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Switched On: The three Ds of CES TV


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Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The walls of Las Vegas casinos -- devoid of clocks and windows -- form chambers in which time loses its mastery over the existence of those who dwell within them. So is it too for the products on display at CES, which run the gamut from things currently in stores to concept products that may not materialize for years, if ever.

Nonetheless, with Mobile World Congress and the CTIA Wireless show still vying for the attention of handset introductions and Apple and Microsoft relying more on their own events for major PC OS announcements, television remains a staple of the show, with nearly all major U.S. brands having a presence on the show floor or off-site. At CES 2012, one can surely still expect a lot of focus on 3D television. Increasingly, though, three other "D"s are coming to represent the direction of television.

Defined. For a few years now, companies have shown off prototypes of "4K" or ultra-high definition televisions that quadruple the resolution of today's 1080p televisions, continuing the old pattern of migrating technologies from the cinema to the home. Beyond the question of price, which it is too early to tackle, these sets raise several issues. First is the addressable market for such sets. As we've seen with 1080p, the benefit of higher resolution becomes more evident on larger sets. Most manufacturers have been showing 4K on sets that are 80 inches are larger. This represents a tiny fraction of the TVs in the U.S. and an even smaller fraction outside it. It could just be that our TVs are finally starting to outgrow our homes.

Next, of course, is the old issue of content that once held back HDTV and now dogs 3D, although a new generation of movies developed for 4K cinema projectors can help with that. But this raises the third question, how to distribute them? There has been no "Blu-ray 4K" announced on the horizon and the public is wary from the last disc format migration.

Increasingly, though, connected TV is progressing from a cable augmentation to something that relies on the pipe as a primary source of programming.

Decoupled. With broadcasters in many cases still stuck on 720p for over the air video and cable systems strapped for capacity, the answer would be broadband. But streaming 4K programming would overwhelm consumer broadband connections so movies would have to be delivered to a hard drive. That sounds a bit like the original premise of the Vudu box, which used a peer network to create a BitTorrent-like system for broadband HD distribution. Vudu gave up on that idea, and ultimately the boxes altogether, becoming a video service provider competing with Netflix, and the like.

Regardless, connected TVs will be taken up a notch at CES. There have been long been rumors that companies such as Apple and Sony have been plotting to take on cable companies more directly with a subscription service that offered a core of cable-like programming on demand. It is still likely to early for such a major move to be made effectively. Increasingly, though, connected TV is progressing from a cable augmentation to something that relies on the pipe as a primary source of programming.

Distributed. Sometimes referred to as "multiscreen" or "stacking," the proliferation of personal screens such as tablets and smartphones in the living room is changing the nature of the TV watching group experience. On some level, this behavior has been going on for at least a decade as consumers have long lounged with laptops. But now, TV programmers and app developers are being more tantalized by the idea of coordinating these multiple screens for everything from driving community interaction during shows to multiscreen games like those of the forthcoming Wii U. This will be aided by a technology called Automatic Content Recognition, which has already been implemented in apps such as Umami and Yahoo's In fact, multiscreen may hold the key to unlocking the power of smart TV, by embracing the very devices that stand to otherwise disrupt the controlled loop that TV manufacturers are seeking to create.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director and principal analyst of the NPD Connected Intelligence service at The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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