CES 2009 – Future Technology Trends – Part 2

CES 2009 helped mark a number of upcoming technological trends that have either already reached the market or are about to do so in the next 12 months. In this part of our post-CES overview TFOT will cover 4 different emerging technologies: Wireless power which is starting to gain momentum with several companies already offering different solutions for cordless electricity, next generation wireless HDMI, Netbooks, and finally, the next generation of wired and wireless USB currently under development.
WiTricity - wireless power
WiTricity – wireless power
During CES 2009 we saw several wireless technologies, none of which appeared on the show for the first time. The first and actually the more “radical” group of technologies was wireless power. Although far from being a new concept, wireless power transfer technologies could be divided into 3 main groups: physical touch based technologies (such as the one demonstrated by Powermat, which requires the charged object to come in direct contact with the charging unit), close proximity/very low power wireless transfer (such as the one demonstrated by PowerCast) and finally (relatively) long range/high power wireless power technologies (demonstrated by Powerbeam and WiTricity). For now only the touch and close proximity technologies are ready or close to be ready for prime time, as is the case with many other advanced new technologies that require widespread adoption by the consumer electronic industry in order to be commercially viable. However, like the case with all new high risk technologies, manufacturers are understandably cautiousabout being the first to adopt something which is not currently available – in this case both the infrastructure (i.e. the power transmition part) and the consumer manufacturer support for the actual end user products (with the receivers); most exist before the technology can work. This seemingly vicious circle delayed, and in some cases even prevented, technologies from reaching the market for years. Our bet is that if one “brave” big player (Apple, for example) officially embraces one of the wireless power technologies it might start becoming a standard. However, for it to really become pervasive some sort of standardization will have to occur in this field but we are still a long way away from that.
Amimon wireless HDMI based products
Amimon wireless HDMI based products

By 2009 wireless data transfer is a very robust area. However, so far sending high resolution video in real time wirelessly isn’t exactly a straightforward matter. Since many users prefer to avoid ugly wires in their living rooms and bedrooms, finding a solution to wirelessly transmit HDMI is an impotent task. Several companies (including TZero Technologies and SiBEAM) are already manufacturing wireless HDMI chips which have been (or will be) integrated into products by several OEMs (including Gefen, GIGABYTE, ASUS, and others). While TZero Technologies uses UWB (ultra-wideband) technology as part of the WiMedia Alliance, other companies take a different route. At CES 2009 we had a chance to meet the Israeli company Amimon, which is working on its own wireless HDMI technology. Amimon claims to have longer ranges and faster connections than UWB based technologies and it has already been able to gain support from giants such as Sony, Sharp, and Mitsubishi, which had Amimon based products on display at the Amimon suite at CES.

While the quality of the wireless HDMI connection on display at the Amimon suite was very good, the price of the products based on its technology is still very high, starting at the high hundreds of dollars (to be fair the same goes for Amimon’s competitors as well). In 2009 we shall see more wireless HDMI products, but as long as prices remain high the adoption rate will remain low. Unlike wireless power, wireless HDMI already has (more or less) accepted standards and its now mainly a matter of time and cost before the technology will become widespread (and will be integrated into most new TVs and home entertainment systems). If we had to bet we would say that a large scale change in the consumer market will only start to happen in 2010.
 ASUS EeePC-1000HE
ASUS EeePC-1000HE

Netbooks where a hit in 2008 and at CES 2009 all large notebook manufacturers showcased new netbook models. Since the netbook market is highly competitive, manufacturers have to fight hard to distinguish their new models from those of their competitors. Among other things, we have seen touch screen based netbooks like the ASUS   T101H EeePC which was showcased at the ASUS booth. This upcoming netbook (which shall be available, according to the company, in two models: 8.9” and 10”) will be the company’s first touch screen capable netbook/tablet. ASUS is still developing the unique interface, which will be based entirely on touch (as we could see on the video displayed on the company’s booth). The 8.9” model should be out around March 2009 and will also include a GPS and a TV tuner; the 10” which will be out about two months later will not include these features. Pricing was not available for both models at CES.

