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CES 2019: Waiting on 5G

by Debra Kaufman

CES 2019 was as big, crowded and noisy as ever, and the technology was evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. That’s because everyone is waiting for 5G – the next generation cellular network – to arrive. With its very low latency and very fast speeds, 5G promises to make a lot of things possible, from nearly instantaneous download of a full-length movie to a mobile phone to city streets outfitted with sensors and beacons guiding fleets of autonomous vehicles. For the curious, this CES dug a deeper into what 5G actually is (hint: not one monolithic frequency) and how edge computing unleashes its power.

First, 4G LTE isn’t over yet. As we transition to 5G, 4G LTE will likewise continue to evolve, with some predicting gigabit speeds. 5G is not a single frequency, but rather a family, from millimeter waves of 15 (and up) GHz to 5G NR (New Radio), which offers lower frequencies, from 600 MHz to 6 GHz. Although 5G is expected to be much faster and offer lower latency, technologists speaking at CES talked about marrying its power to “edge computing,” which brings the processing closer to the device (and away from the cloud), with resulting improvements in latency.

In his opening keynote address at the Variety Entertainment Summit, Verizon chief executive Bob Bakish stated that, “mobile distribution really is the catalyst that will turn this whole decline of television argument on its head.” CES 2019 did show a few 5G phones, but the infrastructure and other hardware/software aren’t there yet to make it a reality. Its imminence however, has emboldened people to broaden their view of connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT) has been on show at CES for more than five years, where it appeared as fitness bands, step counters, and a handful of baby monitors and other devices. With 5G and edge computing, much of the talk was about smart cities and autonomous vehicles. There’s a long way to go before the streets are paved with sensors guiding self-driving cars. But the enthusiasm for making it a reality was palpable at CES.

When it comes to media and entertainment, 5G’s speed, low-latency and reliability will boost the fortunes of streaming services. It could also help bring virtual reality and augmented reality into the mainstream. The market share for both is still quite small, and, currently, a number of VR-centric companies have shifted their focus to AR. At CES 2019, numerous manufacturers showed off their AR/VR glasses and headsets. Phil Lelyveld and other colleagues at USC’s Entertainment & Technology Center checked out MAD Gaze’s Vader AR glasses, the Pimax 8K Series HMD, Lumus’ Vision optical engine, ThirdEye’s hardened AR glasses for industrial use, PinMR tech from LetinAR, VRgineers’ XTAL HMD, and Viewpointsystem’s lightweight tethered eyeglass frame.  “We are going to see rapid evolution of AR glasses in the next year, especially from clever U.S. startups and Chinese players,” said Lelyveld. “Prices will come down, features will go up, and they will start to look like something normal people will be comfortable wearing.”

Then there were the displays. When it came to foldable smartphones – something that’s been hyped at previous CES conferences – the pickings were slim. Samsung reportedly showed its foldable smartphone in private to a few viewers, but the only one with a public view was Chinese company Royole, which unveiled its foldable smartphone, the FlexPai. The company still hasn’t announced a firm price or launch date. But the flexible screen that got most of the buzz this year was LG’s 65-inch Signature OLED TV R (the “R” stands for rollable). The TV rolls completely into the base, and users can also play music with its Dolby Atmos soundbar and communicate with the TV via Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. There’s also support for Apple AirPlay 2 and HomeKit.

Ninety-eight inch 8K TV receivers made debuted with offerings from Samsung (the 98Q900) and Sony (Z9G Android TV). MicroLED technology also made a showing, with working prototypes of MicroLED 4K TVs from LG and Samsung. Commercially available versions are slated to debut next year.

Finally, let’s look at blockchain and cryptocurrencies (i.e., bitcoin and its ilk) at CES. If you invested in bitcoin, my condolences, as virtual currencies are down 82 percent from last year at this time, according to ETC’s Seth Levenson. He’s still bullish on blockchain though, as are many venture capitalists. He points to Devvio, which claims its technology can support eight million transactions per second and cost 1/100,000th that of an Ethereum transaction. Another company that drew some CES buzz was Singapore-based Pundi X, which manufacturers point-of-sale devices that allow retailers to sell and accept cryptocurrencies and announced a cell phone using blockchain for voice, text, Internet browsing, and a digital wallet.

Not impressed or convinced? There’s always CES 2020.

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