Posted Tue Jan 26, 2016 at 08:00 PM PST by Brian Hoss
You have been relieved of all responsibilities.
Finally, I can share details of my trip to Aperture Science, which I think everyone should visit when they can. And with that I'm left to ponder, which bit of tech from CES 2016 will be mostly widely adopted come 2017, 2018 and beyond. 4K with HDR is happening, but what about VR adoption? Will Atmos and more simplified home theater set-ups merge together? Will everything, even turntables, be wireless going forward? How much longer until USB-C replaces microUSB in everything? Lots to wonder at.
CES 2016 saw VR make its best, most consumer-ready showing to date. I've written previously about the Rift, PlayStation VR, and The Martian VR (with Rift and VIVE). Early in CES 2016, I had a tease of the VIVE PRE demonstration. Donning the latest headset, I stood on the deck of a sunken ship and I gazed up towards the water's surface. As I walked toward the deck railing, tiny schools of fish swam towards me, but then evaded my flailing hands. At the deck's rail, the VIVE's chaperone system interposed an overlay that let me know that I had reached the intended physical bounds. It was then that I heard the approaching whale.
Later on, I got the full four vignette demo. After being under the sea, the next VR vignette was the Job Simulator - Office Worker. Looking around my cubicle, which was nestled deep in the cubicle farm, I did as I was instructed and filled my coffee cup. Almost immediately, I broke with the program. I poured out some coffee to see it pool on my own head, and then I gave the rest to one of those drinking birds that was on the left side desk. As the donut cart rolled by, I ate a donut, and began throwing donuts and everything else I could pick up (mainly office supplies) all around the office. There was even a Magic 8 Ball-type device on the desk (cloudy outlook and all) that I chucked across the office. Then I had to boot up the cubicle computer, which meant turning on the monitor and the tower, and then logging in using the virtual mouse and keyboard (and the HTC controllers). This entire segment was a big favorite for everyone I talked to who had used the VIVE at CES. It simply gets the user thinking about fun/silly things to do in the office, and in turn, lets the input method (those HTC touch/motion controllers) feel natural.
Next up, I used the dark expanse of the 3D paint VR to test out the chaperone system. The VIVE uses a front facing camera to augment the other sensors. As it is, this means that with a double tap of a button, I could see not just the artificial bounds of my 10' x 10' space, but the actual walls that partially surrounded my nook. I could also see the entire computer, monitor, keyboard and so forth that was running the VIVE just outside my bounds. That means I could see the outline of the VIVE rep. While I painted in 3D, (I drew a person in 2D and then walked to the side and drew in the third dimension), I could walk around the area without feeling a great need to take off the headset to get my bearing.
Finally, I took a VR trip to Aperture Science. As it was my first day, I tried to become comfortable with my work space, but as I accidentally terrorized a drawer-sized biosphere and failed to correctly repair a very volatile bot, GlaDOS was quick to give me updates on my performance rating. While it might be way too easy to get excited over the specific joy that comes with the world built inside of 'Portal,' it's impossible to ignore how ripe the setting is for VR fun. (If the VIVE does become its own brand/company, it can only be for the better.)
CES is great for two very different things, concept and prototype products, and the fully realized and executed items that people can buy. The current that runs through these segments of course is tech trends. And in many cases, there are aspirational products that can act as a missing link between the sky-is-the-limit prototypes and ubiquitous big box store products. The LaCie Chromé falls squarely into this category. Without a doubt, the shimmering aluminum enclosure and stand as sculpted by Neil Poulton is meant to grab the viewer/buyer in that conversational way, but it's the tech working within the LaCie Chromé that calls forth from the not too distant future. The device supports the 10 Gbit/s USB 3.1 standard, which when combined with the two Raid 0 500GB M.2 SATA SSDs, makes for speeds of 940MB/s. That is, it can hit that speed when handling large, rendering sized chunks of data. Seamless on four sides, the LaCie Chromé commands a four digit price, which is sizable even by LaCie Porsche standards. Still, to think that this tech will eventually make its way into Seagate's everyday drives, and thereby help users play with 4K captures without waiting is worth dwelling on.
Speaking of more accessible products. Samsung's new Portable SSD, the T3, is likely to crush any portable storage solution in the home today. Building on the T1's design, the T3 takes a major step up in from factor, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the brush finish and smooth shape is pocket-friendly in the best tradition of tech or anything else. (It's like a Zippo or Canon Digital Elph.) Even better, the T3 sports a USB-C connector that can handle 450MB/s (and also includes a USB-C to USB-A cable for legacy connections). The T3 tops out at 2TB of NAND flash memory, which in the T3, has been built to be drop-resistant. The Samsung T3 Portable SSD is due out this March, and I expect prices will be reasonable. Considering what's being done with NAND flash memory in the workstation side of the industry, it's wonderful to see the progress reaching the regular consumer.
