By Ben Bowers
on 1.19.12
Photo by Gear Patrol

We kicked off 2012 by visiting not-so-beautiful Las Vegas to attend CES, with the hope of getting a head start on the exciting new products that will launch over the coming year. While we’ll continue to highlight gadgets revealed there on a regular basis, one of the best parts about being on the ground at CES are the elaborate, and typically ridiculous showcases that brands create inside the Las Vegas Convention Center’s 3.2 million sq. ft. domain. Subsequently, we decided to wrap up our coverage of the show this year by providing you an attendee’s perspective of our favorite booths.

Your personal tour of the epic spectacle arms race begins after the break.

Photos by Ben Bowers

LG

Part of the reason titans like LG have such an impressive presence at CES is because they make products in literally every conceivable electronics category. From smart fridges, washing machines, ovens, and vacuum cleaners, to TVs, Blu-ray players, projectors, stereos, cell phones and tablets, they had it all.

The star of the booth, and perhaps the entire show, was their glorious 55-inch, LG 55EM9600 OLED HDTV. Boasting what effectively amounts to infinite contrast, a four pixel color arrangement that includes white, Smart TV features, compatibility with LG’s Magic Motion remote, and a bezel width of just 1mm — they left every visitor who gazed upon them salivating. What’s even more impressive is that the TV is so thin (a mere 4mm), that it requires a separate control box to house connectivity and other necessaries. We seriously had difficulty even photographing it from the side. While exact release dates and pricing weren’t revealed, we do know it will go on sale during the second half of this year for a cost somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. Those price points still makes this TV mainly a halo product for the brand, but the good news for consumers is that this sort of display is indicative of what we can all expect to enjoy in the next five years as production ramps up.

In case that wasn’t impressive enough, the booth also included a mammoth 84-inch, 3840×2160 (4K) resolution 3D display, which LG is labeling the world’s largest 3D “Ultra Definition” television. Despite all the attention these bigger stunts were receiving, it’s worth mentioning that the new sleek silver bases and design aesthetic found throughout most of LG’s more ordinary Cinema Screen 3D TVs, new Google TV models, and computer monitors, also made for great eye candy. The Rubik’s cube-like AirPlay-enabled ND8250 speaker dock was another cool marvel, among many others, that we found just hiding out in the wings.


Vizio

Vizio’s booth blew the doors off of our expectations this year and proved you can still win at the show without buying prime real-estate in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Instead, the brand setup an Apple-store-rivaling display showcase in a ballroom at the Wynn, complete with a demo living room, kitchen, and office to highlight how their suite of products works together to provide a seamless experience. Oh, and we do mean suite of products. Their company’s newly announced PC line was just as jaw-dropping in person as it was in the press materials. The laptops, which are essentially Ultrabooks without jumping on the label band wagon, and the all-in-one desktops were incredibly well built, setting a new standard for PC design, in our eyes. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft started championing the products as the ideal for Windows-running hardware in the future.

On the TV side, Vizio continues to build upon their promise of cutting-edge features (and now looks) at value driven prices. We spied their 71-inch XVT Cinemawide 3D Display, as well as host of other lust-worthy models including a 65-inch Via Plus set (that’s their branding for Google TV) that also supports OnLive’s gaming service, and an 80-inch prototype behemoth that we wish we knew more about.

Those with older TV sets should really investigate the hockey-puck sized Vizio VAP430 Google TV box, which can overlay Vizio’s Via Plus platform on any set using HDMI pass-through. That eliminates the need to switch inputs to access streaming content or apps on your TV, like you would with Roku’s products or the Apple TV. Once more, the box will cost less than $100 and should be available for purchase in the next few weeks.

The company’s redesigned 10-inch tablet was another example of the incredible strides in product design they’ve made this year, helping to shore up a complete home tech ecosystem. It’s quite obvious Vizio is gunning to become the premier home electronics brand in the U.S., and based on their 2012 CES showing, Sony, LG, and Samsung should be terrified right now.


