What slowdown? The Consumer Electronics Show, the coming-out party for products launching this year, was buzzing, flashing, beeping, and thumping--just like a toy with a brand-new set of batteries.
The economy may be dormant, but the imaginations of the world's gizmo and gadget inventors remain fertile. Perhaps too fertile, judging from some of the goofy products at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Take Digital Cookware's Smart Pan, the world's first digital skillet, with an LCD temperature display in the handle. Or Casio's prototype wristwatch camcorder, which can capture and show up to a few seconds of low-quality video. (Hey, it's just a prototype.)
Along with a slew of Technological Solutions in Search of Problems, however, CES showcased hundreds of excellent gadgets. Following are some of my favorites, due in stores later this year.
The most impressive new technology was the Moxi Media Center (www.moxi.com). At first glance the MMC is another box of electronics with a remote control, indistinguishable from a DVD player, a digital video recorder, a set-top cable or satellite receiver, a wireless network hub, or a stereo component. On closer inspection, it reveals itself to be all of the above, and more. Available later this year from cable and satellite providers, the Linux-based MMC is the hub of a wireless home multimedia network. Using Moxi's cleverly designed interface, the MMC can wirelessly stream up to four separate media signals--including video, music, photos, Web, and e-mail--to Moxi-enabled TVs, stereos, and PCs around the house. Mom can watch her favorite TV channel in the living room while Dad, in the den, taps into his PC-based MP3 music playlists. Eventually Moxi will also handle voice calls over the Internet. The MMC has at least three major hurdles before it can become a smash hit: It's hard to explain to consumers, the costs are undefined, and it's on a collision course with Microsoft's newly announced Freestyle home-media-center technologies. Competing with Microsoft can be dangerous.
Speaking of dangerous, the Danger Research Hiptop was easily the show's coolest gizmo (www.danger.com). It's a lot of fun, but it's also a brilliant handheld communications and information device. It's a full-featured wireless phone, as well as a portable Internet terminal with a continuous connection to the Net, with true HTML Web browsing (not crummy little clippings), e-mail (with attachments), and instant messaging (including AOL's version). The monochrome LCD display screen flips open switchblade-style, revealing a keypad. It's a personal information manager, an MP3 music player, and a handheld game console. With an optional attachment, it's also a digital camera. Offered by wireless phone carriers beginning this summer, the Hiptop is expected to cost just $200, plus a monthly service fee.
The transition to digital TV was a big theme at CES, ac-companied by a confusing menagerie of display technologies: plasma, desktop LCD, liquid crystal on silicon, LCD projection, digital light processing, and flat-screen cathode ray tubes. Call me shallow, but plasma screens still excite me because they're thin and light and can be mounted on a wall. While it wasn't the biggest plasma display at the show--Samsung's dazzling 63-inch model took that honor--Fujitsu's PlasmaVision Slimscreen PDS-6002, a widescreen 61-inch version, was the most impressive. If the photo-quality images don't cause you to gasp, the $25,000 price tag will.
In the realm of video recorders, Panasonic's SV-AV10 is a wonder of miniaturization. Based on the Secure Digital memory format, which uses cards roughly the size of a thick postage stamp, the dinky AV10 records up to 30 minutes of MPEG-4 video on the 64MB SD card that comes with it, and up to four hours with the 512MB cards coming later this year. It's also a voice recorder, a sub-megapixel digital camera, and an MP3 music player. About the size of a pack of cigarettes, the AV10 will cost $450 this spring.
Portable DVD players are getting wider and thinner, if not cheaper. The best I saw was the Samsung DVD-L100, which boasts a ten-inch, widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) LCD display--the biggest in the category. The L100 has a Memory Stick slot that allows it to display digital photos and play MP3 music tracks as well. If Uncle Sam sends you a $1,500 tax refund in April, you can buy one.
