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CES 2014: Ultra HD/4K Rollout Slower Than Expected

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As expected, Ultra HD (UHD)/4K will be the buzz of CES, but screen sales are not expected to be as dramatic as some vendors predict and rollout remains slow, according to Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in a scene-setting press conference.

Some 20,000 products are lined up to debut at the show. Of these there will be up to 150 separate UHD announcements and launches, with LG alone intending to premier 14 new UHD screens. Yet the technology remains nascent.

'UHD is still at the very early stages of rollout,' said DuBravac. 'While it is still very early to say exactly how it will shape up, UHD is not just a hardware story. We will see a number of new media devices and services arriving to build up a UHD ecosystem. Nor is it just about resolution and size, but about color, dynamic range, and other aspects which enhance the screen experience.'

Just 60,000 UHD screens were sold in the U.S. last year, with predictions of close to half a million in 2014 and 2.9 million by 2017. Putting that in perspective, the overall market for TVs in the U.S. is 40 million. Globally, the UHD sales figure last year, according to the CEA, was 2-2.5 million units. Although this will ramp up to 8.7 million in 2014, the bulk of units are headed to China, where they are being manufactured.

'UHD is following the traditional 'S' curve in which adoption is slow early on before accelerating. The number of experiments and tests of the format are very positive and the ability from a technical standpoint is being illustrated,' said DuBravac.

Screen sizes are expanding at the top end in terms of larger UHD displays, and also in mobile categories, where the economist suggested that 75-100 wearable devices would launch this week.

"The wearable market is set to explode," he predicted. In part this is due to the rising installed base of smartphones and tablets which provide the hub displays for connected services and wearables like health and fitness wrist-worn sensors. Tablet ownership is now north of 50% in the U.S. Global tablet sales will rise from 242 million units in 2013 to 340 million in 2014. Indeed the worldwide installed base of desktop PCs and laptops, reckoned to be around 2 billion, will be overtaken by mobile devices this year, the CEA suggested.

Around 1.5 million smart watches will sell globally in 2014. "Again this is a very nascent market which is still looking for a killer app," observed DuBravac.

A number of the 20,000 new products are not expectedor indeed intended—to be commercially viable at this stage. Curved, transparent and flexible screens for example, it was suggested, will mainly be exhibited “just to show what is possible”. OLED screens are anticipated to sell fewer than half a million worldwide in 2014.

DuBravac further declared that we are at the edge of a third industrial revolution characterised by mass customization.

"f the second industrial revolution was about producing the same thing efficiently and distributing it globally, the era of mass customization allows consumers to specify products," he said, highlighting the Google Moto X phone and 3D printing.

"3D printing is the epitomy of this trend. This is still a very nascent market with just 100,000 consumer grade desktop 3D printers sold worldwide last year, but it is starting to grow very rapidly," said DuBravac.

He also spoke of the impact of the number of sensors now embedded in items from cameras to cars and home appliances.

"We are starting to see more machine-to-machine communication and therefore more autonomy" he said. "But the real impact is that once information is digital we can make decisions much much faster. As a result of constant monitoring you get constant feedback and constant adjustments. We are just at the beginning of how we make sense of this data to create meaningful services and systems."

Good news for vendors like Panasonic and Sony are that global TV sales are set to return to growth. Following a dip in 2010, the market reached $242 million in 2012 and $247 million in 2014, although won't hit the peak of $262 million scored in 2011. Smart TVs are an increasingly valuable as a feature for consumers as are increasing screen sizes. This is a worldwide phenomenon in which screen sizes are rising from an average 37 inches to 40 inches next year.

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