January 11, 2021
Hey there! Welcome to the first of our special afternoon edition of Source Code at CES, which we'll be sending out for the next few days. Today, a look at some of the most interesting gadgets coming out this year, and how a very strange 2020 changed those gadgets forever.
Also, we're doing a live CES roundtable event with some Protocol reporters and some fun guests, on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT. Register now and come hang with us!
The Big Story
All the world's a screen
There's a lot going on in the world — and at CES — this year, but this is definitely still a TV show. The first day of CES was full of the same standards wars, hilariously nonsensical features, and totally unaffordable new sets as ever.
- And fair enough! TVs are more relevant than they've been in a long time: Sales were up 19% last year, per NPD, which is a huge number in a mature market, because TVs have been pretty much our only source of entertainment in the last 12 months. TVs 70 inches or more were up 82%, and more people are looking for things like built-in apps. It seems a multiyear upgrade cycle compressed into the last nine months.
The long-term trend here is TVs changing from "large black rectangles in your living room" to screens seamlessly integrated all around your life.
- LG showed off a semi-transparent screen, which it imagines might one day be integrated into the footboard of your bed. It also showed off the same tech in a train window, showing the route overlaid on the view beyond.
- Mercedes built a 56-inch panel that might someday replace your entire car dashboard. Your passenger can watch a movie while you navigate full-blown Google Maps. And drive, somewhere in there.
- TCL demoed a 17-inch rollable display that looks like an old-fashioned scroll, except it's a screen. It also makes a rollable display, which can go from phone-size to tablet-size with one tap. But forget that: I want a scroll-shaped smartphone, and I want it now.
Foldable screens, rollable screens, unbreakable screens, screens you put together like puzzle pieces, screens that go on your face: The only way to turn the whole world into displays is to create screens that can do anything, and that's what the industry is trying to do.
- The question is, though: Does anyone want that? In the business world, the answer's yes: From subway maps to billboards to company cafeteria menus, screens are taking over offices everywhere. But for consumers, the Mirror and Tonal exercise setups are the most convincing smart-display products I've seen, and really the only ones. Still waiting on the killer app for the foldable phone.
Sony's new plans for your TV
The big year for big TVs was a good one for Sony. And heading into 2021, Sony president and COO Mike Fasulo said he sees more to come. Sony's building Google TV-powered smart TVs, all kinds of new technology with unparseable acronyms and new tech to automatically optimize pictures. It's all a nice win for movie watchers, but Fasulo told me there's a bigger trend in play, too.
- First, he said, pictures and sound do still matter, just in a new way. "I'm not as excited about 8K as I was about 4K," Fasulo said, largely because the content just isn't there. More immediately he's excited about things like spatial audio, and a TV's ability to automatically optimize for whatever's on the screen at any given moment.
- But Sony's display business is much more than just TVs, he said. "When you think about [displays] for architecture, when you think about medicine, and you think about it for motion pictures or studios, it's pretty exciting."
- Sony's $5,000 Spatial Reality Display is a good example of what he means: a 3D display that feels more like you're looking at an object through a window than seeing it on the screen. The company's also building Crystal LED tech, which movie studios are using to create virtual sets that can replace green screens.
Sony's also adding more stuff to its TVs, from Google TV to Alexa to AirPlay to apps. Most smart TVs, I asked, end up old and out of date — wouldn't people rather just buy a Roku? He said no, that the TV is actually an important place for software. It's almost like the new family computer, in the middle of the house. "It is really much more than a viewing device," he said. Even though he quickly followed up with, "although that is its primary purpose."
- Here's one Sony TV feature I like a lot: a new mode that will automatically show you a piece of content with the settings — frame rate, dynamic range and the like — the creator intended. Musicians will be able to do the same thing with spatial audio, placing each track in virtual space. It's even better than just turning off motion smoothing.
Fasulo said something I've heard a lot so far this CES: A lot of Sony's products are only early attempts to respond to the way the post-pandemic world works, many of which were already on the roadmap and have just been moved up. The biggest changes are yet to come, as TV manufacturers race to give people what they need during a pandemic. "The relevance is so high right now," Fasulo said, "because you're at home."
The Good Stuff
- The coolest thing I saw today: TCL's Nxtpaper tablet, which uses a display tech similar to E Ink but capable of showing color, and playing video and games. Looks like the display tech I've been hoping to see for years.
- Intel is not ready to concede the chip war to Apple and Arm. It showed off a new generation of chips, and then the next generation, called Alder Lake.
- AR. Glasses. Are. EVERYWHERE. Vuzix has 'em; TCL has 'em; Lenovo has 'em. They mostly still look like concepts rather than finished products, but they're getting closer.
- The ecosystem of MagSafe accessories is starting to grow, with PopSockets, Anker and Belkin all dropping new magnet-based products.
- LG is finally going to sell a rollable phone, after spending what feels like several decades teasing the device.
- BMW, not to be outdone by Mercedes' big screen, debuted its own big screen. It's a big screen! Though BMW is relying much more on an in-console knob and voice for interaction rather than a touch screen.
A MESSAGE FROM MICRON
For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.
One More Thing
My one-of-a-kind fridge
Personalization is the thing right now, as everything becomes customizable to each user's unique taste. But while I get the idea behind Samsung's millennial-aimed lineup of refrigerators with customizable sizes, materials and colors, I can't get past the phrase "bespoke fridges." I'll stick with my ancient, leaky Kenmore, thanks.
Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or our tips line, email@example.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.