|'Ultra HD' takes center stage but skepticism remains
LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - Television giants at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas are touting the wonders of ultra high-definition screens despite doubts by analysts that people will buy them.
Screens offering picture resolution about four times more vivid than current high-definition sets starred at an array of press events staged on the eve of the CES showfloor opening on Tuesday.
Japanese entertainment and consumer electronics titan Sony made Ultra HD, also referred to as 4K, sets and matching content the centerpiece of a presentation that ran a gamut of gadgets.
"I can't stop talking about 4K," said Sony Electronics chief operating officer Mike Fasulo.
"I tell everyone it is like looking out a window."
Sony unveiled new cameras for capturing video in 4K as well as screens designed to display the rich footage in all its glory.
"But we all know that content is king," Fasulo said. "We have made significant advances there as well."
Sony's Video Unlimited service boasts a library of more than 140 titles, including the full catalogue of the hit series "Breaking Bad."
Sony is also working with Google-owned YouTube and popular online video streaming service Netflix to feature 4K content on television sets.
The Internet is the "natural medium to deliver 4K" shows or films to televisions, Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings said during an appearance at the Sony presentation.
"It's a chance for the Internet to really shine," Hastings said.
"Creators are very excited about 4K and what it allows them to show in storytelling."
Sony also makes professional cameras for shooting films or television shows in 4K resolution.
4K refers to horizontal resolution on the order of 4,000 pixels boasted by new-generation televisions. Current-generation high definition screens, comparatively, have pixel density of 1,080.
"Creation of 4K content is on the rise," Fasulo declared.
South Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung earlier on Monday showed off a "jaw-dropping" ultra high-definition television with a 105-inch, curved screen.
"It is a massive screen, and curved for a truly cinematic experience," Samsung Electronics America executive vice president Joe Stinziano said while unveiling what he billed as the world's largest curved U-HD television.
"Ultra-HD is going to drive the next change in the television industry."
Samsung also introduced a striking "Bendable TV" that can be converted from flat to curved screen with the touch of a button.
Stinziano said Samsung has 4K content partnerships with Netflix and Amazon, as well as film studios Paramount and 20th Century Fox.
Another South Korean consumer electronics powerhouse, LG, also weighed in with Ultra-HD televisions that featured curved screens.
Also among new LG television models was one with a frame to display art or personal photographs while screens are not in use.
LG announced an alliance with Netflix to stream 4K shows including "House of Cards" starring Kevin Spacey to new televisions.
But analysts remain skeptical that 4K will be enough to convince people to spend thousands of dollars to replace their current high-definition flat-screen televisions.
"TV makers are primed to be disappointed because the most important thing that will happen in TV in 2014 will be the continued expansion of online video into the TV screen via over-the-top solutions like the Xbox One, Roku, and Google's Chromecast," said Forrester analyst James McQuivey.
"Instead of raising the quality and cost bar like 4K does, these over-the-top devices and services lower consumer costs while expanding viewing options."
Roku technology is also being built into televisions.
Streaming rich 4K data smoothly requires high-capacity broadband connections, which can be costly or unavailable.
"Ultra HD is clearly the next big thing, but vendors are hoping it won't be like the last big thing -- 3-D TV -- which went nowhere," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer products at Current Analysis.
"TV manufacturers have tried gimmicks to get people to replace TVs, but people don't think there is anything wrong with the ones they have."
Meanwhile, Dolby has developed technology that lets film or television show makers create more visually stunning content that can be displayed over televisions most people already own.
"While we are in this big debate about more pixels, we think the real opportunity is in making them better," Dolby director of technology Pat Griffis said while demonstrating Dolby Vision at a CES event.
"Some television makers are using this to leap over those drinking the 4K Kool-Aid."
He quickly noted that Dolby Vision could be the "icing on the 4K cake," with viewers benefitting from both.
Ultra-flexible chip can be wrapped around a hair
PARIS, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - Scientists in Switzerland said Tuesday they can create electronic chips so flexible they can be wrapped around a human hair.
The technique entails building an electronic circuit on top of a sandwich of polyvinyl layers perched on a hard base.
The wafer is then placed in water, which dissolves two of the polyvinyl layers and causes the base to be released, sinking to the bottom of the lab dish.
What remains is a circuit embedded on a light, transparent non-soluble polymer film called parylene that is just one micrometre, or a millionth of a metre, thick.
