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At CES, Video Is King

From apps to chips, the moving image is everywhere.

Yesterday, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, some of the world’s biggest technology companies held press events laying out their plans for 2011 and beyond. These events reveal what the technology industry has on its mind—and right now, it’s thinking a lot about on-demand video. But with many competing technologies and approaches, the picture still needs a little fine-tuning.

Tablet glut: Motorola Mobility demonstrated it first tablet, called Xoom, which runs Google’s Android software, at CES.

As 125,000 attendees gathered in Las Vegas for CES, which opens to the public today and features thousands of large and small exhibitors, television makers including LG, Sharp, Samsung, and Sony presented new Internet-enabled TVs that allow viewers to pull down movies, TV shows, and video from free Internet sites such as YouTube and premium services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus.

Generally speaking, all these televisions offer similar features, such as the ability to run third-party apps, with an emphasis on social networking, and the ability to access content on users’ home networks. Despite their similarities, however, the offerings are fragmented—each manufacturer has its own app store and its own selection of video sources. Sony’s Google TV, for example, won’t connect to Hulu, which hosts content from a number of popular U.S. broadcasters. And no one television can yet access all the content available to a typical PC user. Interfaces also vary widely. Sony has a remote that includes a complete QWERTY keyboard, along with a host of other keys, while LG has a simple controller with just six buttons. Clearly, the future of TV has yet to crystallize.

Apple’s iPad has whetted consumers’ appetite for on-demand video, and a bevy of new multimedia tablets on display at CES aim to satisfy it. LG will announce a new tablet today; Motorola is demonstrating the Xoom, which it will bring out in the first quarter of this year; and BlackBerry is showing off its Playbook, which is also due for release shortly. Sony plans to offer a portable version of its Dash Internet Viewer this summer, and Sharp has the Galapagos tablet. This is already available in Japan, and Sharp hopes to offer it in the United States in the second quarter of 2011, though it admits it has made no decisions on the price, what cellular carrier might handle the wireless data traffic, or what operating system the non-Japanese version might run (Android, which drives most of the other tablets, would be a strong contender). And of course, many smaller companies have announced iPad look-alikes at CES.

Moving video data between different devices falls to networking companies like Netgear and Cisco. At CES, Netgear showed off a range of Wi-Fi routers designed to deliver multiple streams of high-definition video to devices scattered throughout a house. These employ beamforming techniques—sending a directional signal rather than an omnidirectional one—to improve signal strength, so that someone curled up in an upstairs bedroom with an iPad can still get jitter-free video. Meanwhile, declaring that “video is the new voice” and estimating that 90 percent of all network traffic will be video by 2014, Cisco presented a long-term vision, which involves developing an architecture called Videoscape. It intends to build numerous software and hardware products over the new few years with the help of partners such as ISPs and content providers. The idea is that a cloud-based software system will track what a user is doing on any of several devices. If the user is watching a movie on a television and goes for a walk halfway through, he should be able to instantly resume watching it on a smart phone from the point where it was paused.

The drive for on-demand video is even affecting computing at the hardware level, with Intel announcing at CES that the latest generation of its processors will have built-in support for handling video, converting video between different formats for different devices, and enforcing movie studios’ digital-rights-protection policies.

On-demand video isn’t just about consuming output from movie studios, though. Television-based video conferencing could be a popular feature of Internet-enabled TVs, as could apps for social networks like Facebook that let users share home movies and other clips. Both Sony and Panasonic have also brought out consumer 3-D camcorders, partly in the hope that, in the absence of lots of compelling professional 3-D movies, people might be motivated to buy 3-D-enabled televisions to watch home movies featuring 3-D versions of friends and family.

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