Stick a USB HAPIfork In It: CES 2013 Is Done

I don’t need the CEA, the trade association that owns and produces CES (and whose job it is to make the numbers sound as impressive as possible), to tell me that CES 2013 was the most spread out CES ever, encompassing 1.92 million net square feet. (Or, to help put things in perspective, 731,428 Oppo BDP-105 boxes…or somewhere around 53,467 110-inch Hisense LED UltraHD TVs laid out next to one another like floor tiles.) Thanks to the Fitbug representatives who handed out samples of the company’s Bluetooth-enabled electronic pedometer, the Fitbug Air, I have solid data to explain why my feet still hurt. Not including the the distance I traversed on Sunday before firing up the pedometer, I walked an average of better than seven miles/day (36 miles in total) over the course of five days at CES. (To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of walking from my desk to my kitchen’s refrigerator and back 6,160 times – each day.)

With everything spread out so far and wide, there’s no flippin’ way any single human being could cover the entirety of a convention this large – especially someone (like me) whose idiosyncratic, nomadic approach to each day at CES is driven more by the search for free chocolate, cheap pens, or light-up bouncing balls than any serious planning. I didn’t get to see everything I had intended to see, but I also discovered some things/technologies I wasn’t previously aware of. Here’s a rundown of what, in retrospect, I found to be most interesting at CES2013.

It’s not surprising that in-ear headphones (aka, earbuds) were to be found nearly everywhere. What I did find notable, however, was the number of companies spotlighting traditional over-the-ear style headphones. Headphone juggernaut Monster at times bordered on the ridiculous with its rapid-fire introduction of one fashionable headphone series after another (all displayed by a bevy of models who wore the headphones while walking down the center aisle of the press conference room as if it were the haughtiest catwalk in Paris), especially with the one headband that sported spikes sticking out across the top from ear to ear. PSB showed off the passive M4U 1 Headphones next to a pair of the company’s exceptional M4U 2 active noise cancelling headphones. But, aside from Sennheiser’s glass-encased, mere-mortal-hands-shall-not-touch-this display enshrining one of only 300 HE90 “Orpheus” electrostatic headphone and vacuum tube amplifier combos ever made – and, at $12,900 in 1991, it was the most expensive headphones ever made at the time – the most compelling pair of over-the-ear headphones I listened to at CES 2013 were Velodyne’s forged-aluminum and brown-leather vTrue Studio Headphones. Style-wise, these were no frou-frou haute couture attempt at making a headphone only six people in the world would ever wear. Instead, Velodyne’s vTrue Studio headphones are more akin to something you’d see at a high-end auto show. Several people referred to the simple metal-and-leather design as “manly”, but all I can say is that they exude class. Nearly everything concerning the industrial design is spot on, from the adjustable fit and comfort of the leather band and ear cushions to the detachable, tangle-resistant, braided-cloth cables. And, by the way, they happen to sound absolutely fantastic.

The most jaw-dropping audio demo of that I heard at CES this year quite improbably involved a pair of relatively inexpensive (under $100) Sennheiser on-ear stereo headphones. No offense to Sennheiser, but it wasn’t the headphones that were the highlight; it was DTS’s amazing Headphone:X technology. In a modest-size demo room in the middle of the frenetic DTS booth, a DTS presenter played a couple of demo clips – including the traditional “this is the left channel, etc.) type of demo – using a quite good, discrete 11.1-channel audio system (incorporating side, front-, and rear-height speakers). After the presenter had all of us put on the Sennheiser headphones wired into our chairs, she replayed the exact same demo clips. I have to say that everyone in the room had the same reaction I had, which was that the headphones weren’t turned on and the music/movie clip was still playing through the speakers. Many in the audience – including me - took off the headphones thinking it was some sort of problem (or trick) with the demo, only to find that the speakers in the room were absolutely silent. DTS’s Headphone:X technology was capable of creating the disarmingly realistic impression of having 11.1-channels of speakers spread around the room – all through a standard pair of stereo headphones. Unfortunately, Headphone:X circuitry doesn’t upconvert five channels to 11. It only recreates the number of channels present in the original mix. But, man, is it good! Look for DTS’s Headphone:X technology to begin appearing in products later this year. And then make sure you give it a listen.

Another exceptional technology I saw involved an LCD window film that could be changed from clear to opaque in a fraction of a second. Windows with LCD treatments to block light or let it pass through aren’t new; and while the concept is still fascinating, what makes the soon-to-be-released products by Aeon Labs and Sonte so noteworthy is that both companies are determined to make the LCD window film a DIY product – both in terms of ease of installation and affordability. Aeon Labs’ window film will be Z-Wave controllable; Sonte’s will be Wi-Fi-enabled, which means one or the other is bound to work with the majority of home automation systems on the market.

Home automation – in the guise of security, energy savings, robotics, home health, and, oh yeah, home entertainment – was to be found in quite a few places within those 1.92 million square feet of exhibit space. In addition to the well-publicized Nest, there will soon be quite a variety of “smart” thermostats on the market, both standalone varieties, such as Allure Energy’s EverSense. Unlike other brainy thermostats, Eversense doesn’t solely rely on programming or learning patterns of behavior (such as with the Nest). Instead, Eversense works off of user-selected “proximity zones” based on the location of the user’s cell phone. The advantage of this approach is that if your typical behavior changes temporarily – you come home early from work or stay late – the ability of Eversense to essentially track your location in real time means that it can adjust the temperature to cool/heat the house earlier or later than normal. This approach both saves energy and makes your home more comfortable whenever you happen to arrive at home. Eversense is expected to be available for sale in the next few months.

Finally, there was the announcement of Pioneer and Onkyo jumping aboard the HDBaseT bandwidthwagon. HDBaseT, with its ability to connect devices (and, depending on the device and implementation, sometimes provide power for them!) over long runs using Cat5e and Cat6 cables, is a fantastic connectivity technology. The participation of Pioneer and Onkyo will, no doubt, spur other manufacturers to get involved, too.

Of course, there were tons more things I saw/touched/drooled on at CES 2013, but they’ll have to wait for another time. I can tell you one thing I didn’t drool on, though: the vibrating, supposedly lifestyle-changing, USB-enabled HAPIfork. Yes, it vibrates when it senses you’re eating too fast. And, yes, you can tell it when you’re happy or sad. But, I’ve got to put this down – along with cat ears that read your brainwaves and an MP3 player about as small as one of the dice at a Vegas craps table – as being something the world just doesn’t really need at the moment. Maybe CES 2014…