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My Visit to the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES)

I spent a few days last week at the CES in Las Vegas to learn about the latest trends in consumer electronics, with particular attention to items in the "connected home" category. This was my first time at the CES and everything one hears about the show is true: the exhibit floor is massive, it is impossible to see everything, and the products displayed range from innovative to ridiculous.

 

4K televisions were introduced by a number of companies including Sony, Samsung, and LG. These TVs have four times the resolution of HDTVs and look amazing. At this point, the prices for 4K televisions are very high ($20,000+) and there are few sources of programming in this ultra high resolution. Most cable systems don't even have the bandwidth to transmit much 4K programming, but fiber systems might. On the bright side, a number of "upconverters" were shown that extract near-ultra resolution from regular HDTV programming.

 

Above is a 20" Panasonic 4K tablet with an amazing 3840 x 2560 pixel ultra high resolution screen. This prototype runs Windows 8 and gives us a glimpse into the future when tablets might be better suited for high-end technical, multimedia, and business uses.

 

These dancers were part of an extravagant display at the dts booth. Dts is a group of technologies used for surround sound in cinemas and home theater systems. Many large companies constructed impressive display areas. Sony had a 25,000 sq ft area with an immersive, 360 degree video screen encircling the entire "booth." LG had a two story 3D video wall as the entrance to their section.

I did manage to visit a number of companies offering home automation products that included energy monitoring and smart appliances. I'll be writing about some of those in future posts. Mainly, I came away with a lot of ideas and concepts to research in 2013.

Sharing Data From the Netduino

As mentioned in an earlier post, I've been working with the Netduino microprocessor board, a .NET version of the open source Arduino. In preparation for designing a home energy monitoring system, I created a small project to measure and post data from the Netduino. The simplest circuit I could find consisted of a photocell and a resistor wired into one of the analog inputs. Every 60 seconds, the Netduino measures the value from the photo cell and posts the data to the Cosm website where it is graphed and displayed for all to see.

Data collection, analysis, and display are a particular interest of mine considering my background in SQL Server design and programming. Granted, this project produces a tiny amount of data, but it is a first step in integrating a microprocessor board with online graphing. One of the great features of Cosm is that you can set triggers for events to happen based on your data. For instance, when the daylight value reaches 66% I could send a tweet announcing that it is daybreak in Philadelphia. Cosm also provides graph widgets for any public data stream on their site, such as the one below.

view on Cosm.com

 

Windows Phone 8 Review

I've been using the new AT&T Nokia 920 phone for two weeks, so here are my thoughts:

PROs: Great display, fast processor, smooth web browsing, live tiles provide a great start page, camera images are sharp (although color balance is inconsistent, hopefully an update will fix this)

CONs: No notification center, (although I hear that is coming eventually) lack of some key apps, many unappealing existing apps, random reboots reported by some users. (although I have never experienced one)

My two biggest gripes however are the lack of WAV file playback (WAV is a Microsoft format! My BlackBerry played WAV files!) and the fact that the battery and signal level indicators disappear after a few seconds instead of remaining visible. I'm hopeful that since these items could be easily fixed with a software update that they will be addressed in the near future. I also miss the "profiles" feature of my BlackBerry that allowed different email accounts to have different audible notifications.

The bottom line for me is that Windows Phone 8 suits my needs and integrates well with the Windows desktop, MS Office and Skydrive. I'm not a huge apps user but so far almost all the apps I need are available: Skype, Evernote, Facebook and Twitter among others. The lack of Instagram has been a deal breaker for a number of people, but I find the panaroma, self timer, and cinemagraph features to be much more useful and appealing than permanent image distortions. (I know, Instagram is a social tool too...) I'm also looking forward to developing my own apps on this platform, leveraging my existing knowledge of C#. Physically, it's a large phone that I made even larger with a thick protective case, so now it is massive! This thing is like a lead monolith. I prefer the heft and feel of a solid phone, though. If you are in the market for a slim device, the 920 is probably not for you.

