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CES 2019 Preview: Technology to Watch in the Coming Year

More than 180,000 industry insiders are expected to swarm Las Vegas for CES, the annual mega-conference dedicated to consumer tech. Variety has put together a cheat sheet that identifies five key technologies to watch; developments on these fronts will have an impact on entertainment in 2019 — and beyond.

This year’s CES also will expand the event’s C Space media and marketing showcase, with more than 75 companies slated to participate, and featuring Variety’s Entertainment Summit Jan. 9 at the Aria hotel. “Content will continue to become a bigger part of the CES story,” says Peter Csathy, founder of consulting and investment firm Creatv Media. “Virtually everybody in the content and media world now goes to CES.”

elias stein for Variety

Televisions

8K Sets

They’re the main entertainment window into the home — and now that Ultra HD 4K has become standard for large-screen televisions, this year’s CES will likely feature a drumbeat of news centered on the next generation: 8K sets, which promise even sharper and more dazzling images.

The arrival of 8K TVs comes well before broadcasters and studios are actually ready to feed content in the format. The drive toward the new standard comes as U.S. TV sales remained flat in 2018, at $21 billion, per CTA estimates. “The key for manufacturers is to keep consumers upgrading to higher-priced screens,” says IHS Markit analyst Paul Gagnon. “They’re looking at the next big thing.”

Not many future-proofing consumers will be shelling out the 35%-plus premium for 8K, which delivers 16 times more pixels than 1080p Full HD — and four times the resolution. Just 430,000 8K TVs will ship worldwide in 2019, or 0.02% of total unit sales, IHS Markit predicts.

Meanwhile, several years after 4K TVs began hitting the market, content in 4K is still somewhat limited. “Your local news isn’t broadcast in 4K,” Gagnon notes, although that might start to change in the year ahead.

Other trends: 2019 could be the first year average screen size of HDTVs purchased could hit the 50-inch mark, up from 47.5 inches on average last year, according to IHS Markit. One fad that has jumped the shark: Curved-screen TVs, which launched a few years ago, are “well on the way out,” says Gagnon. “It was an underwhelming response.”

jon han for Variety

Connected Cars

Streaming Video 

CES used to be mainly about TVs and in-home consumer electronics. Those will still be featured, but these days the show is just as much a showcase for the future of transportation, with automakers flocking to Las Vegas to show off new models and CE companies revealing their latest automotive-entertainment technology. After all, today’s cars are internet-connected computers on wheels, and drivers are increasingly looking to replicate the in-home entertainment experience on their daily commute.

That’s particularly true for streaming audio. Automotive continues to be one of Pandora’s fastest-growing listener segments, says the company’s VP of business development, Dave Geary. The reason: “Deepening direct-car audio integration among automakers and smarter technology are driving personalized experiences that weren’t possible with AM/FM [radio],” he says. At CES, look for smart assistants to make the jump from the home to the car, via embedded systems from automakers as well as after-market devices.

While the current focus is still very much on audio in-car entertainment, the industry is gearing up for a future of autonomous vehicles that don’t require our eyes on the road — freeing them up for video consumption on the go. 

At CES, Walt Disney Imagineering and Audi will show off a “premium entertainment experience” they collaborated on for the Audi e-tron electric vehicle. It’s intended for back-seat passengers today — and for everyone in autonomous cars of the future — which could unlock new revenue streams. 

elias stein for Variety

Voice Assistants

Wide Integration

As more companies bring voice technology into their products, smart speakers and other devices with integrated voice assistants are once again poised to play a big role at CES. “Expect better sound and deeper integration with individual devices,” predicts internet-of-things analyst Stacey Higginbotham. She also believes Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant will each make it much easier for consumers to control kitchen appliances, home-entertainment systems and other devices.

Voice assistants increasingly are being integrated into smart displays and even TVs. Google used last year’s CES to announce its first smart-display partners; this year, it may be Amazon Alexa’s turn to collaborate on additional touch-screen versions.

In addition, voice assistants may morph into somewhat sci-fi-like forms, akin to “smaller, mobile robots that also incorporate digital assistants,” Higginbotham says. CES 2019 may feature some early experiments with the concept, but it’s doubtful that such smart robots will replace traditional smart speakers anytime soon.

jon han for Variety

VR and AR

Tech in Transition

Virtual- and augmented-reality technologies are in a transitional phase, with some companies refocusing on business applications and others doubling down on consumer products. Expect that trend to be reflected at CES, where there will be fewer announcements of flashy headsets and a bigger focus on ancillary technology, says Greenlight Insights analyst J.C. Kuang. “CES always serves as a good barometer for prevailing and emerging components and form factors,” Kuang notes. “Both of these are crucial to the future of AR and VR, and this is especially true in 2019.”

Part of the shift in focus is tied to hardware release cycles: Facebook’s Oculus, HTC Vive and Magic Leap announced or unveiled major products in 2018, making significant updates this month unlikely. However, we may see incremental advances, including better tracking hardware as well as third-party VR and AR accessories — think gaming blaster guns and exercise equipment.

Also, gear makers like HTC Vive may use CES to highlight games and apps for their headsets. For 2019, Kuang says, “I’m predicting a sharp uptick in native, first-party content and applications from hardware providers.” 

elias stein for Variety

5G Wireless

A New Standard

The first 5G smartphones will launch this year in the U.S. It’s a major step in wireless tech that promises significantly faster data (at least 20 times greater than 4G), response times of 1 millisecond or less and other enhancements. A big part of the hype and promise: It’s going to let consumers nearly instantly stream entertainment anywhere. For example, a two-hour HD movie that takes five to seven minutes to download over 4G LTE will pop onto a 5G device in just three to four seconds, says Steve Koenig, VP of market research for the Consumer Technology Assn.

Michael Kassan, CEO of consulting firm MediaLink, believes the new tech will enable a leap into fresh markets for IP creators. “5G is the ticket to make that happen,” says Kassan. Events at CES focusing on 5G include a keynote from Verizon chief Hans Vestberg on Jan. 8 and Kassan’s interview the following day with AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan.

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are jockeying for the pole position with 5G’s real-world debut, with the wireless carriers set to roll out phones from Samsung and other manufacturers in the first half of 2019. Apple is reportedly sitting out until at least 2020 for a 5G version of iPhone.

Over a longer horizon, 5G networks will enable numerous new applications within the so-called internet of things that includes self-driving cars, smart-home devices and virtual/augmented reality. With 5G, an AR gaming application could overlay real-time statistics about the local area into smart glasses as the player looks around, says Colby Synesael, Cowen & Co.’s managing director of technology media and telecom. “This is the first wireless technology that will go beyond the phone,” he adds.

But 5G won’t start to hit its full potential until the mid-2020s, analysts say. And it will be 2022 before 5G-enabled phones represent 50% of units shipped in the United States, Koenig predicts. “It’s not just going to be ‘flip a switch’ and we’re on to 5G,” he says. 

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