CES is still a TV conference. Even as the tech industry experiments with augmented reality, self-driving cars, and the outer limits of what you can embed in a refrigerator, everything in Vegas still revolves around the big screen. The 2018 crop mostly marches along the same path manufacturers have been following for decades: Everything’s a little bigger and sharper, and there are new inscrutable acronyms everywhere you look. All in the hopes this is the year you finally spring for a new set.
Whether or not you’re interested in upgrading your idiot box, this year’s TVs, perhaps more than any other CES, offer a way to understand the state of the whole tech world. Because TVs aren’t TVs anymore: they’re smart-home hubs, virtual-assistant access points, gaming consoles and powerful computers. And as TVs mimic the features of other gadgets, phones and computers return the favor. Now that every device you own contains enough connectivity and power to function for work, gaming, and entertainment, the distinctions between them are becoming meaningless. Gadgets are all just screens now, TVs of all shapes and sizes.
They See Me Rollin’
Nothing exemplifies the massive expansion of a TV’s job quite like LG’s latest prototype. The 65-inch display sits flat and sturdy on your wall, like a normal television, until you’re done with it. With one push of a button, the display descends down into its stand, rolling around a coil like wrapping paper. The screen can roll up completely for safe storage and easy transportation, or you can leave a small section of it sticking up, at which point the screen automatically shifts into a widgetized, information-providing display with weather and sports scores. LG’s device has almost nothing in common with most TVs, other than its size. Functionally, it’s more like a really big tablet. So what is this thing?
All over CES, companies are showing off TVs imbued with powers far beyond their many pixels. Samsung now treats its TVs like any other smart-home object: you can control your set with the SmartThings app right alongside your lightbulbs and thermometers. Several manufacturers are releasing Android TV-powered sets, which means they work with Google Assistant, control smart-home gadgets, and can play some Minecraft. Sony and others are building short-throw projectors that can replace your TV with a touch-friendly, endlessly resizable surface.
Manufacturers are even finding ways to make more of your TV when it’s off. Samsung, LG, and others are turning their sets into digital art frames, switching from Always Sunny to Starry Night when you stop watching. If you buy TCL’s new soundbar, you’ll be able to use the forthcoming Roku Entertainment Assistant to keep playing music or get information without turning the TV on. Manufacturers have figured out that even though people consume content differently now, their TV still occupies a central space in the house. It’s big, it’s plugged in, everybody knows how to use it—can’t ask for much more in the hub of your smart home.
While TV manufacturers attempt to broaden what a TV can do, other gadget companies are starting to experiment with with the big screen. Over at GE’s booth, there’s a range hood just like the ones in every hipster-modern HGTV home … except this one has a 27-inch touchscreen and two cameras. LG and Samsung will both sell you a new fridge dominated by a similarly massive panel, the better for checking your calendar and making up shopping lists. Nvidia’s “gaming panel” is technically a monitor with a super-fast refresh rate for smoother gaming, but it’ll look a lot like a TV on your desk. Lenovo, JBL, and others are showing off “Smart Displays,” which show information and videos through Google Assistant. Razer showed off a concept called Project Linda, which docks a Razer Phone into an otherwise brainless laptop shell and uses the phone as both computer and trackpad. All these screens are filled with technology taken from the living room. Dell’s new XPS 15 laptops enable HDR playback; OLED screens, with their deeper blacks and better power efficiency, are showing up on devices of all sizes. None have easy descriptors.
Now that smartphone processors from Qualcomm, Intel, and others are powerful enough to credibly power just about any kind of device, there’s almost no reason for companies not to take advantage. As a result, the lines between gadgets continue to shrink. When Qualcomm and Microsoft partnered to build Always-On PCs, with LTE connectivity and Snapdragon processors, are they building big phones or skinny laptops? The real answer: it doesn’t matter.
The trend will only continue, as super-fast 5G connectivity makes it possible for devices to offload demanding computational tasks into the cloud. Then, anything with a 5G chip and a screen can be a gaming PC or a video-editing suite, because all the heavy lifting happens elsewhere. Bits of this are already happening: HP’s Omen Game Stream tech lets gamers stream high-res footage from an Omen machine to almost any computer with a good internet connection. When the streaming source becomes an Amazon server rather than a gaming PC, with barely a millisecond of lag, you could play Overwatch just as powerfully on your phone.
In truth, though, you probably wouldn’t want to play hours of twitchy shooter games on your phone. That’s sort of the point: you won’t have to. Lots of tech companies are beginning to think that in a few years or decades, you’ll have access to a bunch of different-sized screens. A tiny one on your wrist, for notifications and glanceable info. A slightly larger one in your pocket, for messaging and Instagram and general on-the-go life. A bigger one at the office, probably connected to a keyboard. Maybe a huge one in your living room, for hanging in the evening. Screens in your car, screens in your glasses, screens everywhere. That doesn’t sound so different from the way things work now, but it will be—all those screens will be technically capable of the same things, and all you’ll have to do is pick the one you want to use based on what’s most convenient and useful.
Everything gets even crazier when some of these “screens” aren’t even real things, but figments of your VR or AR imagination. Panasonic’s booth featured a demo of a futuristic flying experience, where you put on a VR headset and go through the whole flight. You don’t have a screen on the plane, but one appears in the right spot in your headset. Another sits in front of you, hovering in the air as only a virtual tablet can. It looks like a tablet and works like a tablet, a virtual screen just as good as a physical one.
Even as CES continues to splinter in a thousand directions, with entire new categories of devices suddenly counting as “technology,” their collective story feels more cohesive than ever. Everything works well, and everything works together. You don’t need a bunch of gadgets for their own specific tasks; you just use whatever works for you. No gadget at CES is anywhere near achieving that vision, of course, and there’s a lot of pain and confusion and interoperability problems between here and there. But if we get it right, your TV will become a gadget, and your gadgets will become TVs. They’re all just screens.