The sustainability nightmare of the world’s biggest tech showby Peter Griffin
Peter Griffin finds out what's new in tech at the Consumer Electronics Show – and wonders whether we'll ever be satisfied.
I’m not just talking about the carbon footprint of the 182,000 people who attended the show this week in Las Vegas, 63,000 of them from overseas. CES symbolises, more than any other product showcase, the consumer excess that’s imperiling our planet.
Each year, the TV screens get bigger, the computers faster, the cars smarter, the virtual reality more immersive. Products will ship in the coming months triggering a new wave of upgrades designed to keep the multi-billion tech sector in growth mode.
But in the context of climate scientists’ increasingly desperate pleas for us to cut our emissions, the proliferation of plastic in the environment and the rapacious mining of precious metals to power our gadgets, the CES tech-fest represents us living beyond our means.
I used to travel to attend the show every couple of years, in the relative cool of early winter in Nevada. However, the last time I went in 2013, I could barely move for the crowds, let alone get near the most interesting new prototypes. It was like visiting the Louvre, pinned against the rear wall craning for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa amidst the wall of raised smartphones and selfie sticks in front.
The hype and gimmicks are designed with one thing in mind – an upward trending sales graph.
Enough, I thought then. But when will we have enough tech to keep us satisfied?
Apple’s reduced revenue announcement a couple of weeks ago was bad news for the tech titan and sent a shiver through the industry. Apple’s share price is down 29 per cent on three months ago. Part of the reason is that people are holding onto their iPhones for longer and consumers in China are rejecting the excessive prices of the newest line-up.
Good. It shows where the tech sector needs to go. That’s away from the expectation of endless growth and each new product delivering record sales. It’s towards a model where people hold onto their devices for longer, where devices are designed to last longer and assembled from more sustainable components, and where tech companies are held to greater account for their environmental impact.
Hey, I’m ultimately still a gadget fiend and my misgivings about the consumerism of the tech sector aside, CES showcased some wonderful innovations this year. Here are some of the significant technologies that caught my attention.
Folds, curves and rolls
We’ve seen prototypes of bendable and rollable screens before. But this year sees them just about ready for prime time.
We know Samsung will debut a foldable smartphone screen later this year, that when extended will give you the screen real estate of a small tablet. While that device was absent from CES after making a brief appearance last year, screen maker Royole debuted its own foldable smartphone, the Flexpai.
By all accounts it’s still a work in progress, the screen quality not quite up to standard and software glitches around screen orientation and app compatibility. But they seem to have mastered that flexible glass AMOLED display bend, that when folded out created a 7.8-inch screen. The Flexpai also has impressive hardware specifications, based on the Snapdragon 855 chipset. Google is working behind the scenes to make its Android operating system compatible with foldable screens. That will be essential to uptake of these devices.
The durability of that flexi-glass will also be crucial. When folded into smartphone mode, the chunky device will be vulnerable to knocks directly on the screen. It will need some seriously tough Gorilla glass to avoid screen damage. The Flexpai is no mere prototype, it will go on sale this year priced from US$1,300.
Work on flexible screens was showcased in what appeared to be the most impressive technology demo-cum-art installation at CES – LG’s “Massive Curve of Nature”. This was an array of 250 55-inch curved OLED TV screens positioned to form a sort of wave that engulfed attendees to its booth. The visual effect is stunning, but this is LG sending a message that when it comes to contorting high-resolution, large displays into unconventional shapes, they’re the masters.
That was reaffirmed with the launch of the LG Signature OLED TV R, a 65-inch TV that furls up into its base when in off mode. We saw that first appear last year at CES, now it is ready for sale. The key to it working is the incredibly slim display and the nature of OLED technology which is well suited to being flexed.
The obvious benefit is being able to get rid of the big black mirror in your lounge at the push of a button. You can also just show the lower fifth of the screen to display alerts or music tracks, which is pretty cool. The big question is how much it will cost. Given that LG’s top of the line wallpaper TV costs over $10,000, you won’t expect to pick up the rollable version, which is laden with LG’s other flagship TV technologies, for less than $20,000.
Other TV tech
TVs have always been the visual centrepiece of CES, so what else is going on in TV world?
This year we see the largest assembly of “8K” TV models ready for market. These are TVs with four times the resolution of the 4K ultra high definition screens currently on the market here. With 8K we are talking 7,680 x 4,320 resolution. I’ve seen 8K displays and while they look incredibly sharp, depending on how far away from them you stand, the difference between 4K and 8K is nowhere as impressive as jumping from plain old high definition to a 4K screen.
