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I’m about to leave for Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, which sets the tone annually for the year in terms of what technology will hit the market.

The Vuzix M100

I’ll be posting updates throughout the week from CES here and at Listener Online, so keep an eye on the websites or follow my twitter feed (@petergnz) for new posts.

The pre-show buzz suggests it will be a good year for new technology. Here are some of the highlights I’m expecting…

4K TV goes mainstream

Just when we’ve got used to the idea of high-definition TV comes ultra HD, a new video format that delivers four times the resolution of existing high definition TV. That means spectacular picture quality and realism, but also requires you to upgrade your TV to handle all that extra information displayed on the screen. Ultra HD TVs have been developed so far mainly by Japanese and Chinese electronics makers but will go mainstream around the world this year.

I expect to see some large screen (60 inch and above) 4K TVs wowing CES attendees at the show this year. The TV industry is struggling with tight margins and strong competition, so needs a new technology to re-start the TV upgrade cycle. 4K could be the ticket if compelling content is made available in the format. This will take a few years to get going, but is a development anyone who appreciates screen quality will welcome.

Smarter TV

Smart TV features are built into most new TV sets these days, but uptake of these services has been sluggish. Apps on the TV are great – they let you surf the web, make a Skype call or watch Youtube videos – right on the main screen in the lounge. But they need a whole level of integration with broadcast TV to become really useful. At least three CES shows ago I saw this type of integration shown off, but rolling out such services across the broadcast network takes a lot of time. At CES, we’ll see a lot of action in this space from the likes of Samsung, which has a new smart TV interface ready to go.

Elsewhere, Google will be pushing Google TV, its smart TV system that’s yet to make it to New Zealand. New Google TV sets from Asus, Sony and LG will be on show.

Reality check

The gadget that had people in awe last year was the pair of augmented reality glasses unveiled by Google. Google Glass displays a screen in front of the wearer’s eye which can feed updates from the internet, email, maps and video. Built into the glasses is a GPS chip, so the glasses know where you are and what direction you are facing, and a phone can be operated by voice. It could be what the relatively clunky mobile phone morphs into in the coming years.

Google Glass isn’t ready for CES yet, but a nimble rival, Vuzix, has stolen a march on Google and will launch the M100 augmented reality glasses at the show. I’m eager to try them on. What they and Google Glass represent is an effort to allow a more naturalistic, effortless interaction with consumer electronics and I’m all for that.

Elesewhere, the likes of Nokia will present augmented reality features of mobile phones – such as the ability to point your phone at a store and see what sales are on offer. That will be the start of the augmented reality movement, which is likely to become massive as it opens up a wealth of opportunities in the tricky area of mobile advertising.

“Phablet” frenzy

Almost negating the trend towards more naturalistic interaction with your mobile is the move to larger devices that function as a phone and a tablet – a phablet, if you like.

Samsung kicked off the movement a couple of years ago with the ridiculous-looking, 5-inch, Samsung Galaxy Note. Guess What – it was a major success. The screen size of smart phones has been inching up – for around 3.5 inches to over four inches. CES will see that trend continue with new phones at the 6 inch format which starts to put them squarely in the iPad Mini space. The idea, I suppose, is that instead of shelling out upwards of $800 for a smart phone and as much again for a high-end tablet, you get two in the same device.

That makes sense, but what doesn’t in my book, is the ergonomics of holding a 6 inch slab of glass and silicon to your ear to take a call. Anyway, I will test drive a phablet and report back.

Apps galore

Here’s an interesting fact – in Christmas week 2012 an estimated 1.76 billion apps were downloaded from Apple’s App Store, Google Play and other similar online marketplaces. That’s a massive number and shows the popularity of small bundles of software that are easy to download and install and provide a much better experience than navigating on a mobile web browser.

We’ll see some cool apps launched at CES and I’ll wrap up the best of them here.

Where’s Steve?

One big difference at CES this year will be the lack of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pacing the stage on opening night giving the traditional Microsoft opening keynote.

Microsoft has pulled out of CES, preferring to copy the Apple and Google model of launching products at its own stage-managed events. That may not change the tone of things too much – Windows is so dominant that there will be plenty of talk about Windows 8. But Microsoft may well be ruing the decision to choose this year to exit CES. Sales of Windows 8 have been disappointing and its own Surface tablet hasn’t set the tech world on fire yet. Microsoft has a new “pro” version of the Surface coming out at the end of the month, so it could have done with the bump a spectacular CES keynote could have delivered.

Doing the basics better

Often overlooked among the hype around new TVs and smartphones, ultrabooks and tablets, are the improvements  that make live easier for gadget lovers. Its the better battery life, the faster internet access, more secure web browsing.

I’ll be over the moon if I see battery technology at CES that brings the charge-once-a-week ethos of old Nokia handsets to the smart phone world. WiGig devices will feature at CES – the new wireless networking standard boosts transmission rates across wireless networks to 7 gigabits per second. It is those sorts of behind the scenes changes that makes the user experience all the better.

I’ll also be tracking how technology is shaping the future of the news media as part of a Fulbright-Harkness Fellowship that will see me travelling around the US over the next couple of months. Check out Futurenews.co.nz for updates.

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