MSI U120 touch display netbook
MSI U120 touch display netbook

MSI also showed its first touch screen netbook (no tablet-like display on this one) designated U120H. The netbook is similar to the current MSI U120 in form but adds a resistive touch display (no multitouch). Unlike the ASUS, it doesn’t seem to support any special GUI designed specifically for touch (which is a shame since many icons on Windows XP can be too small to comfortably use with fingers). MSI also showcased two other innovative netbooks – the first was the U115 Hybrid, which combines SSD and HDD for storage. The U115 uses both 8/16GB SSD and 120/160GB HHD. The idea is to use the SSD most of the time to keep power consumption low, making the system more shock resistant and quiet, and using the the conventional HHD only when needed. It will take some testing to see if this configuration actually brings in any real world advantages over an all SSD based device or a regular HHD based netbook. The final innovative netbook from MSI at CES was the MSI X-Slim 320. This ultra slim device (think Macbook Air slim) is actually not a netbook but rather a very cheap super light/thin notebook with a 13.4” display (optimized for 16:9). The X-Slim 320 will be priced at around $800 (considerably lower than a Macbook Air) when it arrives in the second quarter of 2009.

Sony Vaio P - small and beautiful
Sony Vaio P – small and beautiful

Sony also entered the netbook market at CES 2009 with their new Sony Vaio P. Actually, the company asked us not to call the Vaio P a netbook but rather a miniature notebook. To be honest, it is a strange little device which differs quite considerably from most of the netbooks we came across. It has an 8” LED display with an extremely high 1600 x 768 resolution designed specifically for 720p video playback (most netbooks has 1024×600 at best). However, according to early reviews with the Intel Atom Z520 clocked at 1.33GHz and the less than impressive Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 500, the Vaio P running Windows Vista (according to Microsoft’s license it has too much RAM and its resolution is too high to use XP) was less then impressive trying to run HD movies. Some stores around the world have started offering Vaio P with Intel Atom Z530 (1.6GHz) / Z540 (1.86GHz) processors, which might help a bit. The Vaio P, which is already available, comes with either a 60GB HHD or a choice of 64GB or 128GB of SSD alongside its integrated GPS and 2GB RAM. Its price starts at around $900 (and goes way up depending on the configuration).

Nvidia'S Ion prototype
Nvidia’S Ion prototype

One thing we didn’t see at CES was a netbook with some real graphic capabilities. Yes netbooks are not meant to be gaming machines and many people will not even consider them for HD playback given their small displays; but for may users a half decent graphic is all that stands between them and throwing away their old laptop/desktop in favor of a brand new netbook. Many analysts have already written about the problem Intel is facing here – if its next version Atom processor and chipset will be too capable it will drive business off its more lucrative regular mobile processor line.

Here comes nVIDIA with its new Ion platform. Ion is basically a combination between Intel’s Atom and nVIDIA’s GeForce 9400M GPU (the later is also used on the new Macbook Air). Although no known manufacturer revealed plans to use the Ion platform on its upcoming netbooks, many analysts expect to see something along these lines around the middle of 2009, bringing improved graphics capabilities to the netbook market with a slight price premium ($50-$100 are typically the numbers we have been hearing). We can easily see a slot loading Blu-ray equipped netbooks based on the Ion platform used as portable HTPCss (given it has an HDMI). Alternatively, manufacturers can offer an Ion based netbook with an external Blu-ray player keeping the size and weight of the unit itself down.
Wireless USB products
Wireless USB products

Finally, for this part of future technology trends we want to say a few words about the future of USB. During CES 2009 we had a chance to see two USB technologies which are going to influence our lives in the next few years. Actually, our first meeting of CES 2009 was with the USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) – a non profit organization which promotes and supports the Universal Serial Bus standard. The USB-IF was formed in 1995 by the group of companies including, among others, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Microsoft, Intel, and even Apple. At CES 2009 TFOT had a chance to talk to Jeff Ravencraft, President and Chairman of the USB-IF. Most of the talk concentrated on Wireless USB, and Mr. Ravencraft mentioned that there are currently 132 different wireless USB products already on the market. We were actually fairly surprised to hear this number as we only know of a handful of wireless USB consumer products on the market (mostly wireless USB hubs from several companies). Among the products mentioned where laptops, cell phones (we were actually shown a mockup Samsung D880 with wireless USB), external hard drives, projector adapters, and wireless USB hubs.

