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Gadgets and Geeks at the CES

Christopher R. Harz reports back from CES, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, about what gadgets the geeks are looking at.

CES in Las Vegas was properly glitzy, showy and excessive. Here the Grand Lobby of the Convention Center is stuffed full of electronic goodies. All CES photos © 2004 CEA. All rights reserved.

CES in Las Vegas was properly glitzy, showy and excessive. Here the Grand Lobby of the Convention Center is stuffed full of electronic goodies. All CES photos © 2004 CEA. All rights reserved.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was huge, glitzy and overwhelming, as it should be. Whereas many of the products were more-of-the-same-slightly-better, some gadgets and trends stood out.

One major change is that DVR (digital video recorders) sets for home entertainment centers are becoming mainstream, allowing consumers to record TV programs on DVDs instead of todays ubiquitous VCR tapes. DVDs have the advantage that they take up less space and allow quick skipping to specific programs. A so-called combo DVR also has a hard drive that offers both nonlinear recording and easy integration with TiVo-type personal video recorder (PVR) features. Combo sets may have memory card readers (multi-format) and Firewire inputs, so consumers can download audio and video directly, to record and then watch on TV.

Typical of the new genre is the Toshiba RD-SX32, which has an 80GB hard drive and a high-speed DVD recorder. What makes the difference this year is price entries such as Gateways AR-230 DVD+RW recorder at $299 have made such sets affordable this year. Note that both DVD-R/W and DVD+R/W formats are still around, so you may want to buy a +/- dual format unit to be on the safe side.

Speaking of PVRs not only has the price of these sets come down, they are being offered for free with some cable and satellite services, merged with the companys set top box (STB). The growing acceptance of PVRs will have another major effect because they give viewers the ability to easily skip over advertising in television programming, the networks will have to look for new ways to insert ads. Look for more banner ads superimposed on the screen in the future, as well as increased use of product placement within the show itself both live and (because live footage with a product in it could wind up on the cutting room floor) as 3D computer animation added after a show is in the can.

The 500-pound gorilla of DVRs at the show was the DVR-250 HD satellite receiver from DIRECTV (www.directv.com), which can receive and record high-definition content, with four HD TV tuners (two for satellite and two for terrestrial), a 250-gigabyte hard drive and TiVo PVR features. What makes this set revolutionary is that it is the first real product (other than some very expensive digital tape recorders) that allows consumers to tape HD programs off the air and then replay them later to friends to show off their widescreen HD monitors and surround-sound speakers.

Up till now high-def content could only be watched live, with no way to record it for later viewing. The ability to record HD by consumers will mean both a growing demand for more HD content (which will affect broadcasters and post-production houses) and increased sales of widescreens and surround-sound systems (to show off said content to envious neighbors). DIRECTV (recently bought by Rupert Murdoch) is offering the DVR-250 for $999; the 250GB drive records about 30 hours of HD or 150 hours of standard programming.

High-definition content will also soon be available on DVDs, either with new compression techniques using existing DVD player technology, or with the new Blu-Ray technology, which uses a blue laser reader/writer instead of the normal red laser; the shorter wavelength results in much higher data density, up to about 30GB per DVD instead of the normal 4.7GB. LG is coming out with a Blu-Ray DVD player this year, which can record and play HD DVDs, the first such use for a consumer set.

Carly Fiorina, chairman/ceo of HP, introduces the new HP Digital Music Player, based on the Apple iPod design.

Carly Fiorina, chairman/ceo of HP, introduces the new HP Digital Music Player, based on the Apple iPod design.

Gateway was not the only computer maker that decided to enter the home entertainment market. Dell is now offering a full range of entertainment products, including TVs and DVD players. And Epson is making printers with widescreen TV monitors attached. HP is also born again as a CE (consumer electronics) maker, with 30- and 42-inch plasma flat panel TVs, an entertainment hub that serves as a distribution point for home audio/video media, and a deal with Apple to produce an HP-branded digital music player based on Apples iPod.

Another trend is that LCD monitors are getting larger and cheaper, making them an attractive option for people with limited space such as a university dorm room to use as both a computer monitor and television set; many new LCD monitors have both TV tuners and computer inputs built into them. LCD televisions were once relatively small, but there were dozens of sets in the 30- and 40-inch range at the show, topped by a 55-inch model from Zenith/LG, showing how popular this monitor format has become for television viewing.

LCD monitors come in two forms: direct view (also called flat panels) and rear projection televisions (RPTVs). The RPTVs, which are definitely not meant for dorm rooms, come in a variety of sizes in the 40-65 inch range; although bulkier than flat panel LCDs, they are less than half the size and weight of the most popular rear projection sets, those using CRTs, which can be five feet high and weigh hundreds of pounds.

Another technology that could be seen everywhere was DLP (Digital Light Processing, at www.dlp.com), the Texas Instruments form of the micromirror chip, which was offered in a wide range of both front and rear-projection televisions. Toshiba, which had offered its own rival LCOS-based technology last year, caved in on that technology because of production difficulties, and now also offers a full range of DLP products, including HD sets based on TIs new HD+ DLP chip, which replaced last years Mustang as the champion in the 1260x720 range for HD 720p/1080i (and 16x9 native resolution) displays.

Digital cameras are selling better than ever, with a large number of 3-megapixel models in the $200-$400 range. Advances include better zoom ranges (4-12x instead of the traditional 3x) and more pixels, with several 6-megapixel models such as Canons hot-selling digital Rebel (www.canoneos.com/digitalrebel) showing what will soon be considered the minimum acceptable resolution the market will tolerate. The biggest improvement is in response time, both for startup and for picture-to-picture times several previous digital cameras (including some Sony models) had several seconds of delay between taking one picture and being ready for the next.

