Every year an uber gathering of global geeks and media cognescenti convene at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to preview sexy new gadgets slated to roll out in the coming months. I couldn’t help but hum the famous FAO Schwartz song, Welcome To Our World of Toys as I walked into the expo halls to see these cool new gadgets, or toys as I call them.

This year, over 140,000 industry insiders clogged Las Vegas and elbowed their way into the exhibit halls for exclusive sneak peeks (I still have bruises). And you know it’s a hip event when Lady Gaga shows up! With so much exciting news flying out of the show, I’ve pieced together some highlights for Web video fans.

CES 2011

Watch Your Favorite Shows Anytime, Anywhere on Any Device

That’s right! The BIG vision this year is for everyone to be able to watch their favorite web originals, cable and broadcast shows on smart phones, smart TVs (Internet-connected), tablets and on any other gizmos with screens with a shared content library.

A “connected” entertainment ecosystem is the ultimate goal. For example, if you buy a TV show on your smartphone and begin watching it, when you get home you can turn on your TV or tablet and pick up exactly where you left off. Vizio, a TV manufacturer, announced its new connected Vizio VIA Plus slate of devices, adding their first tablet and smartphone to build their entertainment ecosystem.

Vizio Products Ecosystem

Sounds fabulous, right? Well, unless you’re Apple with a closed garden of devices (Apple TV, iPhone, iPod, iPad) and licensed content (iTunes, App store), you’ll be waiting a while for this to really happen. Why? Lawyers. Content creators control and protect their content, and a multi-screen world is still somewhat new. So the entertainment lawyers and device manufacturers’ lawyers are scrambling (some faster than others) to make this vision a reality. This is a radical vision for traditional Hollywood studios and distributors, upending its comfort zone from one screen to license to (the TV) and there are always piracy concerns.

That said, this forward progress is great news for all of us who love our shows. Netflix has been the leader in accommodating subscribers to watch content across multiple screens, with Hulu Plus and everyone else on its tailcoats doing the same thing.

Not Everyone is a Cordcutter

Those of you who subscribe to cable TV will be happy to know that your cable company is also working on being able to stream your content subscription to multiple screens as part of the cable industry’s “TV Everywhere” initiative. Comcast announced a new “play now” feature for the iPad that gives access to “nearly 3,000 hours” of on-demand content to subscribers. They also plan to add live streaming to their branded Xfinity TV app for in-home only live cable TV watching on an iPad (so stay close to your Wi-Fi connection!). And if you don’t have an iPad, my guess is that there will likely be an Android app at some point.

CBS Content Deals: We Don’t Do Hulu or Apple

CBS, the number one broadcast network, is making its moves in the mobile and VOD space with two new content deals for full episodes. They are the only original broadcast network in the U.S. that is not a Hulu investor, and they don’t even have a presence in iTunes. Radical? No. When you’re number one, you can take your time to make the best deal.

The new licensing deals include hit shows such as Survivor, CSI, NCIS, The Good Wife and the new Hawaii Five-O. On the mobile side, shows will be available on Samsungs’ Galaxy Tab tablet and on select Galaxy S smartphones in the Media Hub, and on VOD via Boxee (which will additionally offer classic CBS TV shows). CBS uses the TV.com site (and TV.com mobile app) as its video entertainment hub. It showcases new and older CBS programs, plus programs on other networks. You can also watch select full episodes on CBS.com. (The TV.com branding can be a bit confusing to some folks.)

Hello TV Apps!

Samsung showed off their redesigned TV Apps area, now called Smart Hub, on their smart TVs. Back in December they announced over 1 million downloads of Samsung TV apps with over 300 TV apps to choose from (free and paid). And just to spice things up, they also announced that later this year Comcast and Time Warner Cable will have a TV app pre-installed so subscribers can watch their cable shows without needing…wait for it… a set top box! Comcast’s app will be under its Xfinity TV brand. Both will also offer in-home streaming access to the Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet. (Is your mind about to explode?)

Sony introduced new BRAVIA TV models that feature seamless Internet connectivity for access to over 40 free and premium movies, video and music services through the BRAVIA Internet Video platform including Sony’s “Video On Demand powered by Qriocity™”, as well as Netflix, HuluPlus™, Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube™, Crackle, Blip.tv, and more.

Not to be out done, Vizio will soon be launching its own Vizio VOD TV App and is busy signing content deals directly with studios so they can stream the content to any Vizio device—without limitations. Vizio says their VOD service should be available later this year on their VIA line of smart TVs. Asked if they are getting into the content business, a representative noted that they are becoming more of a media company than a pure device manufacturer.

Confused? Go to the TV manufacturer’s web site to learn the latest on which apps they offer and on which models. For example, I have a Samsung Series E smart TV that offers a Dailymotion app, but no Blip.tv app. Expect differences.

Tablets Galore

Entertainment - Xoom Tablet

At last count, approximately 80 to 100 new tablets were announced at CES to compete with the iPad. This is a staggering number, which made tablets the hottest trend at the show this year. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, 17 million tablets were sold in 2010 and 38% of folks without a tablet plan to purchase one. Most tablets are based on the Google Android operating system, though some run Windows 7. A primary benefit of an Android-based tablet is easy access to cool content in the fast-growing Android App store. Features on these tablets, included a camera facing both directions, different screen sizes (from 8 inches to 10.1 inches), faster processor speeds, and speaker systems (Vizio’s tablet has three), among others.

Motorola Mobility’s Xoom tablet computer was crowned the Best Gadget of CES. It’s powered by Google Android 3.0 (known as “Honeycomb”) which was designed specifically to run on tablets and has an HD screen. Xoom is available now and works on both Wi-Fi and Verizon’s 3G network. Some tablets are Wi-Fi only, others are 3G. Needless to say, tablets offer a fun and different experience for viewing content, so keep on the lookout for the one that fits your viewing preferences.

3D TV Has Arrived…Again

3D GlassesA second push was on this year to move 3D TVs into the mainstream. But many consumers continue to weigh the availability of 3D content to justify the premium cost over a non-3D set. Electronics manufacturers have invested a tidy sum into developing 3D TV sets, but mainstream America isn’t fully convinced of its value yet. It’s no surprise that 2010 3D TV sales were reportedly slower than originally hoped for, though some manufacturers have disputed this.

So it was another year of more 3D TV models, more 3D TV glasses styles, and more eye strain. Yes it’s cool, but where’s the CONTENT? Here it is! Sony Corporation, Discovery Communications and Imax Corporation officially debuted the name and logo of their upcoming 24/7 3D-only television network officially called 3net, which is set to launch later this year and was first announced last year at CES. 3net will include content from the Sony Pictures library, the IMAX collection and from the production machine that helps fill Discovery’s 13 networks. Don’t worry, you have enough time to buy a pair of prescription-ready 3D glasses or standard 3D glasses! How about a pair of these from LG and French designer Alain Mikli (pictured)?

Just remember, if some of the products announced at CES don’t become available for purchase this year, be patient. Hold out for next year…or not.

(Note: “Entertainment Freedom For All” is Vizio’s CES 2011 campaign theme, which I borrowed for the title of this article.) Top photo from CES 2011 by TechCocktail.

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