The transistors continue to work even when wrapped around a human hair, which is about 50 micrometres thick, according to the research published in the journal Nature Communications.
The ultra-bendable chip may have medical uses, and has already been tested on an artificial eye in the lab.
It was added to a contact lens to provide a monitor for glaucoma, in which pressure builds up dangerously in the eyeball, said the team.
The invention also has many other potential outlets, from flexible solar cells to wearable bio-sensors, they said.
The electronics "can be transferred on any object, surface and on biological tissues like human skin and plant leaves," according to the study led by Giovanni Salvatore at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETZ).
Google partners with automakers for on-board Android
SAN FRANCISCO, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - Google joined Monday with automakers General Motors, Audi, Honda and Hyundai in a new partnership to bring the Android mobile system to vehicles.
The companies, with semiconductor firm Nvidia, announced the formation of the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), an industry group "committed to bringing the Android platform to cars starting in 2014," according to a statement.
"The OAA is dedicated to a common platform that will drive innovation, and make technology in the car safer and more intuitive for everyone," the statement added.
"This open development model and common platform will allow automakers to more easily bring cutting-edge technology to their drivers, and create new opportunities for developers to deliver powerful experiences for drivers and passengers in a safe and scalable way."
The announcement comes with automakers looking at new technologies for the connected car, to bring navigation, entertainment and other applications to vehicles.
Some automakers are looking at developing their own platforms, while others are considering platforms like Apple's iOS or BlackBerry-owned QNX. But Monday's announcement looks to put Google and Android in the driver's seat.
"Millions of people are already familiar with Android and use it everyday," said Google vice president Sundar Pichai.
"The expansion of the Android platform into automotive will allow our industry partners to more easily integrate mobile technology into cars and offer drivers a familiar, seamless experience so they can focus on the road."
LG curved G-Flex smartphone to hit US by April
LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - LG said Monday that its curved and slightly bendable G-Flex smartphone will hit the US by April in partnership with telecom firms AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
The South Korean consumer electronics giant introduced its new flagship smartphone in late October, but it is only available in the company's home country as well as Hong Kong and Singapore.
LG did not disclose its pricing plans for the US, but said that subsidies from carriers were expected to make it competitive with other top-end smartphones. G-Flex is currently sold for about $940 without subsidies in places where it is available.
"G-Flex is the world's first curved and flexible smartphone," said LG Electronics USA mobile communications head Frank Lee during a presentation on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
"This is truly a game-changer."
The high-definition curved screen is powered by a similarly curved battery and designed to bend slightly, if for example the user accidentally sits on it.
"I've carried one for the last couple of weeks and I have never had more people stop and ask me about a device I was carrying," said David Owens, vice president of product at Sprint.
"I am so pleased it is coming, and coming very quickly."
The G-Flex uses flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) to produce a curved six-inch display.
In October, Samsung started retailing its "Galaxy Round" -- a 5.7-inch (14.5 centimeter) handset with a display that curves from side-to-side to fit the contour of the hand.
The G-Flex is curved on the vertical axis in order to, the company said, "follow the contour of the face."
Curved displays are already commercially available in large-screen televisions offered by both Samsung and LG, with both companies showing off ultra high-definition curved televisions at CES.
The displays are supposed to offer a more immersive viewing experience but are significantly more expensive than standard screens.
Curved screens are still at a nascent stage in display technology, which is shifting towards flexible panels that are bendable or can even be rolled or folded.
Motorola eyes 'aggressive' moves in smartphones: CEO - Interview
LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - Motorola is pushing all the buttons to regain prominence in the smartphone market, including aggressive pricing, chief executive Dennis Woodside says.
Woodside, in an interview Monday with AFP on the sidelines of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, said the Google-owned unit is seeking to gain ground against rivals including Apple and Google.
"Consumer tastes change, and we actually think that there's a huge undercurrent of consumers who are saying, 'I don't want to pay as much for my phone ... that's actually a great opportunity," he said.
Motorola is far behind the market leaders now but is "tapping into the next five billion consumers who can't afford a $600 dollar phone," he added.
Since being acquired by Google, Motorola has introduced the Moto X, the flagship device aimed at the US market, and the Moto G, a less expensive phone geared to cost-conscious consumers worldwide.