Marshall has its own Android phone, the Marshall London, and with any luck we'll see it sold in North America later on in 2016. What was great was getting to see and use the phone in person. Naturally, the phone has a very music-centric focus. From the metal volume wheel and the music-dedicated M Button, to the dual headphone out, twin speakers, MicroSD card slot, FLAC support, and included Mode headphones, the phone pushes a music-intensive focus. It's not just music-listening either; the London has dual mics, which have been included with the idea that users would be recording their own music regularly. (Audio input also figures into this idea).
Of course, it also has a full suite of wireless capabilities, like aptX, but being music-focused involves more. On a hardware level, the Marshall London is trying to offer better playback than any other smartphone short of an external DAC. More obvious to many though will be the dual headphone outputs (with independent volume levels) and (thankfully) the dual speakers.
A key feature for me, the phone has something of an agnostic app sensibility. While users can be at the built-in Marshall music app within one button press, the app itself has been developed knowing that users prefer a choice when it comes to streaming music and social apps. In a world of phone-specific gimmicks that are almost immediately disabled upon activation, here is something open that can hang with a shifting landscape. Naturally, the phone has a replaceable battery and removable back cover, but in a move that will likely scare many people, the phone has been made to be case-unfriendly. In other words, it's meant to go bare. Key features that I look for in a case, like that screen-saving bumper ridge, are just part of the phone. The outer shell has a grip-friendly texture, and the effect is that the phone's casing has a welcome look and feel.
Shure has a long history of quality sound pick-up and more recently, sound reproduction. At CES 2016, I took in a Shure demonstration that paired the new SHA900 DAC/ADC & AMP combo with a pair of SE846 Earphones. As hard as it was to separate the two, my focus was on the SHA900. What Shure has made is a rechargeable DAC/ADC that, as expected from a headphone amp, can push a power-hungry set of cans, but more importantly, the SHA900 has also been designed to deliver when dealing with extremely efficient earphones and boasts an output impedance of .35 ohm. Amid a raucous CES crowd, and in front of an array of Shure ear tips, I was able to run the SHA900 through its paces. While Shure's vision is to let the listener dial in an exact personal EQ, I elected mainly for Bypass mode. Via the control nob up top, I attempted to make the amp act out, but USB connection appears to be quite solid. (The controls are slick.) Though I couldn't test this myself, I was assured that the same was true when it comes to charging. (Ditto for discharge issues.) The clean, full sound coming through (with 70s and 80s tracks) was free of any hiccups that tend to crop up in today's amp/DAC combos. I'm interested to know if the analog-to-digital ability works as well. Naturally, this kind of design should mate well with Shure's own line, but the SHA900 is really something else altogether. Managing battery, USB power, and amplification with such sensitive playback while accepting a variety of sources and a full set of earphone/headphone options is much trickier than a world of pack-in ear buds would lead many to believe. After years of development, Shure has a portable, versatile DAC that will likely become a standard bearer for the segment, and to a greater extent, the portable audiophile movement.
Just in case you were wondering, vinyl continues to be an active segment, and with a beautiful product like the new Technics Direct Drive SL-1200GAE making a huge splash at CES 2016, the vinyl resurgence is hitting new heights. And that brings me to Audio Technica. The company had some crucial new products on-hand like the new open-back ATH-ADG1X gaming headset and the Hi-Res Art Monitor ATH-A2000Z, but it also had something that could be considered CES wacky. Much like a curved display, this is the kind of wacky that could send the competition scrambling if it resonates in the market. When I say wacky, I'm referring to the Audio Technica AT-LP60-BT Wireless Turntable. Available in three colors, including black, white, and navy, this AT-LP60-BT has both phono connections and switchable pre-amp. And yet, it's the Bluetooth feature that sets this turntable apart.
That's right, the thinking here is that people like vinyl and people like wireless audio, so why not offer both together. Honestly, this seems pretty backwards, but with an accessible price point of $179.95, I can see this being a hit product in defiance of conventional wisdom. One thing I have to remember, since my time with Audio-Technica was a bit hectic (that turntable really brought people in!), is that the sound characteristic of vinyl playback isn't or shouldn't be completely lost on account of digital Bluetooth playback. At any rate, I can't wait to see how thing does with consumers.
I've already starting working on reviews for products that were featured at CES 2016, so it should come as no surprise that I'm moving on from thinking in terms of highlights. (Though, like any big show, I'll never really move on from that kind of thinking.) There were tons of products to like and some to love. I hope next year is as good.
The latest news on all things 4K Ultra HD, blu-ray and Gear.