Mr. Ravencraft also explained to us a bit about the upcoming wireless USB standard planned for later in the first half of 2009, called wireless USB 1.1. This new standard will include performance enhancements (the current wireless USB 1.0 specifications allow for 480Mb/s for up to 3 meters and 110Mb/s for up to 10 meters). Mr. Ravencraft mentioned up to 1Gb/s from 3 meters away on the new wireless USB 1.1. Even more importantly wireless USB 1.1 will bring improved power efficiency, proximity based association (two devices will be able to pair when held a 1-2 centimeters from each other), and UWB upper band support (6Ghz and above). Actually, unlike BlueTooth, which has a horrible pairing methodology, wireless USB can pair using the good old USB cable. We agreed with Mr. Ravencraft that this is probably the most straightforward, simple, intuitive, and safe method for pairing two devices – connect the device and the host with a cable once, hear (or see) a confirmation for the pairing, and from that point on there will always be a secure wireless link between the two devices up to 10 meters. Proximity pairing is nice, but at the end of the day physically connecting the two devices seems like the best way to go and it is also something that most current USB users can relate to (keep in mind that many devices will still use wired USB to charge so the cable is defiantly not becoming redundant yet).
USB 3.0 in action
USB 3.0 in action

In an interesting coincidence, our last meeting at CES was with Symwave, which is currently working on developing the second USB related technology we saw at CES – USB 3.0. TFOT has covered USB 3.0 extensively since 2007 (although things took a bit more time than we predicted), more recently in November 2008, and finally when the final specifications were released on November 17th. At CES we had a chance to meet John O’Neill, the vice president of marketing for Symwave, who demonstrated file transfer to a USB 3.0 device at a speed of 80MB/s (640Mb/s or about 1.5 times the max theoretical limit of USB 2.0). The demonstration rig was still very delicate and it is clear that some optimization is still needed before any actual end-user products could reach the market, but Symwave was fairly confident that it will be able to deliver to its clients (i.e. OEM manufacturers, etc.) the technology which could be integrated into commercial products by the end of 2009.

There are a few interesting points some people do not realize regarding USB 3.0. There are actually 3 different components which need to support the technology in order to actually get the full benefits of the USB 3.0 protocol. The first is the device (for example an external hard drive or a camcorder) which needs to be compatible with USB 3.0. Then there is the cable – although USB 3.0 cable is backwards compatible and you will probably be able to use a USB 2.0 cable with a USB 3.0 device, you will need to use a special USB 3.0 cable with a USB 3.0 device to get the thing working at 3.0 speeds. Finally, you need a USB 3.0 host connector (i.e. a connector and special hardware in your computer). This is probably the biggest problem as people who will not buy a new computer (which will start appearing with USB 3.0 connections probably sometime during 2010) will have to get a PCI Express card in order to connect their new devices.
Mr. O’Neill also explained to us something we were not aware of. Apparently USB 2.0 is considered a “CPU hug” and USB 3.0 will have a much better software implementation which will reduce the strain on the CPU. Even more interesting (and surprising) was the next statement by Mr. O’Neill, who explained that the new USB 3.0 drivers will likely improve the performance of USB 2.0 devices as well. On the other hand there will not be any native support for USB 3.0 in XP or Vista and even Windows 7 will require special drivers in order to operate USB 3.0 devices (we can only hope that Windows 7 SP1, which will come sometime in 2010, will bring some native support for the technology).
TFOT already covered many innovations from CES 2009, including the upcoming SDXC memory card format, which will offer up to 2TB of Storage, nVIDIA 3D gaming glasses, which we have also mentioned as one of the 3D technologies in our initial CES 2009 – Future Technology Trends (Part 1) article, and many video bits from CES including Sandisk’s G3 240GB SSD, Intel’s real time 3D VR, and LG’s 15-inch OLED display.
In the next part of CES 2009 and future technology trends we will cover fuel cell technologies; advanced touch and multi touch displays, green technologies, and advanced handheld scanners.