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Editorial: Reflections on the Consumer Electronics Show

March 09, 2008
March/April 2008
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The 2008 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is already ancient history, and the 140,000 participants, TV cameras, and bloggers have returned home to quieter lives.  But it’s still worth reflecting on this most amazing assemblage of new products, trends, and controversies, all seen through the eyes of Home Energy.

First, the name CES could sometimes have been taken to stand for Consumer Environment Show, Consumer Efficiency Show, and of course Consumer Energy Show. Being green is in, and being carbon neutral is even in-er. One could sense that manufacturers and exhibitors had made the transition from being defensive about energy consumption to making a (well-publicized) virtue out of their products’ efficiency and greenness.  Sometimes it worked—as when Sony displayed an incredibly high-definition TV that drew only 30 watts. In other cases, the arguments were a stretch—like the one that justified wall-size plasma screens as energy efficient. (As what, a radiant heater?)  I liked a new Sony TV based on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display technology, because it made watching a small screen a pleasure, which made it possible to do so in a small room with smaller speakers, and made it impossible to justify yet another upsizing of homes.

The sheer number of must-have products was as large as ever.  From an energy consumption perspective, I spotted a few trends that I expect Home Energy will follow. First, the fraction of products drawing standby power continues to increase; indeed, products that drew zero power while off were the exception. The external power supplies proliferate madly.  The good news is that many have become much more efficient (thanks to regulations in California and elsewhere and the Energy Star appliance-labeling program). The bad news is that they aren’t interchangeable, which prevents further economies through aggregation or even separate distribution networks. Worse still, a new class of products, wire-free charging stands, threatens to bypass the external power supply and undermine the efficiency gains.

Dimming TVs and computer displays is a simple new conservation measure. Most of these displays are shipped at maximum brightness, and consumers never think to reset them.  We found that the power consumption of a new iMac fell 30% when we cut the screen brightness from maximum to a still-tolerable level (and also realized that we had kept it bright to counteract our overbright conventional lighting).  Philips introduced a new TV that monitors ambient light levels and adjusts screen brightness.  According to CNET, this feature can cut power consumption by about half.

Electronics—and the CES—is about information. The products exhibited receive, transmit, process, or display information. We now realize that handling information requires energy—sometimes a lot of energy—on a scale that rivals refrigerators, lighting, or clothes dryers.  The industry is now gradually accepting the fact that its products’ energy consumption will be regulated, just like the energy consumption of refrigerators, water heaters, or lightbulbs.   The challenge, however, is to manage energy use without constraining the handling of information.  We don’t have much experience yet, but some guidelines are already clear.  For example, design products to ensure that they aren’t processing information that isn’t used.  This concept sounds obvious, but it is seldom put into practice (except in mobile products).

I must confess that I am already looking forward to the next CES.  I want to observe whether communicating thermostats will become the next big thing, what new features will be offered in digital picture frames, and how they will squeeze game consoles into SUVs.  And I am also curious: What will the “E” stand for next time?
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