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CES 2019: Wednesday 9 January

Highlights from the Las Vegas Tech Show

Our picks of notable items today include the hot topic of flexible screens, operators’ bullish ambitions in 5G, and the overwhelming array of smart home products. We also examine the lack of innovation in augmented reality, and a hot trend in virtual reality technology.

Eyes Firmly on Flexible Display Technology

Devices with screens that fold using flexible display technology were always likely to be a hot topic at CES 2019, but we haven’t seen as many products as we might have expected. Samsung’s efforts with flexible displays remained firmly behind closed doors (but they were most definitely at the show), leaving upstart Royole to steal the limelight with its FlexPai foldable tablet/smartphone.

Royole’s device first appeared when it was rushed out in October 2018 just ahead of Samsung’s much anticipated announcement of its Infinity Flex Display. It was on show at CES and we were able to get our hands on it and try it out.

Right now FlexPai feels like little more than a clunky prototype still a long way from being a mass-market consumer device, but it’s most definitely a leading indicator of how this technology could be used in the future. It would be easy to write it off, but it seems to be capturing significant attention from the public. The short video below taken by our chief of research @BenWood has quickly become one of his most popular tweets ever, with more than 370,000 views, 2,500 retweets and over 5,800 likes within 48 hours.

The other major proponent of flexible display technology at the event was LG, which announced its Signature OLED TV R “roll-up” television.

LG also featured the most jaw-dropping technology installation at its massive stand, using flexible screens to create a “living” montage of images that drew massive crowds.

Despite being an incredibly impressive concept, it feels like we’re currently in the Stone Age when it comes to products with flexible screens. But this isn’t a criticism, merely an observation that at CES 2019 we have seen the first very tentative steps toward implementation of a technology that may seem to be a solution looking for a problem now, but is likely to become a pillar of designs of consumer electronic devices in the future.

AT&T Pledges Nationwide 5G Coverage by Early 2020

AT&T’s announcement that it aims to deliver nationwide 5G coverage in the US using sub-6 GHz spectrum by early 2020 is a typically bold ambition. What exactly constitutes “nationwide coverage” is open to interpretation. Furthermore, we assume that AT&T is referring to 5G New Radio rather than its rebranding of 5G Evolution (5G E), which refers to LTE-Advanced Pro, or gigabit LTE, deployed using technologies such as 256 QAM, 4×4 MIMO and Licensed Assisted Access. The decision to replace the LTE icon on users’ phones with 5G E is highly contentious and adds fuel to the ongoing spat between US carriers. However, the announcement of nationwide coverage using sub-6 GHz 5G New Radio raises the futility of this debate. In the minds of consumers, there will be very little difference between LTE and 5G at sub-6 GHz when it comes to speed.

The most important point here is that 5G New Radio coverage will accelerate rapidly, be it with high-capacity millimetre-wave spectrum or at sub-6 GHz. 5G is about a blend of spectrum to provide coverage and capacity at lower cost for a multitude of uses. What it’s branded as will become increasingly irrelevant.

Next-generation networks could get off to a challenging start in 2019, but the commitment by both AT&T and T-Mobile to coverage at sub-6 GHz will inevitably see Verizon and Sprint follow. This will very quickly pave the way for handset upgrades, new service roll-outs and a new wave of innovation as we saw with LTE.

Verizon and AT&T Take 5G Carrier Theatrics to a New Level

If US carriers spent as much time on their own strategies and deployment objectives as they do at poking the competition, consumers would be much better for it. This rivalry is a constant source of entertainment for the industry, but risks intensifying confusion — and exasperation — among consumers. The latest chapter in the 5G war of words is an appeal from Verizon to the industry “to call something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using New Radio technology to deliver new capabilities”.

Verizon has a point. AT&T’s decision to refer to LTE-Advanced Pro as 5G Evolution and replace the LTE icon on handsets with 5G E is confusing. However, it’s ironic that Verizon is raising objections, given its decision to launch a flavour of 5G that isn’t in line with the 3GPP standard for 5G New Radio. Many would argue that neither technologies represent true 5G.

It’s also entirely likely that 5G Evolution will be faster than 5G deployed at sub-6 GHz, bringing into focus the marketing headache that we have pointed to in the past: marketing on the basis of speed is dangerous, as 5G speeds are dictated by many variables depending on coverage, frequency band and in the case of millimetre wave, even leaves on trees.

It could be argued that by referring to LTE-Advanced Pro as 5G Evolution, AT&T is simplifying things rather than trying to get consumers to understand why their 5G connection is in some scenarios slower than 4G. This is a reach perhaps, but one thing is clear: history is repeating itself. We experienced the same challenges with 4G and no carrier is likely to be blameless in the 5G marketing game. Consumers really won’t care how 5G is branded so long as it delivers a user experience that’s worth paying for. This should be the carriers’ real priority and focus.

Smart Doorbells a Metaphor for “Peak Smart Home” 

In the days preceding CES, we shared our thoughts on what trends would unfold at the event, and our expectation that a “peak smart home” moment would happen as the number of duplicative smart home products reached ridiculous proportions (see Vegas-Bound CES Pilgrimage Looms). Having now spent two full days on the show floor, it’s clear that our expectation was correct. The sheer number of smart bulbs, sockets, switches, cameras and more is mind-boggling, and it feels impossible that there’s enough demand to support such overlap from so many different companies.

Walking around the smart home exhibition hall it seemed like doorbells were the perfect metaphor for this trend. The tweet below reflects this.

We had anticipated in 2018 that there would be some form of shake-out in the smart home space, but there’s little evidence of this at CES. In fact, despite our claim that the show reflects “peak smart home”, there’s a risk that we could be calling it too early. We may find out next year.

That said, it would be wrong not to acknowledge some consolidation. Indeed, Amazon’s acquisitions of Blink and Ring, and LeGrand’s acquisition of Netatmo, are examples of this.

However, as things stand, one has to pity the poor consumer who faces a perplexing overload when it comes to figuring out which smart home devices to buy.

Smartwatches and Smart Glasses Fail to Impress

When it comes to augmented reality, the lack of innovation is palpable, despite a flurry of smartwatch and augmented reality smart glasses companies in attendance at CES. The presence of exhibitors showcasing products in these two areas has grown significantly from previous years, an encouraging trend that reflects the stronger interest in and demand for these devices. We were particularly astonished by the vast presence of Shenzhen-based manufacturers offering colourful Apple Watch knock-off designs. The popularity of the Watch clearly continues to fuel demand for these products in China and developing countries. The exhibiting augmented reality companies made strong claims in their messaging at the show, but on closer inspection, we were left underwhelmed by what they had to offer.

Tobii Reaffirms Itself as the Leading Provider of Eye-Tracking Technology

Eye-tracking solution company Tobii played a prominent role in announcements made by HTC and Dell’s Alienware subsidiary at CES. Tobii revealed that its technology has been built into the new HTC Vive Pro Eye headset (see CES 2019: Monday 7 January). This adds to Tobii’s other big win in early 2018, when it partnered with Qualcomm on its latest standalone virtual reality headset reference design, used by the likes of HTC, Oculus and Lenovo. Aside from enhancing virtual reality experiences, eye-tracking technology can also improve the efficiency of virtual reality headsets thanks to a software technique known as foveated rendering, which lowers the resolution of parts of the screen that a user isn’t directly looking at.

The other important announcement came from Dell, which lifted the veil on the Alienware Area 51m flagship gaming laptop featuring Tobii’s eye-tracking sensor. Although it’s not the first laptop to incorporate such a solution, we believe it will help boost awareness of and demand for eye-tracking technology.