Apple's elegant iPod is still my favorite portable MP3 player, but it works only with Macintosh computers. Now there's an equally impressive MP3 player for Windows PCs as well as Macs: SONICblue's new Rio Riot, available this month for a whopping $ 399. Where the iPod stores 1,000 songs on its five-gigabyte hard drive, the Riot's 20GB of storage holds 4,000 tracks. It has clever software that makes finding tunes easy, and it's smart enough to build custom playlists based on your listening habits. The ten-ounce Riot also includes an FM radio tuner with presets, headphones, and a ten-hour rechargeable battery. It syncs to a PC through a USB port, which is inferior to the iPod's faster FireWire link.
For those willing to sacrifice capacity and features in return for lower weight and unmatched portability, Panasonic's SV-SD80 Audio Player ($ 300) is a small marvel. It's about the size of a square poker chip, three-quarters of an inch thick, and uses those postage-stamp Secure Digital memory cards. Battery life is 18 hours, which may be too much, considering that you can store only an hour of CD-quality tunes on its 64MB SD card.
The biggest surprise of the show was Sprint's announcement that it will begin converting its entire nationwide network to 3G (third-generation) voice and data services by midyear, as much as a year ahead of competitors. Such services are already being deployed in some markets in Europe and Asia, but they weren't expected in the U.S. so soon. Sprint customers can continue using their current phones on the upgraded network, but to take advantage of the new 3G services--faster data access than most people get through a dial-up PC modem, always-on connectivity, location services, the ability to receive e-mail attachments, and instant messaging, including push-to-talk voice paging--they'll have to buy new 3G handsets.
To get ready for 3G, consider Samsung's classy, feature-packed SPH-A460 mobile phone, which will also bring some excitement to the so-called 2.5G networks that other carriers are deploying (sort of a half-step between current 2G digital networks and tomorrow's 3G). By government edict, starting later this year, all new mobile phones must have E-911 capability, using Global Positioning Satellite technology to help law-enforcement officials pinpoint the origin of emergency cell phone calls. Besides being GPS ready (and good-looking), the A460 is a CDMA 2000 1X phone--the basis for Sprint's 3G network--whose benefits include fewer dropped calls, faster data rates, and greatly improved battery standby time. Caller ID numbers show up on the lid, and it has both voice-activated and one-touch dialing. On top of all that, it may be the first phone in North America to offer full, orchestral ring tones. You'll never again wonder whose phone is ringing.
Plantronics' prototype M1500 Bluetooth headset achieves the paradoxical feat of cutting the wires on wireless phone headsets. The M1500 consists of an over-the-ear microphone and speaker, and a Bluetooth wireless networking dongle that attaches to your Nokia mobile phone (other phone brands are in the works). Once attached, the M1500 allows the user to talk on the phone even if the phone is still in a briefcase or pocket, up to 30 feet away.
At last year's CES, Bill Gates showed off wireless Webpads. The Microsoft chairman did it again this year, only now, he said, the Webpads work. A new set of Windows-based technologies collectively called Mira, due in the second half of the year, will enable wireless Webpad devices for the home. Imagine ripping the display off a laptop and carrying it around the house, browsing the Web, checking e-mail, looking at photos, and listening to music. Mira-enabled devices are being developed by such companies as ViewSonic, Intel, and National Semiconductor. Pricing hasn't been set.
And finally, I was entranced by the first consumer model of Xybernaut's portable multimedia appliance, called Poma (www.xybernaut.com). It's a wearable, Windows CE-based computer connected to a head-mounted display, the kind that would fit right in at a Star Trek convention, and operated by a clever optical mouse-on-a-stick. A transparent, VGA-quality display screen hovers, holographically, in front of one of the user's eyes, where it doesn't impede normal vision. Xybernaut has been building powerful, expensive versions of these wearable computers for the military-industrial complex for years, but now thinks there will be consumer demand for the $ 1,500 package. Seeing a demonstration of how Xybernaut's technology has been used to help children with autism, dyslexia, and other disorders was inspirational.