CES gives peek of our tech future

By Peter Griffin

From the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to MIT's physics labs in Boston, Peter Griffin tours the US in search of the next big thing in tech

The extra screen real estate offered by the likes of the Sony Xperia Z make the phablet - a mix of smartphone and tablet - ideal for streaming movies, video calls and web surfing. Photo / Supplied
The extra screen real estate offered by the likes of the Sony Xperia Z make the phablet - a mix of smartphone and tablet - ideal for streaming movies, video calls and web surfing. Photo / Supplied

America, you can keep your fiscal cliffs, your assault rifles and bone-chilling snowstorms. Hang onto your gas-guzzling SUVs and weird, orange cheese too.
But your technology, your gadgets, your apps? I will take them any day of the week, because you are still the innovation leader in the world of consumer tech - even if you relies on lowly-paid Chinese factory workers to screw everything together.

Look, no hands!

The show-stealers at CES this year were prototype cars that can drive themselves. Audi and Toyota debuted so-called autonomous automobiles, which use sensors, high-performance computer processors, radar and GPS mapping to make driving decisions on your behalf.

These in-car computers make 20 driving decisions per second outwitting their human occupants. They don't get tired, break the speed limit or drive drunk. Advances in computing and global positioning technology already allow cars to park themselves - the next step is for them to complete the entire trip for you.

While US and Japanese automakers plan to have driverless cars on the roads within a decade, the real leader of the pack is internet search giant Google. Leveraging its experience with Google Maps and Streetview, Google has racked up hundreds of thousands of kilometres in its driverless cars, which are allowed on public roads in California and Nevada.

Tech companies are scrambling to join the driverless car movement. After all, they have been blamed for the rise of distracted driving. If the intelligent car can safely take over, you'll be free to text, tweet and tap to your heart's content.

Picture perfect

If you thought TV couldn't get any better after high-definition, ultra-thin displays and 3D, you were wrong.

The theme this year is big - 85 inches is the new sweet spot for TV makers, who debuted dozens of models at CES. The implication is clear - TV makers want to replicate the cinematic experience in your lounge - even if the size of these new screens may find you struggling to find a wall to accommodate one.

The high-definition we have grown used to isn't up to the job of delivering a beautiful, pixel-free image to these monster screens. So a new ultra-HD format has been developed, offering four times the resolution of normal HD. The change isn't as dramatic as the switch from standard TV to HD, but the likes of Samsung and LG displayed stunning nature scenes shot in ultra HD that had the crowd in awe at CES.

Sony's 85 inch ultra HD Bravia is already on sale in New Zealand for $34,995. That makes it a luxury item by anyone's measure, but prices are set to fall sharply. The big problem is that very little ultra HD content is yet available with broadcasters still paying off the costly upgrades to HD.

Phab gadgets

If smart phones have gone mainstream thanks to the effortless usability of the iPhone, they are also getting bigger as we spend more time computing on the move. That's led to the rise of a new category of gadget - the phablet.

It's a cross between a phone and a tablet, with numerous devices now available with 5 or 7 inch screens - up from the standard 3.5 inch smart phone display. The extra screen real estate offered by the likes of the Sony Xperia Z (5.5 inches) and the Huawei Ascend Mate (6.1 inch) make them ideal for streaming movies, video calls and web surfing.

The Kindle Fire, iPad Mini and a swathe of Android tablets have edged into the space as well and the trend has continued post-CES. Last week, HP unveiled its 7 inch Slate which runs the Android operating system.

I want what they have

If CES left me confident that the future of consumer technology is in good hands, there's much already on offer in the US that Americans take for granted - but which filled me with envy.

Throughout the US, millions of mobile subscribers are connecting to "4G" networks, allowing them to surf the web, stream video and download files at the types of speeds typically enjoyed on a fast home broadband connection. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint have invested heavily in upgrading their networks to handle 4G and smart phones such as the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 have compatible mobile chips.

4G means a richer mobile computing experience because the data throughput is that much better at handling streaming video, refreshing apps, ecommerce transactions and file transfers. 4G will come to New Zealand later this year, though Vodafone now has it live in a third of Auckland. But radio spectrum will have to be auctioned off first, to accommodate the faster networks national roll outs.

Cord-cutters unite

While pay TV subscriptions offer up 300 channels or more to US subscribers, an increasing number of consumers are ditching their subscriptions in favour of much cheaper internet TV services that offer on-demand viewing on the TV, phone, computer or tablet.

The kingpin in this movement is Netflix, which offers unlimited TV series and movie viewing for US$7.99 per month. While the service doesn't include the usual pay TV faire such as CNN, the Discovery Channel and sports coverage, it is appealing to viewers who want to pick and choose from a reasonable collection of shows.

Netflix is also attempting something potentially revolutionary by starting to produce its own TV shows. Its maiden effort, House of Cards, is a political thriller series starring Kevin Spacey. I watched the series as I travelled around the US and found it addictive viewing. Netflix released all 13 episodes on the same day, which led to binge viewing all over the US. Netflix will next attempt to revive the hit comedy show Arrested Development.

Hulu Plus and Amazon are Netflix's closest rivals in the video on demand market offering variations on the same theme. But Youtube has its own aspirations to overtake the pay TV giants, investing hundreds of millions in developing channels of content for the popular video-sharing site foregoing subscriptions in favour of selling adverts around shows.

Netflix could change the game in New Zealand, but the debut of such web-only services here is limited by two things - the state of our broadband infrastructure and broadcasters' exclusive rights to some of the best drama content.

- NZ Herald

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