Are you happy with your new big and beautiful widescreen TV? Sorry, but it’s time to move on to the next thing — 3D TV. Yep, that’s 3D in your living room, just like “Avatar.” This was the big push by the major consumer electronics companies at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, held in early January in Las Vegas, with plans for the first 3D TV products to roll out this year.
But while the industry was focused on big displays in the living room, the real excitement for consumers is with small hand-held devices, especially smartphones like the Apple iPhone and now the iPad tablet, plus apps that you can download to enjoy and customize your personal devices.
3D TV and Internet TV. There’s no doubt that seeing basketball action shot from the corner of the court as the players fast-break down for a dunk is amazing in 3D. But is this really the time for the next new format, as consumers already have upgrade fatigue from the cut-over to digital and HDTV, and have suffered collateral damage from the “format war” over Blu-ray and high-def DVD?
The industry does expect that the transition to 3D TV will be a gradual process, much like HDTV, starting with tech-friendly early adapters. And 3D will have the usual issues in getting ready for a new technology — you’ll need a new TV display, and new Blu-ray and cable set-top boxes, and new channels of 3D programming.
But the other big issue is the need to wear special glasses, so 3D TV might not fit well with our lifestyle of casual viewing, or with a large party for watching the big game, but instead could be fueled by special event programming.
Meanwhile, the television is no longer the dominant source in our lives — it’s now only one of the “three screens” — TV, PC, and mobile. So another big theme at CES was connectivity of these devices, with Internet embedded in more products.
In the living room, new Internet TVs connect directly online, to pop up information like news and weather, and also to directly access streaming video and audio services like Netflix movies, YouTube videos, Pandora radio, and Skype phone calls. These are part of a big battle to become the media hub in your home, to store and access (and sell) such connected services, whether in your TV, in a Blu-ray player, or in a game system like the Sony PS3 or Microsoft Xbox 360.
To mobile. These same services are becoming available on smaller mobile displays. For example, Verizon Wireless adds Skype for Internet phone calls and Microsoft brings its Zune media service and Xbox LIVE gaming service to the next generation of Windows Phone Series 7.
Mobile is a huge market, with camera phones replacing digital cameras and camcorders for spontaneous picture taking and netbooks, tablets, and smartphones replacing laptops to keep working and communicating on the go. In particular, the smartphone has evolved into a compelling personal companion, adding features like touch screen, GPS tracking, and Wi-Fi wireless.
Even more, while the original Apple iPhone was positioned as something of a connected iPod media player, it has since morphed into an “app phone” with more than 140,000 applications available and 3 billion apps downloaded as of early this year. Not bad for a market created only a year and a half ago.
Apps. What’s really interesting about mobile apps is the way developers are re-thinking the possibilities of what can be done with a handheld platform.
Today’s smartphones are quite powerful mobile client computers, with local processing, gigabytes of memory, and larger displays. Plus they are location-aware, with GPS positioning plus compass and tilt sensors. However, it’s wireless broadband connectivity that really changes things, as apps can draw on the vast data and processing capabilities of server-based computing in the Internet cloud.
Apps can provide customized news and finance updates and notify you of local weather alerts. But the cloud provides more than just information. For example, the free Google Translate app for Android uses online services to convert 50 languages. You don’t even need to type in the phrase, since the app accepts voice input (in English for now), and also does text-to-speech so you can hear the translation.
Any mobile app now can take advantage of these kinds of sophisticated features — all the work is done by the cloud services. For example, the latest Android release enables voice input for basically any text in all applications.
Similarly, the free Google Maps app brings all the features you’re used to from the web to the smartphone, including maps, satellite view, directions, traffic, and street view, plus local search. But on Android with GPS support you now can use Google Maps Navigation for real-time guidance, with, of course, voice directions, plus street view imagery of intersections with overlaid graphics for turns.
Visual search. Another capability of smartphones that apps can take advantage of is the camera. For example, you can use apps like Shop Savvy to scan barcodes and look up product information and pricing online.
But why require barcodes? The Google Shopper app for Android also recognizes product cover art from books and CD and DVD cases. And the Google Goggles app for Android extends this idea into general search with pictures, to find matching images from the Web. Take a photo of a wide variety of products or commonly recognizable objects (logos, landmark structures, or works of art) for specific information on that object. Google Goggles also does text recognition, for business cards, and even translating signs and other writing.
Location-based services. Of course, smartphone apps are particularly useful for location-aware services like mapping and finding near-by businesses, but again there are even more interesting possibilities from the cloud.
For example, apps like Yelp can find the closest coffee houses or drugstores, displayed with additional information including photos, ratings, and user reviews. But it also adds special offers, including deals for bedding, local restaurants, and hotels along Route 1.
And the Where app integrates in more local information, including weather and movie show times, as well as finding the cheapest gas. Plus the “Pulse” feature helps you see what’s hot in the area by collecting local Twitter feeds.
Augmented reality. The final step in combining all these capabilities is augmented reality — adding a heads-up display of graphics overlays onto the live camera view to provide information about the scene that you are viewing.
For example, when you hold the phone up, Google Goggles displays tags with information about local businesses, drawn from its Google Local database, including businesses and campus landmarks.
But again, there’s lots more information in the cloud, so the Wikitude app adds information from other crowd-sourced databases with geo-tagging, including Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and Wikipedia entries.
Or you can create your own specialized tours of local areas, and use the Layar app to import user-created layers of content information to display as you explore a location.
Where once having a mobile phone meant that we were never out of contact, now we’ll never be out of context.
Doug Dixon will speak at the Princeton Macintosh User’s Group on Tuesday, March 9, at 7:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Friend Center. His subject: the offerings at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas in January Visit http://pmug-nj.org.