MIT Technology Review

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What to Expect at CES 2012

A preview of consumer electronics in the years to come.

With the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas wrapped up, what's in store for the future? Some of the best guesses probably come from the IEEE International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE), which started on Sunday, also in Las Vegas. A preview panel from ICCE took place at CES on Saturday, with the ICCE conference organizers providing an overview of technology they think is likely to come to market in the next few years.

Video is expected to continue to be a major growth area for both software and hardware companies, especially real-time automated image processing. This will be used, for example, to improve face detection and in autofocusing or deblurring high-definition video captured by handheld camcorders (in which the individual pixels are so small that it's impossible to hold the camera still enough to avoid constantly shifting the image across the imaging sensor). "The cutting edge is now HD video—processing it at 60 frames per second," said Peter Corcoran, technical chair of the ICCE conference and the vice-dean of engineering and informatics at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Many of the techniques involve capturing several images from the sensor and combining them into one "good" picture or frame of video. The algorithms used to perform this processing will receive a significant performance boost as more chip makers build video-processing circuitry into their processors.

Even though 3-D TV has already reached the consumer market, it should continue to be a very active area of research, with a lot of work being done to improve the quality of conversion from 2-D to 3-D. Current conversion systems are usually able to determine that a building belongs in the background and a moving car belongs in the foreground, for example, but problems in placement can arise with the parts of the building that are seen through the windows of the car. More basic challenges also remain, with researchers looking at why some people seem to develop headaches from watching 3-D and what could be done to alleviate the problem.

Managing and using the huge amounts of personal data that individuals now generate is another hot topic the panel highlighted. In the past, people bequeathed photo albums to their children; how to preserve and pass down digital archives in the face of format obsolescence is an important challenge. In addition, people used to jot down on the backs of photographs or on videotapes the names of people and locations pictured. Although people can add this metadata to images and video manually, it's hard to keep up. Some automated methods of generating metdata already exist, such as GPS tagging, but longitude and latitude won't tell someone in 20 years' time that, say, a picture was taken at their grandparents' favorite restaurant during a celebration of their aunt's engagement. Being able to tap into social networks and see other tags on photos and videos is one way computers could automatically establish a consensus view of the most useful metadata to attach to images.

Storing so much data is another challenge. As we approach the limits of solid-state memories and rotating hard disks, engineers are going to have to start tackling quantum entanglement and other subatomic effects for future generations of devices. This will have to happen "within the next 15 to 20 years," said Thomas Coughlin, founder of Coughlin Systems, a data consulting firm, and a member of the ICCE technical committee. Coughlin added that we may have to consider storing data using analog techniques, as our brains do, if we want to keep improving information density.

Coughlin's long-term view was unusual at this year's preview session. Several speakers highlighted the accelerating pace of innovation in consumer electronics. In previous years, technologies would show up at the ICCE three to five years before being implemented in an actual product. The lead time has been shrinking, and this year, some technologies appeared on the show floor of CES in prototypes before being presented at ICCE, such as new systems for viewing 3-D images without the need for special glasses.