Las Vegas shows the road ahead for technology

Tablet computing, internet apps and 3DTV: Adrian Pennington reports on the trends revealed at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Internet-enabled TVs mark the start of a 'fundamental change' in the availability of content
Internet-enabled TVs mark the start of a 'fundamental change' in the availability of content

Electronics companies have promised consumers internet-enabled everything for years - and soon you will be hard-pressed to find any new gadget that won't also connect you to web services, often wirelessly.

Last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas revealed the internet is being hooked to flat-panel TVs and Blu-ray players, cars, GPS units, digital photoframes and even watches. The majority of products don't feature a conventional web browser, rather applications in the style of iPhone apps.

Bob Perry, executive vice-president of Panasonic, says: "2010 marks the beginning of the most fundamental change in the availability of content for the consumer."

For instance, most new TVs launched this year will be networked, with many powered by the Yahoo Connected TV platform, one of the first successful attempts at bridging the divide between the web and TV. The service currently features in five million TV sets worldwide, with that figure expected to double before 2011.

Sony has used the Yahoo platform to roll out a series of internet apps across its Bravia TVs, which later this year will include a catch-up service from broadcaster Five and movies on-demand from the Playstation Network.

However, Samsung has gone further than most by developing its own application store. Samsung Apps, which includes movie rental service LoveFilm and BBC iPlayer, can be downloaded for free from its new range of TVs, launching in April. The same internet content suite will be made available on the company's new Blu-ray players, Home Theatre systems and even mobile phones.

High-definition videoconferencing in the living room has also arrived, with LG and Panasonic the first vendors to offer Skype. The application will be available on four Panasonic Viera plasma and LCD TVs and 26 new LG LCD and plasma screens. Both firms will sell separate webcams.

Elsewhere, the show heralded the arrival of a new category in consumer electronics: dozens of touch-screen slate PCs or tablets of varying design and uses, which arrive network-ready. For instance, one laptop from Lenovo features a removable screen that can be operated as a standalone tablet.

Jen Hsun Huang, chief executive of graphics card manufacturer Nvidia, says: "2010 is the beginning of the tablet revolution." This, he says, requires an enabling technology that delivers the graphics performance and reliability of a PC with the lean power consumption and portability of cell phones.

Nvidia's new chip, called Tegra 2, is his answer. Its makers claim it delivers ten times the performance of a smartphone and uses 20 times less power than a PC, and demonstrated it streaming HD movies and games on a prototype Compal tablet.

Adobe will also use the chip to power its development platform Air, which will speed the creation and rights management of digital magazines for viewing on tablet devices.

However, 3D technology continues to attract the most attention, mainly because there is now a confluence of content and screens to view it on. In the UK, all eyes will be on Sky's 3D autumn launch, but in the US sports broadcaster ESPN and Discovery Networks have both announced 3D channels.

More importantly, the release of the specification for 3D Blu-ray disc players last December prompted a rash of 3D Blu-ray players to market. Costing about £200, they are primed for the first 3D movie discs due out of Hollywood this summer.

The Consumer Electronics Association predicts a whopping quarter of all TVs sold [in the US] by 2013 will be 3D-ready, a figure undisputed by set manufacturers. Sony expects 3D televisions will make up between 30% and 50% of all sets it sells during 2012.

Darren Petersen, product manager for Samsung, says: "3D will become a standard feature on TVs whether people watch 3D content or not." Samsung's 3D screens, due in April, also feature the ability to convert 2D content into 3D on the fly. Petersen adds: "It's about being future-proofed. Consumers have been buying HD sets for years but not necessarily watching HD content. The same will apply to 3D."

3DTVs are likely to cost about £2000, although no manufacturer is prepared to give an exact price tag until closer to the launch dates.

3D content production is expensive, and camera equipment is among the items needing to become commoditised to bring costs down. Panasonic used the show to launch the world's first stereo camcorder which - instead of bolting two cameras together on a special rig, as is the norm - combines two small cameras into one 3kg unit costing £13,000.

Steve Maher, Panasonic's director of engineering business development group, says: "The market needs something as intuitive and, frankly, cheap as this so people feel they can pick it up and make mistakes with it. The only way to learn 3D and to feed the demand for 3D content is to learn from practice."