While some SXSW attendees were choosing between happy hour or Sean Parker's interview of Al Gore ("If you like platitudes, then it was great," the Los Angeles Times' Jon Healey said afterward), some fortunate people were getting a helpful crash course in tomorrow's technologies. At " The Future of Innovation and Consumer Electronics," Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, and Richard Watson, co-founder and president of Essential, presented the audience with something like a Cliff's Notes version of today's most important trends in consumer electronics innovation. The panel was moderated by Kevin O'Malley, president of Tech Talk/Studio.
One music-related trend brought up in the panel is high-quality audio. Apple's white ear buds were the aspirational audio product of the early MP3 era, but now big headphones are the big aspirational product, said Shapiro. "For 15 years we got away from quality audio, and now we're going back to it." Indeed, audio quality has slowly improved over the years as both consumers and digital services sought to improve upon the low quality compressed files of the early iPod days. High-quality downloads are now easier to find - Apple just launched the Mastered for iTunes line of specially mastered tracks - and many subscription services and Internet radio services stream at a higher bit-rate than in the past. On the hardware side, companies like Beats By Dre are taking high-quality audio mainstream with over-the-ear headphones and improved audio in personal computers and mobile devices.
Another coming trend is 4K resolution for televisions. 4K is a standard for picture resolution in digital film and computer graphics. The name comes from the roughly 4,000 pixels in its horizontal resolution. Consumer electronics manufacturers quietly rolled out some 4K televisions at this year's CES in Las Vegas. There is currently a lack of content for 4K and few consumers buying the devices, but Shapiro is bullish on it. "It will look like 3D."
Shapiro also predicted lower costs of high-definition televisions will allow for more in-home screens - some in unexpected places. He likes the idea of wall television where six walls - four walls plus the floor and ceiling - are turned into displays video, game or other things. "The cost has gone down so dramatically that all this is foreseeable. The question is, 'Will there be demand for it?'"
While convergence - multi-use mobile devices filled with apps - have been a clear trend in recent years, Watson and Shapiro both predict an increase in limited-use devices that focus on one application. Watson, whose company has designed products for companies ranging from Dell to Owens Corning, explained that physical products improve performance by maintaining simplicity. A device used for healthcare, for example, would benefit from a single-app focus. The idea could even extend to music devices that specialize in one app, such as a speaker married just to one music service.
But innovation isn't easy. Shapiro said he has seen many mistakes from companies at SXSW who weren't sure what they're doing with their products. "Innovation requires mentoring and capital," he said. Entrepreneurs could soon get help with the latter. Shapiro was especially excited that the U.S. House of Representatives' JOBS Act passed last week includes a provision that will allow entrepreneurs to receive small amounts of "crowdfunding" capital via social media - but without current regulations that would otherwise limit this strategy. "If the Senate will act… this JOBS Act will make a difference so people can get money."