CES 2012: New Display, Imaging and Connectivity

CES 2012 was filled with new display and imaging and TV technology, at both the chip level and with the finished products that the convention — formerly called the Consumer Electronics Show — is all about. Here’s a sample.

By Cliff Roth

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Video/Imaging DesignWire
(1/24/2012 2:00:04 AM)

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month was the biggest yet. It’s always challenging to summarize this diverse, sprawling trade show with a few catch phrases and highlights (I’ve been going annually seemingly forever), but I can at least report on what I saw. First let’s start with the finished products, and then work our way back to the chips.

LG’s booth was simply breathtaking, featuring what may have been the largest wall of 3D displays I’ve ever seen. LG’s LCD 3D line is entirely passive now. Their 55″ 3D OLED screen — no price yet — was superb. Among the big CE manufacturers, highlights also included Panasonic’s ever expanding line of 3D camcorders for both professionals and consumers, including the $499 Lumix 3D1,and Sony’s 55″ “multipoint” glasses-free 3D display (a prototype) with softened edges as the viewer’s head moves around.

But more than any other year I can recall, this CES seemed to be about multiscreen connectivity. Not just the individual devices and gadgets, but what happens when they connect.

At the chip level, one  example of this was Ambarella’s new Wireless Camera Developer’s Kit, which enables the design of cameras that combine still photography and HD video with wireless video streaming to smartphones, and their new “iOne” camera SoC. Developed in collaboration with Qualcomm Atheros,  cameras  can readily be built to use any Android smartphone as both a display and controller, and do live streaming to the Internet, or record files onto a nearby laptop. Wear a helmet cam, for example, using phone as controller/display.  Ambarella’s approach is that, unlike smartphones with cameras,  this is a camera-centric solution — you turn the camera on, and can start shooting within a second or two, while in the background the camera also starts making the network connections.

Speaking of connectivity, Silicon Image’s MHL solution appears to have made quite a bit of headway over this past year, as it’s now available on many smartphones and TV set models. MHL, you’ll recall, turns the mini-USB charging port found on most smartphones into an HDMI audio/video output, so you can enjoy phone content (recordings, photos, games, etc.) on a big screen TV. The system requires no new connectors — you enable the mini-USB port on the phone, and the HDMI port(s) on the TV with MHL. Silicon Image also demonstrated their new “Insta-Preview” chips that enable TVs to simultaneously show what’s playing on all the HDMI inputs in little PIP-type windows on the screen.

On the DisplayPort side, the new “SlimPort” from Analogix provides similar (but not identical) functionality to MHL — enabling a smartphone’s USB port to feed video and audio to a DisplayPort input on a monitor or TV, while simultaneously powering the smartphone. (The advantage of DisplayPort over HDMI is that there are no royalties.)

MaxLinear has a new universal silicon tuner, the MxL683, and Fresco Microchip introduced the FM5150A global hybrid silicon TV tuner. Both combine cable-TV and terrestrial broadcast tuning.

At the finished products level, every TV manufacturer appeared to have Internet connectivity built into their sets, with most major manufacturers continuing to offer a balkanized walled garden of interactive apps along with staples like YouTube and Netflix. As tablet computing continues to gain ground, however, each manufacturer seems determined to find ways to move and share content between the big screen TV and the little screen tablet. Besides the big boys, there were also many startups whose mission was moving content between the screens. The problem with most of these schemes, however, is copy protection — often what sounds great in the two-minute demo turns out to have a major flaw upon closer inspection, in that the system only works for unprotected content.

One rather retro solution to this dilemma was introduced by Panasonic, in announcing a new partnership with MySpace to “introduce” an idea, to my reckoning, that has been kicking around for well more than a decade, which is to use the second screen for chatting about programs while they’re in progress. (Peel, an app you can get at the iTunes store, also introduced a social networking while watching TV feature.) Continuing their prominence in creating ruggedized notebook computers, Panasonic also launched a similarly positioned line of “tough” tablets. (So while chatting on MySpace about a TV program, when you get into an argument you can now violently throw your tablet on the floor for emphasis.)

Sigma Designs’ new settop box chips feature built-in Skype connectivity, and Sigma showed reference designs for next-gen STB’s that essentially clipped onto the top of a flat panel TV, providing a built-in camera and full STB functionality for cable or satellite.

I saw Steve Balmer’s “farewell” Microsoft keynote speech — Microsoft is pulling out of the convention next year, apparently copying a page from Apple’s playbook — but aside from a look at Windows 8 and MS’s ever catching up phone OSs, there’s not much to report. (CES has suffered from the loss of Bill Gates from the scene.) The TiVo App for iPad, if you haven’t seen it yet, is well worth checking out (in conjunction with a TiVo Premier DVR). For sheer simplicity and brilliance, the award this year goes to Italian company Sisvel Technology’s 3D Tile format, which puts a full resolution stereoscopic 720p picture into a standard 1080p signal.

CES is so big and diverse that it’s impossible to really summarize, and I gave up on that mission years ago. So this is at best a taste. If you’re thinking of going next year — and I highly recommend it — then it’s time to learn the CES mantra: Next year’s show promises to be even bigger and better.