Jason Barlow13 September 2013

Welcome to the future of technology

Alongside the Frankfurt motor show, Jason Barlow investigates Europe’s biggest consumer electronics fair...

I've just had a digital cup of coffee. Such is the rate of progress in the world of connectivity - a world and word that is fast swallowing and redefining the car - that a barista app on a mini iPad bluetoothed to a Philips Saeco coffee machine has just made me a cinnamon infused coffee. It works at a range of 10 metres, which means your morning jolt can be good to go before you've got your slippers on.

Mine actually arrives mid-afternoon, and in the nick of time. An innocent adrift on an ocean of high technology, I decided to limber up for this year's Frankfurt motor show by checking out another humungous trade fair in a German metropolis, the IFA in Berlin, Europe's biggest consumer electronics fair. As any Frankfurt veteran will tell you, this is like tackling Everest and K2 in quick succession, so a caffeine shot - preferably intravenously, but bluetoothed will do - was the minimum requirement.

The fact is, these two worlds are rapidly converging, and besides fancying a quick 23-mile walk, I also wanted to check out how the consumer electronics industry sells itself to punters at a big event like IFA, before comparing it to the car industry's equivalent showcase. Guess what: cars win hands down, although such is the (mainly German) car manufacturers' grandiloquence that that's not necessarily a good thing. The Audi ‘stand' at Frankfurt was covered in so many shiny surfaces it felt more like a circus hall of mirrors, and while the Mercedes stand was undoubtedly impressive, it was also cosmically vast, like something the evil empire might have deployed in Star Wars, only with endless versions of the A-class instead of Tie fighters.

Anyway, back to the IFA. There was hugeness here, too. Samsung mopped up most of the disbelieving headlines with its 110in ultra HD TV. The travelling community are going to need bigger caravans. I watched the trailer for Alfonso Cuaron's new film Gravity on a giant Toshiba 4K 3D television - that's four times standard HD - which was so hyper-real it left me pining for an old-school 2D CRT experience. Cuaron apparently developed new camera rigs to convey the panic of being an astronaut suddenly cut adrift 28,000 miles above Earth as authentically as possible. Yet so good is the resolution on a modern telly, and so mind-boggling is the 4K idea, that it looked completely unreal.

All these guys - Sony, Panasonic, Samsung, LG - are touting so many extra features that it's impossible to keep pace with them or their names: ‘Perfect Natural Motion', ‘Ambilight', ‘Triluminos', ‘4K X Reality Pro engine' (which upscales HD Blu-ray 3D into separate images for the left and right eye)... on and on it goes, in the quest for the sharpest image. The problem now is that your actual reality doesn't look or sound as good as these new-gen TVs, so depending on how much of a couch spud you are, a degree of disappointment is unavoidable.

Speaking of which, I tried Samsung's Galaxy Gear ‘smartwatch', which is powered by an 800 MHz processor, has a 1.63in screen, and syncs with its smartphone to allow users to talk into their wrist rather than the phone itself. It also does most things a phone can do - messaging, HD filming, email, music - and such a device has been a sci-fi staple since Jules Verne was a lad but... it was a bit rubbish. Mind you, that could be because I'm quite old, and rather like my TAG Heuer motorsport watches. They don't do anything, but they don't do it beautifully...

Ricoh's 360 degree Theta camera is cool, though: it has two fish-eye lenses and can be paired with a smartphone to take ridiculous images. There was also a Philips vacuum cleaner that can suck up moisture, a dishwasher that opens with two knocks on the door (no need for an unsightly handle), and in the frequently fantastically daft China pavilion I found the Guangzhou Lucky Boy Case & Bag Company. All bases covered...

In terms of the car crossover, though, Harman Kardon is the main player, a multi-billion dollar OEM and tier one supplier of infotainment systems to most of the car industry's heavy hitters. Its show area was also pretty much the only one that could compete with some of its partners down the road in Frankfurt. No surprise, then, that its various audio systems punched harder and looked much cooler than anything else at IFA. Its design director Damian Mackiewicz told me, ‘Harman's number one priority is sound. Number two is design...'

His team are based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, which he says allows him to remain in control of the materials and processes used by Harman's suppliers. You can tell. Its Soundbar - eight speakers and a sub hidden in an aluminium bar - and its portable speaker Voyager (from its JBL sub-brand - it docks in a subwoofer to recharge and give extra welly) were both IFA stand-outs. Audio's Apple? Could be.

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