Canon

Camera companies had a surprisingly strong showing this year at CES and while several brands made big announcements, Canon got our nod for the best booth of the pack. Their sprawling display was the equivalent of a cave of wonders for photographers, and lined with killer products at every turn.

If you weren’t bowled over by the EOS C300 Rig prominently displayed at the center, then the multi-level platforms equipped with their latest DSLR bodies and some truly insane lenses like the Canon EF 300mm f/4 ($1,300) and the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8 ($12,000) for hands on shooting did the trick. Frequent stage demos and performances capped it all off, just in case you didn’t get your fill of coordinated dress flapping from somewhere else on the floor.


Panasonic

Panasonic flew largely under the radar on the TV battle grounds this year, mostly because they didn’t show off an anorexic OLED display of their own for visitors to coo over. Those that did take the time to investigate the company’s wares were still rewarded though with some pretty amazing sights.

The biggest hit was Panny’s 4k and Neo Plasma Black demonstrations. After being ushered into a dark room, visitors were first treated to a side by side comparison of their previous top performer, the VT35 and their new flagship VT50, which features an Infinite Black Ultra Panel, as well as a nicely redesigned body-style. Not surprisingly, the inky blacks of the new panel were clearly much improved over the VT35, which had the best black levels in 2011, leaving us to wonder if Panasonic will finally oust Pioneer’s aging Kuro line as the king of plasma.

We then moved into another curtained room, showcasing the company’s freak-of-nature prototype 20-inch 4k screen (the back of it is shown in the top panel above). At first it was hard to comprehend what we were seeing. Displaying four times as many pixels as 1080p on a 20-inch screen amounts to a pixel density of 216 pixel per inch. The results were eye-popping. Everything from aerial maps, to ocean floor life, to sail boats at sea, displayed a level of detail we’d never before seen. HD looks great, but this one exhibit teased just how much further technology can push the picture envelope.

Exploring the rest of the booth yielded a surprise in the form of a miniature astro turf soccer field occupied by two girls in pink tank tops kicking a ball back and forth. They apparently were supposed to act as shooting material for the various cameras demo cameras. That’s CES thinking for you.


Audi

Audi’s booth was more about style than substance. The white monolithic cube, littered with a Super Walmart’s worth of halogen lights, appeared as if it was airlifted right off the set of Tron: Legacy. Besides its bug zapper-like attraction to passing visitors, the elaborate display served as the perfect backdrop for the company’s Urban Concept electric car, next-gen Audi Command interface, and a prototype heads-up display.

The HUD was definitely the highlight of the lot and consisted of a display in front of the driver and in front of the passenger, as well as a middle display that both people could view. Rappers have reminded us for years that having plenty of screens in your whip is no big deal, but the magic swiping method used for transfering data such as restaurant locations from the passenger side screen to the shared screen definitely got our geek heart pounding. Sadly, it won’t appear in their line for at least a few years, which is probably around the time when our tan from their exhibit should finally wear off.


Belkin

Belkin’s presence at this year’s show was a big deal for the accessories manufacturer, despite looking absolutely humble compared to the elaborate displays put on by the heavy weight brands. They launched completely new branding, as well as a host of new products designed to mirror the motto set forth in their new logos “Pip” name, which stands for people inspired products.

The brand’s so-called WeMo home automation system got the most attention from us, since it’s one of the easiest solutions we’ve seen for managing your home electronics from anywhere there’s an internet connection. By plugging in any electronic into the WeMo Control Outlet, which then plugs into the wall and connects to a wireless network, users can control that device via a free smartphone app. Other products in the line such as motion sensors, a baby monitor, a garage door opener, and door locks can also be layered into the system, to create the connected home you’ve always wanted — without all of the costs, hassles, or confusion of more elaborate solutions.

We also have to hand it to Belkin for their interesting booth styling, which revolved around combining their new tech accessories with Mad Men-era vintage furniture and appliances. Amidst the sea of televisions, neon lights, and brushed metal, their booth was a refreshing sanctuary for those in search of a break, complete with a shaded second floor patio to hide from the blistering convention center lights.


