A quick recap of the highlights from the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

The annual Las Vegas-based Consumer Electronics Show (CES) just recently wrapped up. From January 10th to January 13th, the tech industry amassed in the Las Vegas Convention Center to see new gadgets, concept cars, and industry giants give presentations about what’s coming up for some big name companies.

Probably the biggest news of CES 2012 was that it would be Microsoft’s last appearance at the trade show. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, delivered the address, but before bowing out, he hyped the upcoming Windows 8 operating system, the Windows phone platform, and of course, the Xbox (including the expanding genre of motion-sensing gaming via the Kinect).

Aside from Microsoft’s final presentation, a hot topic throughout the event was OLED TVs. LG showed off a 55-inch OLED television that is only 4 mm thick. To explain what OLEDs are, a background on LEDs is helpful. The term “LED LCD TV” gets thrown around so often, sometimes it’s hard to know what an LED LCD television really is.

In an incredibly oversimplified nutshell, all TVs are made of a screen and lights behind the screen to display the picture to viewers. Older TVs (including low-end LCDs) have fluorescent tube lights called CCFLs in the TV. LED LCDs have light-emitting diodes (LEDs) inside the television, which are another kind of light bulb that are more energy efficient, can give off a brighter light, and are smaller than CCFLs so TVs can be thinner. That’s why LEDs are preferable in television sets.

So what are OLED TVs? OLED stands for organic light-emitting diode which means when the compounds that make up the diode are electrified, the organic material it’s made of emits light. What does this mean for TVs? Without the extra hardware required for non-organic light sources, TVs can be even lighter and slimmer (like 4 mm thick).

Also, the screens have higher contrast ratios meaning they’ll be easier to see in low-light conditions (a great application for smartphones and tablets). It might sound like a bunch of jargon right now, but based on the intense interest of OLEDs at CES 2012, they’re certainly going to be hitting the market hard this year and in years to come.

Other than TVs, a big part of the show was tablets, a continuing trend from 2011. Lots of different companies had a lot of different showings (Asus’ tablet came equipped with a quad-core and 1 GB of RAM), but without a whole lot of new innovation. Overall, watch tablets get more popular, more powerful, and less expensive in 2012.

Another up-and-coming technology that stole part of the spotlight at CES was 3D printers. For as crazy as it sounds, the product isn’t too far fetched. Printers now operate by reading a file on a computer and dispensing material to recreate that file in a hard copy (i.e. dispense ink onto paper, in the pattern specified by its instructions from the computer). 3D printers do the exact same thing, but instead of dispensing ink from a cartridge, it dispenses whatever it’s filled with in layers, so that it builds on top of itself and creates an actual object.

So, for example, MakerBot 3D (one of the companies strutting their stuff at CES) can put a solution in a dispenser, have the printer read the schematic to make that into a plastic shower ring, and the dispenser will “print” the first layer, and keep successively printing on top of the original layer until it is at the height or thickness specified in the digital file. At the end, your printer just produced a 3D object for you. Mind-blowing as it is, MakerBot realizes that this probably won’t be a technology in every home in America. Regardless, the thought that came to my mind was, “we’re living in the future.”

Other notable products at the show included Windows phones, and ultrabooks, though they weren’t as prominent as some had anticipated they would be. As always, the show always brings out a number of concept cars with cool technology to ogle at, even if it might be too impractical to put in your family’s mid-sized sedan,most notably, the ability to connect every aspect of your car to the Internet.

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