Panasonic looks at the big picture: Cities not just TVs

Since retiring its beloved plasma TV business, Panasonic has struggled to gain the attention of US consumers. Now it's shifting gears to focus on smart homes and cities.

Panasonic wanted to take over your living room with its TVs and entertainment equipment. Now the Japanese tech giant wants to take over your whole home.

Joseph Taylor, CEO of Panasonic's North American division, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock discuss a new smart city initiative at CES 2016.

Screenshot by Maggie Reardon/CNET

During its annual press conference at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Panasonic spent the bulk of the time highlighting a number of key partnerships and initiatives driving its efforts in the smart-home and smart-city arenas. Its new Ora software aims to let homeowners control the likely growing number of smart gadgets and appliances in their home with a single device. Panasonic also quickly ran through a list of new cameras, camcorders, TVs and other gadgets it plans to make available to consumers in 2016.

Panasonic hasn't given up on consumer electronics, but the company's focus on smart technology reflects a bigger shift in its overall strategy to sell more products to governments and businesses, instead of directly to consumers. While Panasonic is well known in the US for its now retired best-in-class plasma TVs, more than 70 percent of its worldwide revenue comes from selling technology and products to so-called enterprise customers and not to consumers.

Panasonic supplies battery technology to major makers of hybrid and electric cars, such as Toyota and Tesla. It also sells some of the largest video displays to stadiums and sports arenas around the world. It just announced at CES that it will provide more than 100 high-end projectors for the opening and closing ceremonies for the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It also makes professional video cameras used by Hollywood filmmakers.

Smart cities, smart homes

A key announcement from the show was a partnership between Panasonic and the city of Denver, which will use Panasonic smart technology to help improve energy efficiency, water conservation, public safety, health care and other public-service areas. Using Panasonic's Internet-connected cameras and other technologies, citizens will be able to access real-time information about utilities and mass transit, the company said, adding that city officials will have more control over infrastructure like street lighting and energy systems.

Panasonic is also taking its technology into the smart home. It announced new software called Ora, designed to let homeowners control all their smart-home gear from a single device. The average American household has more than 100 smart end points that can connect to the Internet, the company said. The new Ora software enables integration of each of these end points. Panasonic showed a video of a couple hosting an anniversary party for their parents. Lights and music, presumably powered by devices made by different manufacturers, were easily controlled on the fly from a smartphone.

"At Panasonic, our approach is never about developing technology for technology's sake, but instead about how we can enable technology to improve the quality of people's lives," said Joseph Taylor, CEO of Panasonic's North American operation.

Consumer products too

Panasonic talked up several improvements to its consumer product lines, such as updates to its ultra HD 4K prosumer camcorders and its compact and sturdy Lumix travel cameras.

It also touted the return of its Technics direct-drive turntable. The 50th anniversary limited edition Grand Class SL-1200GAE and nonlimited Grand Class SL-1200G were "developed for audiophiles looking to rediscover and experience the uniquely warm sound quality of analog vinyl discs," the company said.

Panasonic confirmed it would have a 65-inch 4K OLED TV available later this year, but it didn't say when the device would go on sale or how much it would cost. OLED, or Organic LED, is a newer technology that offers more accurate colors and deeper blacks and allows viewing from nearly every angle. Currently, LG is the only company selling an OLED TV in the US.

Panasonic also said the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player it teased during last year's keynote will be available later this year. But again, it gave no details on pricing or availability.

Panasonic had shown off both the OLED 4K TV and the Ultra HD Blu-ray player in September at a European trade show.

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