CES can be intimidating. It is, after all, the world's largest consumer technology show, with 3,600 exhibits spread over 2 million square feet. It's also the only place where just about every kind of electronics device you can imagine is on display - from TVs and audio/video gear to smartphones and 3D printing and much more.
This year's show, held January 6-9 in Las Vegas, attracted 170,000 attendees, including members of CEDIA's Technology Council who scoured the show floor in search of cool new products and technologies. Here's our Top 10 list of the most compelling stories from the 2015 show.
1. TV Picture Quality Gets Even Better
High-definition TV is so good that it's hard to imagine it getting even better, but it is. 4K Ultra HD TVs, which have four times the pixels of a standard HDTV, dominated CES to the point where regular 1080p TVs were hard to find.
With any luck, 2015 will be a break-out year for 4K programming as more movies and TV shows become available via Netflix and other streaming services. Dish announced plans to make 4K content available to its 14-million-plus satellite subscribers via a 4K UHD box due out this summer, and Sony's new 4K Ultra HD TVs will be equipped to stream 4K UHD content from Amazon Instant and YouTube in addition to supporting "Instant On" Netflix streaming.
But 4K UHD wasn't the only news in TV. Quantum Dot (QD) and High Dynamic Range (HDR) picture-enhancing technologies were demonstrated by the major TV brands. Both seek to improve brightness and contrast to create a more realistic picture.
QD is a new form of backlighting for LCD TVs that can increase brightness over the LED backlighting used in most sets today as well as deliver a wider color gamut. "Manufacturers are looking at Quantum Dot technology as a kind of a hybrid between an LED/LCD TV and OLED TV that is easier to produce and puts out a very compelling picture," explains Dave Pedigo, CEDIA's senior director of learning and emerging technologies.
HDR, which was demonstrated under various names and with proprietary twists, dramatically improves contrast ratio (the difference between the brightest and darkest images a TV can produce), creating a more lifelike image. But the ultimate implementation of HDR will require special HDR-encoded content, creating a classic chicken and egg scenario.
To get the ball rolling, Dolby and Warner Bros. announced plans to release three Dolby Vision-encoded movies this year and Netflix announced partnerships with Sony and Samsung to deliver HDR-encoded content. (Dolby Vision is Dolby's name for HDR.)
LG was the only company to show a broad commitment to OLED TV - which delivers the most advanced picture available today - with the introduction of a new line of 4K UHD OLED sets. The TVs are slated for delivery in the second half of the year at prices that will be well above those of 4K UHD LED/LCD sets.
2. Blu-ray Goes 4K
Helping to secure the future of 4K Ultra HD, Panasonic unveiled a prototype "Ultra HD Blu-ray" player, the official name of next generation players that will be capable of playing 4K UHD movies on disc. "You will be able to get significantly better picture quality with Ultra HD Blu-ray players because images don't have to be compressed to fit over an Internet stream," Pedigo explained, adding that he expects to see a number of 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray players at CEDIA EXPO 2015 in October.
3. Home Theater Reaches New Heights
Although audio was largely overshadowed by new developments in TV and video, there was an overriding focus on improved sound quality, as evidenced by the introduction of high-resolution digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and better quality wireless speakers from stalwart brands like PSB and Klipsch.
Add to that the arrival of the Dolby Atmos and Auro-3D surround sound formats, which had their coming out party at last year's CEDIA EXPO, and the stage is set for a what Pedigo calls a "whole new home theater experience" - one combining lush 4K images with truly immersive sound.
4. Curved TVs Are Here to Stay (At Least for Now)
Continuing a trend that started at last year's CES, curved TVs from virtually every major TV maker were on display, even though it remains to be seen whether the public will embrace this new form factor.
"LG has a 105-inch curved OLED TV that looks great," Pedigo said. "When you get to a 4K screen that size, you're able to sit close enough to where the screen encompasses your entire field of view, creating a more immersive experience."
Most intriguing was LG's flexible 77-inch 4K OLED TV, which can be transformed from flat to curved (and vice-versa) at the press of a button on the remote control.
5. 8K TV Emerges
We've only just begun to digest the implications of expanded-resolution 4K Ultra HD TVs, and yet the next generation of television is already on the horizon. Sharp and Samsung staged impressive demonstrations of prototype 8K displays, providing a glimpse of a future where watching TV becomes more like looking out a window.
Asian TV makers are racing to bring 8K to market in light of NHK's plans to broadcast the 2020 Olympics in 8K, according to Pedigo. And even though it will be quite some time before 8K has an impact on the consumer market, he believes we will start to see homes with massive TV walls in the next 5 to 10 years. "It will almost be like you're looking out on your backyard."
6. China Comes on Strong
A number of little-known Chinese brands - TCL, Hisense, Haier, and Changhong among them - used CES as a platform to establish a presence in the U.S. Pedigo sees this as the early stages of a regional economic war as Chinese companies undercut Korean and Japanese display manufacturers. "This will push TV prices lower, but I won't say at this point that it will automatically push quality higher."
7. Home Automation Goes DIY
CES saw a continuation of the trend toward more do-it-yourself (DIY) home automation systems offering the promise of simple setup and operation. One of the more fascinating systems was the Bluetooth/Wi-Fi-enabled Nucli deadbolt from Westinghouse, featuring a fingerprint scanner, camera, motion sensor, and dual touchscreens - one inside and one outside. Smart light bulbs that can be controlled independently via a smartphone were another category that grabbed attention with demonstrations conducted by GE and others.
It remains to be seen how the DIY market will play out, but the sheer number of products that have been introduced over the past year is sure to exacerbate consumer confusion. "Creating a truly automated home and connected lifestyle still requires a skilled hand," Pedigo says, noting that reliability and security are a concern with DIY systems, many of which have been rushed to market.
8. Home Networks Get a Boost
Wi-Fi technologies demonstrated at CES promise to improve streaming at a time when more and more Americans are turning to the Internet for TV. "Qualcomm showed a router based on the 802.11ad wireless standard that can stream an entire 4K movie in 15 seconds, meaning send it from a router to a dongle or box connected to the TV," Pedigo said.
The company also demonstrated multi-user multi-input/multi-output (MU-MIMO) technology that makes it possible for four users on the same network to each stream a 1080p program at the same time from different devices.
9. Virtual Reality Struts Its Stuff
Everyone knows how awe-inspiring virtual reality systems like Oculus Rift can be when it comes to gaming, but we tend to forget that there are many other applications for VR, as evidenced by the appearance of a company you wouldn't expect to see at CES - Lowe's. The retail chain demonstrated how VR can be used to help customers make home improvement decisions.
"If you're remodeling your bathroom, you can see what different bath tubs look like or instantly swap out different color tiles while 'standing in your room,'" Pedigo explains. "This is just the tip of the sphere of what we will be able to do with VR."
10. 3D Printing Presages the Next Industrial Revolution
3D printing, which was on display in the Eureka Park section of CES, is having a profound impact on new product development and innovation. "The combination of rapid prototyping, made possible by 3D printing, and crowd-funding is making it easier to develop ideas and get products to market," Pedigo said. "It's really changing how many products are coming out as we head into the next Industrial Revolution."
To learn more about the latest in home entertainment and home automation, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.