"There will be different phones at different price points but we're going to be very aggressive there," Woodside said.
"When we priced Moto X at $399 in the US as a promotion, we sold tens of thousands of units in a matter of eight minutes."
The Moto X was originally introduced at $599 unlocked, without a contract, while the Moto G was priced at $179 in the US.
Motorola, once among the leaders in the mobile phone market, has been struggling in recent years as makers like Apple and Samsung grab most of the market share and profits. Surveys indicate it is not among the global leaders in smartphones and has only around seven percent of the US market.
While some analyst see Motorola cutting prices due to weak sales, Woodside said the company makes a profit
"Costs are really important in the business and we'll always be focused on costs, but right now the priority is growing the top line," he said.
"This is a business where scale matters and what's been really important for us to start putting products out there that we're excited about and get consumers excited about. That's what we've done with Moto X and Moto G," he added.
"We've got more on the way and we're focusing on growing that base, the bottom line will take care of itself, once we get to the scale that we need to be."
He said that younger consumers appear to like to use Moto Maker, which allows for a custom design and color of the smartphone: 80 percent of those customers are under 35, he said.
Woodside declined to provide specific sales figures but maintained that since launching the Moto X and Moto G "we are seeing our best days ever for smartphones."
Intel takes leap into wearable computing
LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - Computer chip giant Intel unveiled a major new push Monday into wearables and connecting everyday devices as it seeks to leapfrog the competition in mobile computing.
Chief executive Brian Krzanich said Intel would produce on its own or with partners a range of products from a health monitor integrated into baby clothes to heart monitor in earbuds.
Speaking at the opening keynote of the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Krzanich showed the company's new "personal assistant" dubbed Jarvis, which is Intel's answer to the voice-activated Google Now and Apple's Siri.
Intel will be producing a smartwatch with "geofencing" which allows families to get alerts if children or elderly parents leave a specific geographic area.
The new devices shown to the large CES crowd will all be available this year, Krzanich said, without offering details on pricing or specific partners for the products.
Krzanich said Intel is taking a new approach to wearable computing, seeking to address specific problems with the simplest technology.
He showed a turtle-shaped sensor on baby clothing which can send information to a smart coffee cup about an infant's breathing, temperature and position.
He said the earbuds would enable runners and athletes who already listen to music while exercising to get detailed health information in real time.
"We want to make everything smart. That's what Intel does," he said.
The chief executive who took the reins at Intel last year said the new technology all revolves around its new chip called Edison, which is said integrates a full-fledged computer in the size of a memory card.
He said Intel will be partnering with the luxury retailer Barneys New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and design house Opening Ceremony to explore and market smart wearable technology.
And Intel will offer $1.3 million in prizes for other developers who come up with new ideas for wearable computing, including a first prize of $500 million.
"This will allow creation and innovation to come to life" in wearables, he said.
To address questions about security, Intel will offer its McAfee mobile software free of charge.
"We believe this will allow this ecosystem to flourish."
Intel remains the world's biggest producer of chips for personal computers but has been lagging in the surging mobile marketplace of tablets and smartphones. The new initiative could allow the California firm to get a bigger slice of the mobile market's newest iterations.
Intel also said its new chips would allow for a "dual boot" that enables computer makers to include Microsoft Windows and Google Android on a single device, with users able to change with the switch of a button.
"There are times you want Windows, there are times you want Android," he said. "You don't have to make a choice, you can have both."
Intel also unveiled a new 3D camera called RealSense which can be integrated into tablets and enable users to produce and manipulate three-dimensional images.
This can for example allow a user to design a toy or other object and then send it to a 3D printer. Intel produced chocolate bars using the technology which were handed out to the attendees at CES.
Mooly Eden, senior vice president for perceptual computing, said Intel is moving to a more intuitive kind of computing.
"We'll make human-computer interaction natural, intuitive, immersive. We'll make it more human," Eden said.
"We finally removed the fiction from science fiction and made it real."
Intel will implement a new policy in 2014 ending the use of "conflict minerals," from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as part of an effort to reduce the money flowing from the technology sector to those committing atrocities, Krzanich said.
"We are inviting the entire industry to join us in this effort," he said.
Samsung forecasts steep drop in Q4 earnings
SEOUL, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - South Korea's Samsung said Tuesday it expected a steep drop in its operating profit for the fourth quarter of 2013, as slowing sales of high-end smartphones and a strong won hit the world's top technology firm.
