in a big way at CES 2010. Along with all the new 3-D compatible high definition televisions on display and set for release in the coming months, DirecTV announced they would soon have three dedicated 3-D channels and Sony, Discovery Communications, and IMAX announced a joint effort to create a new 3-D network. Meanwhile, studios are beginning to announce their first 3-D Blu-ray titles and the phenomenal success of “Avatar” suggests this activity will only accelerate. Coming at a time when consumers are more quickly replacing their standard definition televisions with high definition LCD and plasma televisions, 3-D might have arrived at exactly the right time.
Although audiences are obviously enamored with 3-D at the movie theater, some commentators look to gaming as the killer application for the format. In “Avatar”, the flora and fauna pop out of the movie screen, but the audience has no way of lingering or setting off to explore the world at their own pace and in their own direction. Games are not necessarily limited to the linear storytelling and director’s perspective of movies. Players can move to look behind 3-D objects, which is a much more immersive experience.
One limitation of current 3-D technology, whether it is in games or movies, is the need for consumers to wear special glasses. It is unclear how consumers will take to this requirement. Will they experience initial excitement before relegating the glasses to a drawer? Will they adapt and begin to demand all video content in 3-D? Depending on how long it takes for this to become clear, a variety of other technologies may begin to transform televisions in coming years. For example, glasses-free solutions were demonstrated at CES 2010 but are still too expensive for widespread adoption.
Another trends will be increasing resolution from the current top 1080p standard. Video in this format is generally 1920 by 1080 pixels. Some theaters are already displaying movies in 2K resolution, which is about four times the resolution of 1080p. Meanwhile, filmmakers are beginning to shoot their movies in 4K resolution. 8K resolution has been demonstrated in Japan. How soon these resolutions will make their way into consumer electronics is unclear, but we can expect another digital television transition at some point in the coming decade.
Perhaps more compelling in the long-term, holographic video may leapfrog over the limitations of 3-D. Holographic video builds three-dimensional objects in a real space, allowing the viewer to walk around and interact with the objects.
This technology would require new cameras and filmmaking techniques, or it could be emulated much more quickly by increasingly powerful computers. Imagine a movie shot in 2-D and then fed into powerful computers that can recreate the 3-D aspect of any object in the scene. The limited perspective of 3-D movies would be overcome overnight.
Finally, the direct input of data into a person’s nervous system may make all display technologies obsolete. These data might be represented in three-dimensional space almost immediately, as consumers begin making their way through blended virtual and real reality. Intel expects to begin offering brain-machine interface technology to consumers around 2020 and the Singularity University and X Prize organizations are planning a prize to spur further research into the technology. If this technology arrives as soon as that, 3-D televisions may not be around all that long.
The computer as we know it today is rapidly changing. Desktops and laptops are giving way to cheaper netbooks, consoles, and HDTV’s with wireless and web-enabled apps, while smartphones and upcoming tablet computers explore multimodal interfaces that will soon relegate keyboards and mice to the museum. At CES, a plethora of netbooks and tablets were on display, adding more capabilities with a new generation of power-miserly microprocessors. Touch and multitouch interfaces were evident, and gesture recognition is coming to the XBox 360 this holiday.
Haptics, voice, gesture, emotion, touch, and other interfaces are coming together to allow consumers to interact with data in new ways. In addition to potentially replacing ebook readers in the coming year, tablets could also make desktops and laptops obsolete. Before brain-machine interfaces become available, tablets will have already started blending the real and virtual. They will become “windows” into virtual realm where data is displayed in increasingly sophisticated ways. At CES, the iPhone became both the control for a real toy helicopter – the Parrot AR.Drone – and a window to a world where that toy shot down virtual enemies.
Consumer electronics companies must contend with accelerating progress in science and technology that sometimes brings change even before they can release their devices to consumers. This decade will bring a change in the very materials used by electronic components. Consumer electronics will soon be flexible, bendable, transparent, and impossibly thin, well below the quarter inch that seemed to be hot at this year’s CES. Just like the majority of companies releasing ereaders this year, or those tepidly dipping their toes into new tablets, companies that simply jump on the latest technology bandwagon will find their products failing in the marketplace. Companies that press forward and try to redefine entire classes of consumer electronics may stumble across the right convergence of technologies that resonate with consumers at exactly the right time.