Wi-Fi: Best Supporting Actor at CES 2009

Wireless HD and video content distribution took center stage at CES this year, and Wi-Fi played a critical, but quiet, supporting role in a full and varied cast of new wireless products--ranging from robotic spycams to netbooks to digital picture frames--that made their debut.
Posted January 16, 2009

Lisa Phifer

Lisa Phifer

(Page 1 of 2)

Wireless High Def TV. Internet audio/video content navigation and delivery. IP multi-media storage and streaming. Digital photo frames and netbooks. At CES 2009, Wi-Fi was everywhere—and nowhere.

At the world's biggest consumer electronics event, the focus is on splashy interfaces and user-visible features. Network plumbing tends to take a back seat. But never before has wireless been more pervasive or essential to realizing manufacturer visions. And that includes Wi-Fi—especially this year's better, faster 802.11n products.

Kodak had the most visible Wi-Fi presence, splashing "WiFi My Way" [sic] across a huge digital video billboard at the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall 3 entrance. The importance of wireless was highlighted in several keynotes, including Sony CEO Howard Stringer’s where he said the future of consumer electronics depends upon hassle-free plug-and-play connectivity. To that end, he predicted that 90 percent of Sony’s product lines will connect wirelessly by 2011.

But Wi-Fi was just one of many (largely complementary) wireless technologies at CES 2009. Bluetooth-enabled peripherals were abundant. Z-Wave and ZigBee home automation products were plentiful. 3G-capable smartphones and tiny netbooks were definitely hot. [For more on home automation, click here.]

However, the biggest splash was made by Wireless HD (WiHD)—a new wireless video area network (WVAN) technology to replace the HDMI cables that tether today's consumer electronic devices. Backed by Broadcom, Intel, and all top TV manufacturers, WiHD transmits at 60 GHz to carry uncompressed HD video, multi-channel audio, intelligent format/control, and content protection, delivering 1080p resolution at distances up to ten meters.

Behind this A/V-focused hoopla, Wi-Fi played a quiet, but increasingly ubiquitous role. 802.11b/g home network connectivity has become a staple in many consumer electronic segments—products were almost as likely to have Wi-Fi as they were to have Ethernet. Manufacturers emphasizing Wi-Fi were usually those announcing 802.11n products—especially for in-home video distribution. Several of this year’s CES award-winners incorporate Wi-Fi—but differentiate themselves based on how they use wireless to increase convenience and simplify access to Internet content.

Hitting a blue note

When it comes to in-vehicle technology--locationing, mobile video, speakers/receivers, and security systems—Bluetooth was virtually synonymous with wireless, followed by GPS-enablement and satellite-based content delivery.

For example, Parrot demonstrated a plethora of in-vehicle Bluetooth devices, including the new MKi9100 ($299)—a hands-free system that pairs with smartphones, synchronizes phonebooks, and streams digital music. Other new Parrot Bluetooth offerings include the MiniKit Slim ($99), a three ounce battery-powered portable speakerphone, and the SK4000 ($199), a hands-free motorcycle kit composed of a helmet headset and handlebar wireless remote.

In-dash computers and netbooks were popular this year. For example, Dashboard Devices launched its ENV automotive entertainment and navigation system ($2799), which combines a dashboard touch-screen with an under-dash Intel Core 2 Duo PC, complete with GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi connectivity. The ENV runs any Win32 application, including navigation, voice-activated softphone, and media player. Wi-Fi can be used to interact with the ENV's Web browser and (when paired with a GSM modem) the Internet.

The only truly Wi-Fi-oriented product we stumbled across in the vehicle exhibits area was the PosiMotion G-Fi ($179). This tiny GPS-enabled, battery-powered Wi-Fi router connects to nearby 802.11b/g devices in Ad Hoc mode to support mobile multi-player games and location-aware applications on devices, such as the iPod touch that lack their own GPS. At first glance, the G-Fi appears similar to Novatel's recently-announced MiFi, but without a 3G Internet uplink. [For more on in-car Wi-Fi, click here.]

Your wish is my command Control4.jpg

Among the home automation and control products on exhibit at CES 2009, wireless frequently translated into Z-Wave or Zigbee (802.15.4). Both are long-battery-life, low-duty-cycle wireless technologies used by monitoring and control products, including wireless sensors (security monitors, rain gauges, motion detectors) and control devices (thermostats, timers, remotes) used to trigger lighting, heating, and security systems inside the home.

For example, in the Z-Wave demonstration area, Schlage showed off its new LiNK system. LiNK uses any smartphone or laptop to unlock doors, turn on lights, and control security cameras inside your home. A LiNK bridge must be connected to your Internet router to relay SSL-protected control commands to Z-Wave-enabled devices up to 100 feet away. "Starter kits" consisting of a bridge, keypad deadbolt, and light controller retail for $399.

Many home automation products incorporated multiple wireless and wired technologies to reach all of the components required for a complete solution. For example, Control4 demonstrated its new HC-1000 Home Controller ($2995, pictured above), which interfaces with home theater receivers, DVDs, DVRs, PCs, and other sources of digital content throughout your home. All content is accessed through a Wi-Fi-enabled mobile or in-wall touch-screen Navigator panel. One touch selects the content you want to play; the HC-1000 determines where the content is located and turns on the necessary A/V components, reached via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, serial, IR, or ZigBee.

