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Home-Theater Harbingers

Now that we've entered the "tweens" of the 21st century, we finally leave the "aughts" behind. It was an eventful decade for home theater, and I could wax rhapsodic about how far we've progressed in the last 10 years, but I'd rather focus on what's to come, especially since CES starts this week. What home-theater harbingers might we see in Las Vegas?

First and foremost, 3D will be everywhere. Now that the 3D specification for Blu-ray is finalized, I'm certain we'll see lots of 3D-capable players at the show, though most won't be shipping to retailers until late in the year—after all, the spec was finished only a couple of weeks ago, so manufacturers haven't had much time to complete their engineering, much less build and test prototypes. The new spec encodes full-resolution 1080p for each eye, and it's completely independent of the display technology.

Speaking of which, we'll also see scads of 3D-capable displays, including flat panels and front projectors—JVC has announced it will present 3D demos with twin 4K projectors, and Optoma will be showing 3D front projection with a much more affordable system. While the spec for 3D-content storage and delivery on Blu-ray is a done deal, there are myriad display technologies vying for a piece of the 3D pie, such as active shutter glasses and passive polarization, of which there are several variations.

The good news is that this format war is essentially meaningless—as long as the display manufacturers design their systems to accept and decode the 3D Blu-ray signal, you will see 3D using the glasses that come with the display. You might not see full-res 1080p in each eye—some systems deliver only half the vertical resolution to each eye—which is one big differentiating factor to which I'll be paying close attention.

Of course, another trend at CES will be an increasing emphasis on streaming online content via Blu-ray players, TVs, and set-top boxes. I hope to see a device that lets you get content from anywhere on the Web, not just certain providers that partner with different manufacturers.

Flat panels will continue to get thinner and less expensive on average, though we aren't likely to see any large-screen OLED TVs other than prototypes and concept demos. In fact, I don't expect any commercially available OLED TVs larger than 15 or 20 inches for several years at least, mostly because the technology remains very expensive and difficult to manufacture in large screen sizes.

However, we are sure to see more LED-illuminated LCD TVs, though the trend is clearly toward edgelighting and away from backlighting, because edgelighting is less expensive and allows thinner cabinets. I really hope to see plasma TVs make a strong showing—I hate to think that this technology's market share might suffer further erosion in 2010.

Speaking of LED illumination, this technology will continue to be applied to front projectors as well, though there might not be many new-product announcements at CES, which is less of a projector show than CEDIA. With Digital Projection, projectiondesign, Runco, SIM2, and Vivitek already in this market, there are sure to be others in the near future.

I've been surprised by the number of press releases for wireless systems this year—I know of three PC-to-TV systems and two 7.1-channel wireless audio systems that will be introduced at the show. Other news in this regard will likely include more wireless subwoofers and surround speakers as well as wireless HDMI systems, though this market segment has grown more slowly than I expected.

Another audio trend is an increasing implementation of alternative surround schemes such as Audyssey DSX, Dolby Pro Logic IIz, and a similar system from DTS, which derive so-called "height" channels to enhance the sense of envelopment from movie soundtracks. I'm sure we'll see more A/V receivers that offer one or another of these systems.

Finally, this year's CES will no doubt be "greener" than ever, with virtually all companies touting products that consume less power and include fewer toxic substances, both of which are big advantages for LEDs over CCFL backlights and conventional projector lamps. Energy Star 4.0 goes into effect on May 1, 2010, and it promises a 40-percent reduction in power consumption over current levels, so we will undoubtedly see lots of products sporting this label.

Now it's time to saddle up and hit the road for Vegas. I'll be blogging throughout the show, so be sure to check UAV often. Meanwhile, I hope the new year brings you everything you desire and nothing you don't.

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