App-titude test: The floor of the 2012 CES Convention Hall in Las Vegas
Las Vegas -- The annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is all about gadgets. But as this year's confab demonstrated, some of the most exciting technological developments related to music are currently focused on software applications for consumer electronics, rather than the actual hardware itself.
Hardware makers are well aware of this shift to a more app-centric world and made sure to emphasize how software enhances the experience of consuming digital media through their products.
Mobile devices are at the center of the app universe, and a veritable army of new Android smartphones and tablet computers made their debuts at CES, as did Nokia's flagship Windows Lumia 900 smartphone, all hoping to significantly challenge Apple's iPhone and iPad.
But the show, held Jan. 10-13, also illustrated how the ability to access music apps continues to expand to other platforms, either through a Bluetooth connection to a mobile device (in-dash car stereos) or a home Wi-Fi network (connected TVs and gaming systems). LG Electronics even showcased a series of Wi-Fi-enhanced home appliances like a washer/dryer and an oven that could soon bring digital entertainment to a new class of products, just as Samsung's app-based refrigerator teased at CES 2011. Even more so than TV and movie services like Netflix and Hulu, music apps were the go-to vehicle for consumer-electronics manufacturers to show off their wares.
Even TV makers like Panasonic, Samsung, Vizio and LG relied heavily on music videos to showcase their new cutting-edge 3-D technologies. Rob Norman, CEO of WPP's GroupM North America, likened the demos at this year's show to the early days of when interactive-TV applications were all the rage during CES keynotes.
"Everyone would always use the example of the pizza-delivery service to show interactive TV's capabilities, " Norman says. "That's what music has become--it's become an example of connectivity. "
Web radio service Pandora alone is now available on more than 450 devices, including 16 automotive systems and countless mobile and home entertainment devices. "It's a signal of what's happening in the industry, " Pandora founder/chief strategy officer Tim Westergren says. "They know what people want, and it's music. It's a harbinger of the future."
Even though the "appification " of streaming music services is merely taking them to places where terrestrial radio has long since ruled, Clear Channel Digital president Brian Lakamp says the added level of interactivity of webcasting services like Clear Channel's iHeartRadio makes app-based streaming services an essential part of the radio giant's future.
"We're adding a new mode of connectivity to the experience, " Lakamp says. Myspace and its owner Specific Media used CES as a launch pad for the new Myspace TV app for Panasonic's Viera line of TVs, recruiting creative director Justin Timberlake for a splashy announcement. The app enables users to stream new music videos directly from the app and chat about them in real time with their friends. They can also synch their smartphone or tablet with any song playing on a Viera TV, which redirects them to the artist's Myspace page.
"We want to provide for the complete TV experience, " Specific Media CEO Tim Vanderhook said at Panasonic's booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center. "We're not trying to disrupt the TV model. Most digital guys think of free, over-the-top apps and we want to be integrated. "
Video technology also factored into many music industry attendees' plans, as executives start to plot innovative music video strategies for 2012. Since Nintendo's handheld 3DS gaming system rolled out 3-D clips last summer from Jason Derulo and other artists, labels and video directors have been exploring cool yet cost-effective ways to incorporate 3-D technology, whether by filming in 3-D or converting existing clips, according to a label executive who attended CES.
The Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am and Intel showcased 360-degree camera technology during Intel CEO Paul Otellini's CES keynote. As part of an Intel branding campaign, Will.i.am will visit 12 countries during the next year, filming his trips with his Intel "Ultrabook " laptop. Using Intel's willpower360 app, the 3-D footage will enable viewers to watch the artist from every possible angle. Will.i.am will also record an original song in each city using his Ultrabook and other Intel products.
Will.i.am and Timberlake were among the host of A-list musicians who stopped by CES this year. LL Cool J debuted a virtual recording studio presented by his Boomdizzle online music community in conjunction with Dolby, 50 Cent talked up his new SMS headphone line, and Justin Bieber drew crowds to help Tosy Robotics introduce its new music-centric mRobo Ultra Bass robot. Even Kelly Clarkson made an impromptu appearance during Sony's presentation to perform her hit "Mr. Know It All " as part of a demonstration of Sony's Music Unlimited subscription service.
This year's CES coincided with heated debate in Congress over two controversial anti-piracy bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate. The RIAA, which backs both bills, wasn't invited to speak on any CES panels addressing the pending legislation, so RIAA senior executive VP Mitch Glazier and other officials appeared at various press events to get the recording industry's voice in front of individual journalists.
"We love seeing all the new cutting-edge devices that are powered by music, " said RIAA VP of communications Cara Duckworth, adding that the trade organization felt it was vital to represent creator interests at CES to "counter a lot of the misinformation out there about the bills.