Other technologies like high dynamic range (HDR) will also come into play. While impressive, the 8K screens are years ahead of the market. We hardly have any 4K content to watch as it is, so it will be years before 8K content becomes widely available. In the meantime, content will be upscaled to 8K to make it look slightly better than its original resolution.
Samsung took a different approach at CES with a focus on its Micro LED technology. This is what Samsung hopes will give it the edge against rival OLED technology used by the likes of LG and Sony. It overcomes the drawback of traditional LED (light emitting diode) TVs by combining the LCD (liquid crystal display) making up the screen and the LED panel that illuminates the screen.
At CES, Samsung showed off a 146-inch TV called The Wall. It is ridiculously large for home use, but the Micro LED technology is also modular. That means you could snap bezel-free panels together to create any size and aspect ratio TV you want, enjoying top-notch image quality. It is an intriguing concept, the success of which will come down to how seamlessly Samsung can piece together Micro LED panels, and of course how much they will cost.
Auto tech is now huge
Car makers have been showing off new models at CES for years. But the growing momentum of electric vehicles, autonomous driving systems and increasing ubiquity of in-car entertainment systems has made CES one of the biggest car shows in the world.
Flying cars stole the show this year. The Bell Nexus is a collaboration between helicopter maker Bell Aerospace and ride hailing company Uber. Like an over-sized drone capable of carrying people, it is a VTOL (vertical take off and landing) vehicle that Uber has in mind for its flying taxi service Uber Elevate. It competes with more conventional airplane-like models, such as the Kitty Hawk ‘Cora’ aerial taxi, which was trialled in the South Island last year.
Aerial taxis of this type are still years away, but the technology is advancing rapidly and Uber is determined to get the price down to make it affordable for short hops around cities.
Back on Earth, CES saw the debut of the Nissan Leaf Plus. The newest iteration of the world’s best-selling electric car is the Leaf e+ and addresses the range anxiety afflicting many EV drivers. This version has a 62kWh battery, giving it range of 360-odd kilometres between charges. Faster charging technology and a design refresh complete the new Leaf. But there’s no telling when it will be on sale in New Zealand where only second-hand imported Leafs currently flood the market for EVs.
Chinese auto makers revealed their EV credentials at CES. The most promising is Byte, which showed off the M-Byte, a prototype car notable for its door to door digital display which replaces all of the conventional dials and displays, putting all controls on a digital touchscreen.
It’s a full electric vehicle, connected via 5G mobile technology and has Level 3 autonomous driving. That means the driver can take her hands off the steering wheel and let Byte do most of the driving, particularly on freeways. Byte also wants to start a ride-sharing service based on a fleet of Bytes as a sort of Chinese rival to Uber. This is a company with serious ambition and the thing that struck me the most on my last visit to China was how far they have progressed with electric cars.
Virtual reality, long overhyped and still fundamentally an awkward technology to use, showed pockets of promise at CES. Disney, for instance, has partnered with Audi for a VR application for the car. Instead of kids scrolling through their smartphones in the back seat on long trips, they can now slip on a VR headset and enter an interactive world synced to the real world movement of the car. If that won’t make them car sick, nothing will.
Low key on phones
There wasn’t much to shout about at CES when it came to phones. Samsung showed off a prototype of the Galaxy S10 that is based on 5G – the looming fifth generation of mobile networks.
But the big announcements on 5G and other mobile technology will be reserved for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next month. The one big player waving the mobile flag at CES was Huawei, with its new Honor View 20 smartphone, which looks very tidy indeed.
It is one of the first to dispense with the phone ‘notch’ housing the front-facing camera, instead embedding a ‘hole punch’ in the top left hand of the screen itself. That probably means more screen real estate overall, but will the hole punch prove too distracting? Expect to see a version of it appear in New Zealand this year.
Apple’s smart TV debut
We end as we started, looking at the future for Apple, which in the TV space appears to involve joining the pack it has remained aloof from for years.
At CES, Samsung revealed that from this year, Apple’s iTunes, TV and movies rental and download service will be available as an app on its smart TVs. That’s a huge departure for Apple, which has made access to iTunes on the TV exclusive to its own Apple TV device.
In addition, Samsung smart TVs will support Apple’s Airplay 2 system, which allows users to stream videos, photos and music to their TV screen from Apple devices. Mac, iPhone and iPad users will love that feature. Other smart TV makers are also expected to offer iTunes access this year.
But music seems to be off the cards for now. Apple is yet to make its Apple Music app available on smart TVs as rivals Spotify, TIDAL and Deezer have done. But with Apple set to launch its own Netflix-type streaming service this year and competing fiercely with Spotify for subscribers, we may well be set to see Apple come in from the cold and embrace TV makers as true friends.
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