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Glimpsing Gadgets, Cutting Edge Technology at Consumer Electronics Show

January 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The annual International Consumer Electronic Show, one of the largest tech gatherings in the world, was held in Las Vegas this week. Ray Suarez talks to Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang about technology improvements and new designs, from 3D printers to ultra HD televisions to mobile devices.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The annual Consumer Electronics Show provided a glimpse of the latest in technology and high-end gadgets. It wrapped up today in Las Vegas.

Ray Suarez is our guide.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s still one of the largest tech events of the year, even as many people buy their electronic toys from the Apples and Googles of the world.

More than 150,000 people made the trek to Las Vegas this week to peek at some cutting-edge electronics. Some of the buzz this year focused on huge new TVs what is now called Ultra Heard, as well as bendable smartphones, even driverless cars.

Cecilia Kang has been covering it for The Washington Post. I caught up with her before the convention wrapped.

Cecilia, welcome back to the program.

At the risk of oversimplification, some years at the Consumer Electronics Show are filled with stars of the show, big technological breakthroughs. And some just feature a lot of improvements to things people are already familiar with. What kind of year was this?

CECILIA KANG, The Washington Post: This was definitely a mix of both.

There were some familiar technologies that were iteratively improved, lots of interesting sort of high — higher-quality releases of TVs and smartphones and tablets.

But there were also really interesting technologies showcased that really kind of blow — blew my mind and can blow your mind as a business and as a consumer thinking about how a driverless car, for example, or a 3-D printer can really change your life.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s a 3-D printer?

CECILIA KANG: A 3-D printer takes a computer design, a computer-assisted design, and creates really out of thin air a real object using powdered material — powder versions of material, be it plastic, metal.

And by layering over one layer over another, thousands of paper thin sheets of this powder, it can create tools. It can create something as interesting as a guitar or an iPhone case.

It creates a real-life 3-D object out of a box that’s no bigger than, say, a microwave.

RAY SUAREZ: So everybody can become their own manufacturer?

CECILIA KANG: Essentially, that is true.

You know, Ford and NASA are putting these printers on every engineer’s desk. And they are using this to try to simulate transmission parts, rocket ship parts, really, to try to see if parts work.

And it’s really a big disruption in the manufacturing chain, because if you can do that at low cost for a couple thousand dollars, create, say, a new transmission or brake part to test out, that’s a very different way of manufacturing than the way that has been done for many, many decades, where you — an auto manufacturer, for example, will create thousands of one transmission part and see if it works.

And if it doesn’t, then they have to suck up the cost of 1,000 parts that they made.

RAY SUAREZ: For years, the Electronics Show kept featuring bigger and better televisions, with eye-popping visuals, demonstrating the possibilities of home theaters. Are we still going down that road, even though TV sales are pretty soft right now?

CECILIA KANG: Yes, TV manufacturers, Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Westinghouse, they are all showing TVs again this year. And that’s a big part of the show.

And consumers, as you said, Ray, are not as interested in these very expensive TVs, the 3-D TVs that have been showcased the last couple of years.

But again this year, these manufacturers showcased them. And it’s Ultra HDTV, high-definition TVs so packed with so many pixels. The quality is really breathtaking and amazing.

But the price tags are also really high. And consumers, especially in this economy, are trying to choose between certain technologies. And the TV also not quite capturing the interests as these companies would like for them too.

RAY SUAREZ: At the same time, they’re pushing out 66-inch screens.

They’re also trying to get us to watch on screen six inches and smaller, on tablets, on smartphones. Is that area moving ahead?

CECILIA KANG: That area will only move away more quickly and strongly around the globe.

Mobile device usage is exploding. And, really, the U.S. manufacturers and Asian manufacturers, European manufacturers are only starting to see the real — the benefits of the kinds of smartphone and tablet technology they have produced in the last few years.

A lot of emerging markets are going to be huge markets for companies like Apple and Google and Microsoft and Nokia. So they are really pushing for lower-end, in some ways lower-priced, screens and devices, as well as some of the cutting-edge, higher-end, more expensive devices.

Samsung came up with a very interesting 5.5-inch flexible screen that kind of makes you imagine all kinds of possibilities of how the screen can be used. You can, for example, bend a screen in your hand if you are holding on to, say, a subway rail and reading an e-book with the other hand, and fold it into the cup of your hand.

These are some really interesting possibilities. And it creates new markets and new avenues for growth for these companies.

RAY SUAREZ: In recent years, companies we really didn’t think of as makers of equipment, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, places that have earned their bones in other parts of the computing or communications business, were big players at the Consumer Electronics Show. Is that still the case?

CECILIA KANG: Those big, very cutting-edge innovators in the smartphone and tablet in particular are actually not really here at the Consumer Electronics Show.

But they are certainly felt here, in that there is a lot of floor space dedicated to accessories for the iPhone, for example. But Apple is not, doesn’t even have a booth here. Google doesn’t either, and Amazon has a small presence.

These companies are definitely disrupting the market and creating some of the most interesting hardware, as you mentioned. And they — but they have preferred to carry out their own shows. It’s really hard to compete with the noise of all the different product releases and the news releases that come out.

So they would like to have their own shows and gain their own attention by doing their own releases. And so they’re — that’s been the trend for the last couple of years.

Microsoft even, which was a huge presence, really an anchor to the Consumer Electronics Show, sort of scaled back this year. They were certainly here, trying to push their Windows 8 devices, but they didn’t have the presence that they had — that they have had in recent years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I will be keeping an eye on what you file.

Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

CECILIA KANG: Thank you, Ray.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can get more online about this year’s most promising gadgets, as well as some of the disappointments, from guest tech blogger Rob Pegoraro. That’s on the Rundown.