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Tech Smart: Breaking down CES from afar

Issue 1

January 26, 2011 | dlpmagazine.com

January 26, 2011 | dlpmagazine.com

So I didn’t get a chance to break away from the dental world to run around the massive tradeshow playground of the Consumer Electronics Show this year. But, like all the rest of the tech and gadget fascinated who didn’t make it to Las Vegas at the beginning of the month I followed religiously along to the coverage around the Internet and I picked up on two big themes of the show; soon everything we watch on a screen will be in 3D and tablet computers are preparing to take over the world.

Tablet computers such as Motorola's Xoom and BlackBerry's PlayBook were the hot item at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. As these computer slates hit the market throughout the year, they will give Apple's iPad some competition and consumers choices in what computer format fits them best.

OK, well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but CES is a show that tends to serve as a signpost of the consumer technology industry, pointing out the direction development is heading and firmly establishing the trends for gadgets and gear. This year saw progress on creating glasses-free 3D displays, something that seems key to widespread acceptance. But really the news from CES is that the tablet is the form factor where computer and smartphone companies are meeting in the middle, and Apple’s wildly successful iPad will soon face a horde of competitors.

Tablets first

Tech blog Engadget put together a chart comparing the details revealed about no less than 45 different visions of what a tablet computer could be. Only a handful of those devices are available today, but even among that handful range of tablet concepts is on full display.

Many companies are betting on a forthcoming generation of Google’s Android operating system, while others are loading up on the desktop version of Windows and still others, including big names in mobile like BlackBerry and HP/Palm are working on their own proprietary operating systems to allow users to put their tablets through their paces.

And while every major tech company seems to be prepping the launch of a tablet device featuring a touchscreen as the primary interface, the visions of what these devices will look like vary greatly. Many of the devices feature cameras on the front and back for video calling and other purposes. Some have slide out physical keyboards, while others are designed to be docked,with keyboards for desktop use. All of the distinctions show differing views of how people will want to use tablets, but the critical mass is evidence that everyone agrees people want tablets.

Just why people want them, and what they’re going to do with them might depend a bit on who you ask, but from looking back at adoption of the iPad which is still shy of its first birthday, I think it’s clear people will use them for everything they can. The tablet form factor is great for personal media consumption, especially if that media is video or the web. Smartphones are great for having a Web-connected computer around all the time, but the screens are too small for truly immersive experiences.

I’m not a big believer in the smaller 7-inch tablets to deliver this same type of experience, but the slightly large 9- to 11-inch models that make up approximately half of the coming gadgets are just right for one person at a time to get lost on the Internet or amazed by video. As ultra-portable media stations, these devices are where it’s at, and for many people that is exactly what they want. These are people who use the Internet to connect with people, play some movies, send some e-mails and wander the Internet. For them a tablet might make more sense than an underpowered netbook, a larger than needed laptop and possibly even a desktop system.

A clean slate for work

But what of the people who use their computers for work. For people pushing massive graphics around, the power of a desktop or high-end laptop cannot be matched by any tablet. However, the touchscreen interface tablets afford their uses may be a nice integration for manipulating the graphics. Using a CAD system where you could navigate and manipulate the designs via touchscreen-whether with multi-touch gestures, a stylus or both-sounds like a promising step. There’s little reason to think a tablet computer wouldn’t make a wonderful adjunct to a larger system, and it would be an adjunct you take mobile, and possibly even work from remotely.

As personal media toys, tablets are a great model, and their work functionality will only continue to grow. With web cameras becoming almost standard, tablets could finally open the doors to widespread video chatting, (something that makes mobile and broadband data carriers alike nervous about their networks being overrun) and these devices may eventually become the window through which people communicate over long distances. It’s certainly something they can excel at, because face it, a tablet is just a big screen and a much better-sized screen than a smartphone’s when it comes to having a two-way video discussion.

Software, as always will be key, but the processing and graphics power that can be held in one hand will only get better, and while Apple’s App Store has a huge jump on competing operating systems in terms of available programs to run on a tablet, it’s likely all the systems that come to market will wind up with plenty of programs for those looking to use their devices for both business and fun.