Here is an example of an image captured by the 920: (the resolution has been severely reduced to fit this page)

 

Verizon Program Guide Innacuracies

I've had Verizon FIOS service for a few months now and overall I'm quite pleased. The HD image quality is great and the internet speed is fast. At this point I will move into nitpicking and complain about the program guide. Overall I actually like the program guide. It displays more channel information on the screen and is more pleasing to my eye than others I have seen. My sole issue is with the display of a program's original air date. Granted, this is not a big deal, but for some reson I really like knowing what year a program I'm watching originally aired.

On cable, this information was always visible on the first line of the description. On FIOS, you need to hit at least two buttons to access the date. The bigger problem though is that the original air date shown is often grossly inaccurate. How do I know? Because it is often shown as being in the future. See the example below. The original air date of this episode was 5/17/1995, however the guide displays 9/19/2015. It looks like the guide particularly has problems with dates from the 1990s.

 

(Please don't hold the fact that this example is from an episode of 90210 against me. This screen shot is only used as an example) So how does one alert Verizon to this issue? I can see them telling me to "reset my set top box" to fix this or offer to send out a technician.

Bing Bang Theory Compression Test

It turns out that the opening sequence of the Big Bang Theory is great for determining the amount of video compression applied to the channel on which its airing. The rapid-fire images prove tricky for most compresion algorithms used by cable tv, satellite and fiber. With no or very little compression, the images in the title sequence will flow smoothly. The more compressed the signal, the more pauses or stuttering you'll see. For instance, when viewing the opening on the local independent station over the air with an HD tuner, little to no compression is seen. However, when viewing the same opening on TBS (via Verizon fiber) the sequence noticeably pauses on two of the images. (Most often on the image below)

A difficult question to answer is where the offending compression is being introduced. It could be from the uplink/downlink of the TBS signal to the local cable company. Or it could be the local cable company itself compressing video to fit more channels on their system. Although the compression artifacts are fairly minimal, they could make some viewers wonder why the producers chose to dwell on certain images, thus creating meaning where none exists. In any case, the next time you watch the opening titles, keep an eye out for tell-tale compression artifacts.

Building Awesome Projects With Netduino

The Arduino is a popular open source microprocessor system for hobbyists, artists and experimenters to build interactive projects and devices. The Netduino is based on the Arduino but runs on the .NET platform and can be programmed in C Sharp, a huge boon to C Sharp programmers like myself. My first project is to convert an old analog jukebox from vinyl to mp3 using the Netduino to replace the relays that control the logic in the old system. My second Netduino project will be to build an energy tracking system for household use via a current sensor and online graphing using cosm.

 

Mash My Data

In late 2009, I developed a web-based application for the Consumer Electronics Association’s "Apps For Innovation" contest. The goal was to demonstrate how innovation and entrepreneurship are impacting the U.S. economy. I chose to focus on the FCC radio spectrum auctions and how business of many different sizes were impacted by these transactions.

The site still stands, so check it out!

Amazing Finds at the Technology Graveyard

The township where I live hosted its annual electronics recycling drop off so I hauled over a few broken monitors and battery back up units I had laying around. As usual, the turn out was huge, and I saw pretty much what I expected to see: old computers, lots of picture tube televisions and VCRs. What I did not expect at my local neighborhood drop off was a vintage early 1990s SGI IRIS Indigo workstation. This was a workhorse for Hollywood-style movie animation, used in movies such as Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. The Indigo started at $10,000 (in 1991 dollars!) and went up from there. This distinctively dark blue workstation ran a custom version of UNIX called IRIX. The system's 100 MHz processor and 384 MB of RAM are anemic by today's standards which are an order of magnitude greater.

I also found it interesting how many laser printers were stacked up on the junk heap. Some of them looked pretty new and almost all were in great shape. I'm old enough to remember when a laser printer was a high-end luxury item, only seen in businesses and universities. Years ago I would have tried to save the Indigo and grab a few old laser printers, but I have learned my lesson about acquiring too much junk!