Heading into my fourth CES, I set out to discover a little bit more about very specific tech trends and how they would evolve over the course of the week here in Las Vegas. Of course, the overwhelming nature of CES meant that I’d have the opportunity to explore nearly every aspect and segment of the industry (and I’ll try to get to them eventually as I dig back through my notes in the coming days and weeks). But three things in particular stood out to me heading into this show: 8K, 5G, and Virtual Reality.
Any understanding of the tech space would let you know that those three topics weren’t chosen at random. Each, in their own right, has dominated the conversation over the past few weeks and months (and even years, in the case of VR) as brands and industry analysts try to wrap their heads around the direction the tech is heading, the impact of the broader consumer market, and (again in the case of VR) its viability as a technology.
So, here’s what I found out in my week of romping from convention hall, to convention hall, to hotel, and back to convention hall for CES 2019.
It’s here, but I still don’t understand why. Actually, scratch that. I understand why 8K is here, but I don’t think that I can fully support its way-too-early arrival.
TV brand after TV brand rolled out their first-ever 8K offerings during CES 2019. That laundry list of brands included LG, Samsung, TCL, Sharp, and Sony, among other smaller brands scattered throughout the show floor.
The promise of 8K is simple. It’s 33 million pixels, or more than four-times as dense as 4K TVs available today, packed into these massive screens. And clarity aside, 8K will allow TV brands to continue to up their screen-size options without sacrificing clarity or color—hence the introduction of Samsung’s 98-inch model here in Vegas.
But let’s get to the why.
Why are brands so eager to push these new sets to market? Well, just take a look at the continually diminishing returns on TV sales for manufacturers today. The one stat that stood out, which TCL itself shared during its press conference this week, is that 99 percent of all sales last year were in the sub-$2,000 range. As TV prices continue to decline, and as consumers continue to wait for the best deals on new displays, margins for manufacturers (and in turn retailers) continue to vanish at an alarming rate.
TCL's Roku TV 8-Series, when it becomes available, will have the ability to display 8K resolution in screen sizes of 75 inches and larger in the U.S. market
So, the best way to ensure those profits don’t completely vanish is to launch a new display technology. And that should do two things for them: 1) give TV makers an opportunity to benefit off of the early adopters out there, and 2) possibly allow them to slow the downward curve of 4K and HDR set prices with the distraction of these new higher-priced 8K TVs. So, in that sense, can you really blame them for trying to make this push?
But, not to be forgotten here is the fact that content is still lagging way far behind. Sure, 8K is a viable display technology that was bound to hit the market eventually. But it’s frustrating both as a person who covers this space and a consumer who watches TV to see brands get out so far ahead of the content side. Current 4K-ready options include Amazon Prime and Netflix streaming services, 4K Blurays, and that’s about it.
But, here we are, and I guess we might as well just start prepping for 16K TVs to quickly follow suit.
If you weren’t talking to someone about 8K, the other trend that dominated this show was 5G. Here’s another technology that’s much-anticipated arrival is being met with a whole lot of brake pumping by those who watch this industry.
5G touched nearly every corner of the CES show floor(s), with all of the major manufacturers touting their work within the industry to get consumers ready for the launch of the next-gen networking platform sometime later this year. We’ve pretty-well covered the impact that 5G will have on the technology we use in our daily lives, with its increased bandwidth capabilities and faster upload/download speeds. The 5G revolution is going to have a major impact on each and every thing that we do as humans, I don’t doubt that. What I do doubt is the immediacy of that impact.
H.S. Kim details Samsung's long-term strategies, which include the 5g revolution, at CES 2019
Early returns of 5G speed tests have shown improvement over current 4G LTE speeds, but not to the degree that we’ve been promised. I’m not shocked by that and neither should you be. As with all things tech-related there are going to be growing pains with the technology. It’s not going to be as widely available as we’d like to see right out of the gate. But it’s evolution and expansion should happen rapidly. It’s a metaphor I’ve used before but I really think it applies: 5G is going to be like a high-end pair of new kicks that need to be broken in before they really become your favorite shoes to wear. 5G needs time to hit its stride, and that could be a good year or two of the network being live and actively in use by consumers.
So, for all of the flack that was thrown Apple’s way at this show for missing the launch of the 5G network this year, the better way to look at it might be that Apple is (in true Apple fashion) being the most prudent of tech companies and waiting for just the right time to drop their 5G-ready iPhone. Despite the fact that Qualcomm announced it’ll have its chipset in around 30 5G-ready products this year, those products may not realize true 5G speeds and benefits for some time.
Here I feel like I can say, “Finally!” That “Finally!” could refer to virtual reality technology finally hitting its stride, or the fact that I’ve finally figured out how to approach this segment with a clear and proper vision. Either way, I left CES feeling a million times better about the future of VR than I ever have.
When I boil it down, though, the positive vibes I have around the technology really have nothing to do with the actual headsets, but rather the content that’s viewed through them. Aside from continuing to hope for improved clarity in the displays—we’re ready for 8K TVs but we really can’t get our VR headsets to look better than 720p?—the VR experience is what it is. In fact, the optimal headset experience is likely already on the market in something like the Oculus Go.
So let’s focus then on the content side of things.
This is where the technology really needs some help and support by content creators out there. While VR itself is a totally immersive experience that takes the user out of the world they exist in and transports them somewhere totally different, it doesn’t mean that the experience has to be one that’s anti-social. We’ve already seen some really unique and successful implementations of social VR content in something like NextVR with their NBA Digital game presentations. That experience—being able to virtually attend NBA games and engage with your friends or a wider social audience—is something that is truly game changing. The trick, then, is finding other ways and other partners, content providers, and the like, to get on board with the concept. I’m thinking like social movies theaters in VR (which already exists in some fashions), social concerts in VR, and maybe even on the productivity side with social board meetings in VR.
This doesn’t have to get to the level of full-blown Ready Player One type virtual reality, but that concept hits the nail pretty well on the head as to what would make VR something that everyone felt like they needed to be a part of. Commercially, the technology has tremendously beneficial applications on the training and education side of things. But finding the right pitch to get the consumer to buy in to the technology is something that’s been desperately missing. There are brands out there like HumanEyes with their Vuze XR 180 and 360-degree camera, but they need help spreading the word. My time at CES 2019 talking with HumanEyes and a few others in the VR content creation space was promising and might’ve been just the kick I needed to get on board as a believer in the technology.