What this all means as far as I’m concerned is that tablets look to be the first major computer form factor innovation since (depending on how you want to count) either the laptop first appeared or at least since the first smartphone showed up. (I lean toward the first of the two since the smartphone was as much a mobile phone innovation at first as it was a computer innovation even though it’s evolved to become more computer than phone.)

Having not had a chance to play with them first hand, I can’t say which, if any of the tablets on display at CES would be the one to buy, and of course Apple is  likely to announce the second-generation iPad sometime soon. Many critics were impressed with Motorola’s Xoom, and upstart company Notion Ink’s Adam made noise as did BlackBerry with its Playbook. But all of them may be still too early in their development to be ready for heavy lifting. My gadget loving side wants to rush out and buy myself a tablet to use around the house and take with me when I travel, but I’m holding out a generation or two for better processing, better screens, more developed operating systems and mobile data networks that are up to the tasks I’d like to put these devices to work on.

3D’s promise

And what of the other technology I mentioned back at the start of this column? Well 3D screens are something that holds quite a bit of promise. But while the technology has certainly been commercialized already, I don’t believe it is ready for massive use just yet.

Glasses-based 3D screens are a non-starter for me. I certainly don’t want to wear special glasses every time I sit down at my computer or put a movie on my TV. Achieving high quality glasses-free 3D video will be the real key for making this a technology with widespread use and wide-ranging usefulness. The technology to do this exists today, but as of right now it has major limitations.

The biggest thing holding back glasses-free 3D screens is that current systems limit the angles at which you can view the screen to experience the 3D effect. Even worse, looking at those screens the wrong way produces blurred images and there have been reports of some people experiencing headaches from trying to make use of these screens.

Clearly there are a handful of kinks to be worked out. But that isn’t stopping the tide of 3D video capable TVs, monitors and cameras, and it shouldn’t. 3D video offers enormous promise on a number of levels. Sure 3D movies are becoming more common because they bring viewers directly into the world of the film being watched. Live sports in 3D can do the same thing.

Set to be the first 4G phone on AT&T's network, Motorola's Atrix also marks the first step in a new direction for smartphones. The Android phone works as a standalone smartphone, but is designed to dock with a special laptop body allowing users to use the phone's processor for larger scale computing tasks.

But what of other uses for 3D video? Surely there is no need for 3D when working in a word document, sending an email or using just about any business software. But when it comes to graphics-centered computer uses such as digital restoration design, 3D may be a wonderful fit. Dental lab CAD systems are already employing 3D graphics on 2D screens. If those graphics were able to come to life outside of that screen in actual 3D, they might be even more user-friendly and interactive in completely new ways. Holographic case design could someday be standard operating procedure on the digital side of the dental lab industry.

Dreaming further ahead

OK, I’m probably getting a bit ahead of myself and everyone else right there. Still, it’s hard not to look at the cutting edge of today’s technologies and try to figure out where they’re headed. Sometimes things you see in the future aren’t as far away as they seem.

Last year I wrote about how smartphones have become incredibly powerful pocket computers that can soon rival their desk-bound cousins. I imagined a smartphone someday becoming the only computer needed as it could dock into and power other form factors. Well that vision of mine is actually coming to market this year in the form of Motorola’s Atrix 4G.

This is a smartphone that comes with a laptop dock. Keep it in your pocket and have a powerful Android gadget ready for action. Then when serious writing, or other computing tasks need to get done, the device docks into an 11-inch laptop body to give it a desktop-style interface with a full keyboard. This is one model of future mobile computing that I think makes a lot of sense.

It also illustrates the importance of keeping an eye on the trends in the technologies we use to communicate and power our workflows. New ways to put consumer-focused technologies to work are popping up all the time. Knowing when these trends have matured and are ready for daily implementation can be a key to avoiding bandwagons to nowhere and latching on to an innovation that can improve the way you work, play and live.

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