Pioneer

Touring Pioneer’s booth in the North hall of the convention center brought back memories of wandering the isles of custom auto shops in our high school years. Their floor space featured enough speakers and in-dash navigation systems to supply the Fast and the Furious series for sequels 6-15. One of the highlights included the App Radio 2, which was in ample supply for demoing purposes. As cool as it was, we were slightly distracted by the Quattroporte GT outfitted with a Wald Black Bison kit and 22″ Renown R10-C wheels sitting in the middle of the floor. Especially after inspecting the interior to find a pair of shallow mount subs and a row of ultra compact PRS-D800 2-channel bridgeable amplifiers lining the upper opening of the trunk — leaving plenty of room for a set of golf clubs. The Lexus GS F Sport project equipped with roughly $15,000 worth of aftermarket audio gear also beckoned from underneath its rib-cage like enclosure.

Rounding out the auto goodies was Pioneer’s augmented reality heads up display that utilizes a laser projector connected via Bluetooth to a special Android phone app to show directions, points of interests, and road hazard issues right on the see-through screen. We were informed on the floor that Japan would get the first crack at the device, but that it could be in the U.S. sometime in 2013.


Samsung

Like LG mentioned earlier, Samsung pulled out all the stops this year to show off what seemed like a Best Buy’s worth of merchandise. The brand’s knack for sexifying electronics was on full display, and we made sure to personally inspect a variety of newly announced gizmos coming to market this year including the Series 9 3D all-in-one PC and monitor, the gloriously retro DA E750 vacuum tube airplay dock, the table-sized touch screen Samsung SUR40 with Microsoft Surface 2, and the new Goldilocks-approved 7.7-inch Galaxy Tab.

An armada of gorgeous displays lined almost every wall and practically every ceiling tile. They too placed a series of 55-inch OLED TVs front and center, which appeared to match the razor-thin form factor and brilliant color reproduction of LG’s version. Just like their premier UNES8000 LED and PNE8000 plasma sets, the OLED model sported a dual-core processor and smart interaction capabilities for controlling the set through voice commands and motions. A prototype 70-inch 4K by 2K set was also out for viewing, but Panasonic’s 20-inch demonstration left a bigger impression in our eyes.

We experienced a Minority Report moment during the booth’s Smart Window prototype demo, which featured a slick touch-controlled interface that was projected onto a transparent sheet of glass. A host of apps were demoed on the device including reading Twitter, opening Mircosoft Office docs (mercifully with no paper clip assistant to be found), and checking the weather or stocks. Drawing the “virtual blinds” elicited the most murmurs from the crowd, as the Samsung staffer showcased how the device could even control the flow of light. That kind of tech won’t show up in homes anytime soon, but at least we now know it’s possible.


Ford

Ford’s booth excelled at reminding us just how far technology has already come, while also painting an exciting picture of how much further automotive technology can still be advanced. The 2013 Fusion, 2013 Escape, and the 2013 Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid unveiled at the show all proved that qualities such as fuel efficiency and seamless integration with cloud-based technology are no longer the stuff of science-fiction.

The gullwing-tastic Evos concept showcased front and center, on the contrary, was a tangible representation of how many design-barriers still remain to be broken. Likewise, hearing what the company’s on-site engineers had to say about the research being conducted on vehicles that can gather information directly from roadways and other surrounding cars was enlightening. The idea that cars could become smarter than their drivers certainly piqued our interest, since the motorists in our local tri-state area could use all the help they can get.


Schick

The traditional razor brand made this list because of their sheer ingenuity (pun definitely intended). Given the amount of stuff to see in such a limited time frame, proper grooming is typically the first thing to go down hill with CES attendees. Schick cleverly seized the opportunity to demonstrate the skills of their Schick Hydro 5 vibrating razor, by offering a free barber shop experience to visitors lucky enough to score an appointment. While we didn’t take the time to have our scruff mowed down, the guests we saw who did participate tootled away from the booth looking clean and relaxed. Now if only Schick can find a staff of equally skilled Swedish beauty pageant winners to man the booth next year…