Three Nuggets from CE Week

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the Consumer Electronics Association abhors a season without one of their trade shows in it. For some years, the one-time early-summer lacuna has been filled by CE Week in New York.

CEWeekThe event began haltingly, but has now hit its stride with more big-time participants and greater press coverage. CE Week is justifiably overcoming its former reputation as the place to see makers of padded cell-phone cases and $20 Bluetooth speakers – although there are still lots of those.

On Tuesday June 23, this year’s edition kicked off with three panel-focused conferences which neatly encapsulated the three major areas of concentration at this show: next-gen TV, high-resolution and immersive audio, and connected cars. I’m going to give you one nugget (or maybe two) from each of those areas. My colleague Matt Brennesholtz may mine part of the show more deeply when he writes his next Display Daily.

High-resolution and immersive audio. Okay. I’m cheating. These are two areas, although they are releated. High-resolution audio (HRA) or HD audio is not formally defined beyond “audio with better-than-CD quality,” but two of the most respected champions of HRA – Mark Waldrep of AIX Records and David Chesky of Chesky Records and HRA music store HDtracks – define it as a music file with a true sampling rate of at least 96kHz and a true sample size of at least 24 bits. That is, the bits should not be the result of an up-conversion from a 16-bit CD music file. So here’s a nugget from Waldrep. Most of the the HRA files you download or stream from the big-name music services come to you in an HRA “package” but the files themselves are just the files that appeared on the CD, not files that were mastered in HD. And you might be paying extra to get them.

Immersive audio refers to systems like Auro 3D and Dolby Atmos that adds a height dimension to the sound field. Installations in large movie theaters implement this by physically placing ground-level and elevated speakers at appropriate locations, sometimes with a “God speaker” – for delivering the voice of God – at close to the ceiling in the center of the listening space. Now that Atmos is entering the consumer market, a more user-friendly approach is needed. On the show floor on Wednesday, Onkyo was showing a 5.1.2 Atmos home-theater-in-a-box solution. The front left and right speakers contain separately driven, upward-facing drivers for the height audio component; hence, 5.1.2. Driving this system requires a 7.1 receiver, but balancing such a system manually would be arduous. So, the Onkyo system incorporates AccuEQ room calibration, which uses a microphone to automatically optimize the 3D sound field for a particular room, even if asymmetrical speaker placement is necessary.

Pop music producers have used the capabilities of immersive systems to create weird mixes in which vocalists and instruments come from seemingly arbitrary locations in the listening space. But these systems really shine in recreating the space in which a musical performance was recorded. In their demo room, Auro 3D played Bach organ pieces that had been recorded in a cathedral, and listeners felt as if they were inhabiting that space. The other obvious applications are for cinema and games. A plane flying over your head from back to front is extremely convincing, and on-and-off demos of streetscapes, made the ambient street noise occupy a convincing space and makes individual sounds and voices easier to hear and identify. Clearly, this is far from a gimmick: 3D sound vastly increases the viewer’s involvement in the story the film’s director wishes to tell. (Note: The Auro system did use two physical layers of loudspeakers.)

Despite my role as a technology analyst, in my personal buying habits I tend not to be an early adopter. Immersive audio is the exception. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m checking my bank account balance.

In the “What’s New and Next in Television?” conference, Joe Kane (Joe Kane Productions), consultant Bob Kisor, Nandhu Nandhakumar (LGE), Philip Jones (Sony), Tim Alessi (LGE), Steve Panosian (Samsung), and others were in remarkable agreement that the emphasis in Ultra-HD TV should be at least as much on high dynamic range (HDR) as on a 4Kx2K pixel count. This seems based, in part, on the fact that many people in the industry have accepted the idea that you can’t really see the difference made by 4k on 55- and 65-inch screens in most home viewing situations – even if that idea is based on false assumptions and is not true. What is true is that viewer studies show that most viewers can see the difference but regard it as subtle.

The greater impact of HDR is anything but subtle, and includes the ability to show greater color depth at very high brightness. This requires a minimum of 10 bits per color channel, said Kane in a basement demo using Samsung sets, and will probably go to 12. Kane also mentioned that although Rec.2020 defines a great deal of what makes a modern UHD TV set, it doesn’t mention HDR at all. This leaves HDR without a formal definition. Kane would like a proper definition of HDR to be incorporated into Rec.2020.

On Tuesday, the Connected Car Conference was accompanied by a diminutive Scion IQ city car equipped with Pioneer’s after-market infotainment system that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Pioneer made the reasonable point that we have all made a significant effort to learn our smartphone’s OS, so it is in the interests of both convenience and safety that a version of that UI is what we should see in our cars. Buick had a LaCrosse with a CarPlay system that will be standard for the 2016 model year in the LaCrosse and Regal. Interestingly, Buick will have to wait for about 18 months before it will have a combined CarPlay/Android Auto system, although GM’s “lesser brand” will have it on many models in the coming model year.

MaseratiQNX’s side-view video mirror on a Maserati Quattroporte. The camera (out of focus) is in the front-most of the decorative ports behind the front wheel. (Photo: Ken Werner)Finally, Blackberry subsidiary QNX was showing off some of its electronic car technology in a Maserati Quattroporte. In the process, QNX found some new places to put a display: the rear-view and side-view mirrors, which now become displays for video cameras and are no longer mirrors at all. The camera for the rear-view mirror is in the “shark fin” radio antenna on the roof. The cameras for the side-view mirrors are in two of Maserati’s signature ports on the sides of the front fenders. The camera configuration eliminates blind spots in the side-view mirrors, a QNX rep said, while the shark-fin camera gives a rather normal-looking rear-view image that is immune to being blocked by rear-view passengers or large packages. This was just a technology demo, but the QNX rep took pains to remind me that QNX’s background is in very high-reliability systems, so the mirror-replacement application is a viable one for them.

CEA abhors a vacuum, and CE Week had some very interesting things with which to fill it – as well as a lot of earbuds and cell-phone cases. – Ken Werner