The company forecast an operating profit of 8.3 trillion won ($7.8 billion) for October-December, down 18.3 percent from the third quarter and 6.1 percent lower than a year earlier.
Sales will likely reach 59 trillion won, down 0.1 percent from the third quarter but up 5.24 percent from a year earlier, according to earnings guidance released by the firm.
It would mark the first on-quarter drop in Samsung's operating profit since the first three months of 2013 and would be the lowest figure since July-September 2012. It is also the first year-on-year drop in the firm's operating profit for more than two years.
Samsung -- the world's top maker of mobile phones and TVs -- posted record net profits for the first three quarters of last year, largely fuelled by robust sales of its popular smartphones. It did not disclose net profit estimates for the fourth quarter.
Its share price inched down 0.23 percent to close at 1.3 million won on Seoul stock market Tuesday, when the benchmark KOSPI rose 0.32 percent.
The latest earnings guidance showed the firm's annual sales and operating profit for 2013 hit record highs of 228.4 trillion won and 36.7 trillion won.
But the company -- which has dethroned US rival Apple as the world's top smartphone maker in the past two years -- saw sales of high-end devices slow as the market becomes increasingly saturated.
"Samsung has constantly expanded sales, but now the (handset) market demand appears to have reached a limit," said Kim Ji-Woong, an analyst at E* trade Securities in Seoul.
The earnings guidance relates to overall sales and profits for the entire company, which produces products from memory chips to TVs, but operating profit at the firm's mobile unit is likely to have dropped significantly, Kim warned.
However, Lee Sun-Tae, an analyst at NH Investment & Securities, said profits had been hit by one-off spending on marketing and bonuses for workers -- estimated to be worth at least 700 billion won -- to mark the 20th anniversary of its key management principles.
"Samsung spent hugely for marketing costs to clear inventory during the year-end shopping season," he said.
"I see big potential for improved profits in the first quarter of this year once such costs decrease," Lee added, saying the firm's memory chip unit also showed signs of improvement.
Samsung has a leading share of 38.8 percent in the global smartphone market as of the third quarter of last year, followed by Apple's 13.1 percent, according to the industry research firm IDC survey.
But intensifying competition from budget handset makers has raised questions over whether Samsung can sustain its ever-soaring profits -- largely fuelled by its mobile unit.
Consumers gave its much-heralded Galaxy Gear smartwatch, launched in September, a relatively cool reception.
And the steady strengthening of the Korean won against the US dollar and Japanese yen has dealt a blow to major South Korean exporters as a stronger currency hits competitiveness and hurts repatriated earnings.
Hyundai -- the world's fifth-largest automaker -- said last week it expected sales this year to grow at their lowest pace in more than a decade.
Samsung's final earnings results are due to be released later this month.
SpaceX launches second commercial satellite
WASHINGTON, January 7, 2014 (AFP) - US company SpaceX said Monday it had deployed a commercial Thai satellite, in its second successful launch in weeks.
The private firm's two-stage Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 2206 GMT, carrying with it the Thaicom 6 telecommunications satellite.
Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, confirmed on Twitter that Thaicom 6 had been delivered "to a perfect orbit."
Thaicom 6, which belongs to satellite operator Thaicom, will provide services to Southeast Asia and parts of Africa.
SpaceX successfully launched its first commercial satellite on December 3pp for Luxembourg company SES, which had previously used European Ariane rockets or the Russian Proton for its launches.
The SES-8 satellite was due to provide television, cable TV and other services to countries including Thailand, India and Vietnam.
With Monday's second successful launch, SpaceX seems to be making its mark in the commercial satellite launch business, estimated to be worth $190 billion.
Its orders amount to $4 billion for 50 launches, 75 percent of which are for commercial satellites.
This second successful launch is also important as SpaceX seeks to be considered a serious candidate by the Pentagon for launching large military satellites.
These launches are currently reserved for the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
It takes at least three successful launches to qualify.
Both Monday's and last month's launches used an improved version of the Falcon 9.
The Falcon 9 has already succeeded in sending its Dragon capsules to the International Space Station under a $1.6 billion contract with the US space agency, NASA.
The Dragon capsule takes cargo into space and brings back material from scientific experiments.
The California-based SpaceX is owned by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.