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January 07, 2019

TVs, 5G, and even a smart toilet: What to expect at CES 2019

A TV that rolls up like a poster, Apple tech on Samsung TVs, and a lot more are coming to Vegas this week

The International CES, which stands for Consumer Electronics Show, is the annual consumer technology industry bash in Las Vegas that sees the debut of all sorts of technologies that are set to roll out throughout the coming year. 

The show, which formally opens its show floor on Tuesday, is huge- 180,000 people are expected to attend this year, from 150 different countries, per the Consumer Technology Association, which produces the event. The world's largest trade show, CES includes everything from huge displays from Sony, Samsung, and LG, to small booths from tiny startups. 

Apple does not participate as an exhibitor at CES- they have their own events at other times of year, as do tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook - but Apple did place a billboard in Las Vegas near the Las Vegas Convention Center, trolling its competitors about their privacy policies. And the company's technology will be featured in some manufacturers' products (see below.) 

The show, each year, consists of massive exhibition spaces, which now fill three different convention centers, as well as keynote addresses from CEOs, parties hosted by manufacturers and other industry figures. On the side, it's a place for business meetings, product demos and much more. 

The Tech of 2019 

What can we expect at this year's event? We asked Rob Stott, as he was heading out to CES on Sunday. Stott is the executive editor of CT Lab, a consumer technology publishing company that's based in Center City, and publishes Dealerscope and Technology Integrator magazines. (Disclosure- I worked for a company that was a predecessor of CT Lab, from 2007 to 2015, and covered CES for them several times, although I'm not going to this year's show.) 

"The same product categories always seem to be top-of-mind heading out to CES—things like smart home, virtual and augmented reality, and the latest TV tech," Stott said. 

Speaking of the smart home, one of the most buzzed-about products ahead of CES is an actual smart toilet. No, not the "iToilet" that George Costanza once invented, but a next-generation toilet, complete with Amazon Alexa and a heated-seat add-on. 

Kohler's smart bathroom Courtesy of Kohler, Inc. /for PhillyVoice

Kohler's smart bathroom, with the Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet on the left.

"This year though, everything seems to have that added layer of 5G and how that new networking standard will impact the broader consumer tech spectrum," Stott said. The first smartphones with 5G capability are expected to begin rolling out later this year, although AT&T drew fire Monday for issuing a software update that made a "5G" icon appear on phones that are not actually 5G. 

On TV 

"With TVs, this year it's all about 8K, which couldn't be more frustrating as someone covering the space, let alone for the consumers who follow it," Stott added. "Don't get me wrong, an 8K picture is jaw-dropping and impressive, but the market for 4K content is still practically nonexistent beyond a few paid streaming services. It kind of feels like the industry is putting the cart in front of the horse there."

LG's rollable TV Courtesy of LG /for PhillyVoice

LG's new rollable HDTV.

Most years at CES, there's a big, overarching gimmick for TVs. For awhile it was 3D, then it was curved-screen TVs, and there's a constant quest to make the bezel as small as possible. Some innovations have lasted- most notably smart televisions, as well as display technologies like OLED - while others haven't caught on.

CES exhibitors have been debuting 4K TVs for five years, but even today most TV programming isn't up to that standard, although 4K is available from Netflix for additional cost. 

On Press Day Monday, several major manufacturers unveiled the latest TV innovations. Samsung, despite competing with Apple on various fronts, from smartphone market share to the courts, announced that it is bringing iTunes Movies & TV Shows, as well as support for AirPlay 2, to its TVs this spring. 

LG will also add AirPlay capability, as will Vizio. Meanwhile, LG will debut a 64-inch rollable OLED TV later this year, which can literally be folded up when the user is done with it. 

A lot of the time, the high-end TV innovations unveiled at CES today can be had for only a couple of hundred bucks at Black Friday time, a few years from now. I saw the first 4K Roku TVs at CES years ago, and finally bought one last month, for quite a bit less than the original sticker price. 

Adventures at CES 

The event is quite an experience, and there are always lots of celebrities around, promoting different products and companies. Over the years I've had run-ins with everyone from Alex Trebek to Shaquille O'Neal to Neil Young to 50 Cent to Baz Luhrmann. One year, one booth was graced with a Lady Gaga impersonator, while another had gotten the actual Lady Gaga. 

The big event used to always take place at the same time as the notorious annual Adult Video News convention, but the CES organizers managed to push the pornographers out a few years ago, mostly because they wanted the exhibiting space. When flying out to Vegas in those days, you could usually tell which people on the plane were there for which of the two conventions. 

CES often falls during the NFL playoffs, which always led to big crowds of people watching the games on the new high-end TVs on the show floor. One year, when the Eagles were in the playoffs, a buddy and I took a cab out to Madison Avenue Bar and Grill, the "Eagles bar" in Vegas, and watched the Birds lose to the Cowboys along with a bunch of decades-gone Philly expats. There will be no football this year, however, as CES doesn't fall on a weekend. 

This year's CES continues through the end of the week.