AVer Media took home the CES 2009 Best of Innovations Award in the Integrated Home Systems category for its new EB1704HB WiFi-4 security system ($1599). The EB1704HB combines four pre-configured wireless IP cameras (CCD or CMOS format) with a turn-key Network Video Recorder that includes an embedded Wi-Fi router. Motion-activated live video feeds are stored on the NVR and can be accessed remotely through WebViewer or PDAViewer programs. This is a great example of a product that clearly depends upon Wi-Fi to accomplish its "turn key" goal—and yet barely mentions 802.11 in product literature.

Showing on the big screen

Inside the home theater pavilion, vendors including Samsung, Toshiba, LG, Panasonic, and Sony showed off their latest video innovations, including ultra-thin LCD and plasma displays, set-top boxes, DVRs, speakers, theater accessories, and Internet radios. Here, the big news was wireless content delivery to and throughout the home, especially Internet video (YouTube, Amazon, NetFlix et al) and wireless HDMI.

For example, Toshiba announced a new line of A/V devices with network player capabilities, based on the Intel/Yahoo! Widget Channel and Microsoft’s Extender for Windows Media Center. These products will be delivered both as a standalone Network Player and built right into selected Toshiba REGZA LCD TVs in the second half of 2009 (prices TBA).

Panasonic's VIERA Zone demonstrated how the TC-P54Z1 LCD HDTV (3Q09, price TBA), a new one-inch thin flat panel, can be connected and controlled wirelessly – for example, using WiHD and a Panasonic VIERA CAST web menu to stream video from on-line sources like Amazon. Panasonic also showed off its VIERA Link, a wireless remote control system for all connected AV equipment. Finally, uncompressed audio was streaming over 2.4 GHz to SC-ZT1 Wireless Surround Sound speakers (2Q09, price TBA).

At the LG Connected Home demo, a 42LH50 LCD Broadband TV (2Q09, price TBA) served as an Internet portal and multimedia distribution center for the entire room. A/V content was shared over Ethernet or Wi-Fi (802.11n) between LG's Wi-Fi-enabled BD390 Blu-ray player, GigE-connected N4B1 Network-Attached Storage, and WiHD-attached LH85 Wireless Full HD 1080p HDTV. Here again, prominent focus on wireless connectivity—achieved by combining several different technologies as appropriate for each type of device.

Contrast these with the Wi-Fi-centric approach taken by Compositor. At ShowStoppers, this company unveiled its MeeBox (price TBA), an 802.11b/g network-attached media storage appliance that streams HD content over Wi-Fi to other home network devices, including meeTVs and meeCeivers. The latter is an 802.11g video receiver that connects to your traditional HDTV via HDMI, delivering MPEG2 1080p video at speeds up to 30 frames per second.

Finally, a few vendors focused exclusively on eliminating just the HDMI cable. For example, Gefen demonstrated a pair of Wireless Extenders for cable-free connection of Flat Panel Displays and Monitors. The Wireless for VGA Extender (price TBA) delivers video up to 720p and two-channel audio to monitors up to 33 feet away over 802.11, while the Wireless for 1080p HDMI Extender ($999) uses 60Ghz UWB to deliver HDTV at top resolution up to 30 feet.

Say cheese

Hundreds (if not thousands) of camera phones, digital cameras and camcorders, storage media, and photo printers were on display at CES 2009, but the most populous digital imaging device was clearly the digital picture frame.

Digital picture frames ran amok at this event—virtually all Wi-Fi-enabled. With so many frames competing for attention, vendors are working hard to differentiate their offerings:

  • Parrot's Specchio ($500) is a work-of-art photo frame that serves as a mirror when turned off and provides wireless upload over Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or Near Field Communication (NFC). In the latter case, just slide your NFC-capable mobile phone against the back of the Specchio to transmit photos to the frame or the Internet.
  • GiiNii’s PixPlus Source (3Q09, $150) is a Wi-Fi-enabled 10-inch touch screen frame that accepts RSS feeds, delivering personalized content from partners like FrameChannel and HowStuffWorks. For example, HowStuffWorks can display new recipes on the frame each morning—if one looks appealing, simply touch the PixPlus to view ingredients and step-by-step instructions.

Beyond the pervasive digital picture frame, there were many Wi-Fi-enabled products for budding photographers. For example, HP demonstrated a full-line of Wi-Fi enabled computers, phones, cameras, and printers, including the new Photosmart 8180 ($399), a color printer, scanner, and copier that can upload photos from your camera or smartphone using 802.11g or Bluetooth.

Sony's Cyber-Shot DSC-G3 ($499) won this category in CNET's Best of CES 2009, largely on the basis of its integrated wireless features. This 10 megapixel, 4X zoom digital camera combines 802.11b/g Wi-Fi with an embedded Web browser that not only lets you upload photos and videos, but lets you interact with Wi-Fi hotspot portal pages to get on-line in more places. The DSC-G3 includes three years of free AT&T Wi-Fi access to Sony's Easy Upload website.lgTouchWatch.jpg

Finally, the Eye-Fi Video Card (available later this year) took first place in the ninth annual Last Gadget Standing SuperSession. Like last year's award-winning Eye-Fi Explore, this Wi-Fi and GPS-enabled storage card offers hands-free geo-tagged digital file upload, including free access at Wayport hotspots. So what's new? The Eye-Fi Video will let cinematographers upload their HD-quality videos directly to YouTube. [Read a review of the Eye-Fi Explore here.]

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Tags: Microsoft, wireless, Intel, HP, Broadcom

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