Dell and HP join the TV/DVD wars by introducing their home entertainment products at the CES.

Dell and HP join the TV/DVD wars by introducing their home entertainment products at the CES.

Digital camcorder sales are also brisk whats new is a lineup of very compact cameras the size of a deck of cards, such as the Panasonic SV-AV100 (www.panasonic.com/consumer_electronics) and the Sanyo/Fisher FVD-C1 (http://www.fisherav.com/FVD-C1.htm). These cameras achieve their tiny sizes by using removable Flash memory cards instead of DV tape for video storage (the Sanyo is also a 3.2 megapixel still camera). Although still limited in how long they can shoot (a 512MB card may allow only 15 minutes recording time in some models), these cameras will clearly come to the forefront with the availability of higher-capacity Flash memory cards. SanDisk (www.sandisk.com ), for instance, rolled out its new 1- and 2-gigabyte SD (Secure Digital) and Memory Stick storage cards, a development that will revolutionize not only vidcams and digital cameras, but a whole range of consumer products, including PDAs, cell phones, printers and game sets, which will orient towards better picture and display qualities now that gigabyte storage is available in a SanDisk chip the size of a postage stamp.

Flash memory grew 90% in sales volume last year. The SD, CF (Compact Flash) and Sonys Memory Stick remain popular flash card formats, while the MMC (MultiMediaCard) format seems to be falling behind, and the SmartMedia is essentially dead. Two new formats, miniSD and Memory Stick Duo, have been developed as reduced-size versions of these cards for the growing cell phone market, especially for cell phones with built-in cameras exceeding one-megapixel resolution (already available in Japan).

Once youve taken stills and video with your new digital camera, you of course want to edit and organize those, and there was a raft of offerings to help you do just that. One of the more interesting was Sound Pix (www.soundpix.com), which lets you edit an image and attach a sound file to it (such as, Happy Birthday! or Here we are backpacking), and Pinnacle Instant PhotoAlbum (www.pinnaclesys.com), which offers easy ways to edit pictures (with one-button color correction and red-eye removal), add frames and enhancements to them, organize them into a slide show with music and transitions, and then burn them to a DVD.

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Instant PhotoAlbum makes editing and organizing digital images a one-touch process. © 2003 Pinnacle Systems Inc. All rights reserved.

Pinnacles new video editing package, Studio 9, remains as simple and friendly to use as ever, but has added lots of new features, including widescreen (16x9) support, video correction (lightening dark indoor footage and then adjusting color is a great help), and automated editing so you can zip up your video with lots of jump cuts without spending hours to do so.

Better displays and storage naturally demand better graphics power, and companies such as NVIDIA (www.nvidia.com) had plenty to show not just for desktop PCs, but for gaming consoles, notebooks and handhelds. NVIDIA is now tightly associated with the gaming market, and sponsors contests and development of ever more creative applications of graphics displays at the edge of technology.

One of the coolest gadgets at the show was the Virtual Keyboard from Ibiz Technology (www.ibizpda.com). The compact device projects a laser image of a keyboard on a tabletop. It uses infrared technology to determine where your fingers are on the keyboard and tells the attached system PDA, desktop or laptop computer, or cell phone using Palm or Windows technology what letters you typed. MSRP is $99; a wireless version to use with Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and cell phones will be on store shelves by June.

Audio played a large part at the CES, with a myriad of new music players, including MP3 players included in PDAs, phones and almost anything that moves. One cool product shown is the LINK from Skullcandy (www.skullcandy.com), which is a low-cost connection between the two life-support systems for many young consumers the cell phone and the MP3 player. You need never miss an important call when head-banging again the LINK allows the cell phone to ring through on your stereo headphones, so you can answer the call and then return to the music. Since Skullcandy is located in Park City, it caters to snowboarders, who prefer not to have headphones covering their ears, lest they miss the screams of possible collision targets. Fear not Skullcandy has a new backpack with great speakers built into the shoulder straps, so you can get high-quality stereo on the slopes.

Surround sound audio is also getting more popular with ever-fussier consumers, with both Dolby and DTS players now available for car A/V systems as well as for home theaters. DTS, the highest fidelity surround sound format, has made major advances its included as standard equipment in cars such as the Acura TL, and is supported (in both 5.1 channel and 6.1 channel forms) in car audio systems such as the Alpine#1Status, which also uses the DTS Neo:6 system to get surround effects from MP3 and normal CD recordings. DTS sound is also available for desktop PCs, and offers a whole new dimension to playing high-end videogames such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

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Another cool product is the IQue from Garmin (www.garmin.com), which combines a GPS navigation system (with voice) and an MP3 player into a PDA with a Palm OS, a definite must for the traveler. If you want to videotape while traveling, you might consider a Model 100 from Deja View (www.mydejaview.com), which consists of a tiny camera that you wear it can be attached onto your sunglasses and a cell phone-sized remote unit that clips onto your belt and records video clips, all for under $400.

There was also a full day of seminars for the Next Generation Internet (www.usipv6.com), which started with a quote from a Microsoft head of R&D, The most important thing we learned is that in the future everything over $25, other than food, will be connected to the Internet. A live demonstration showed one application how home lights and webcams (each with its own Internet address) could be turned on to check security while away.

A major application for the Next Generation Internet will be the widespread application of compact chipsets attached to just about everything manmade, each with its own Internet address, a set of sensors, memory, RF communications and power. In the near future every home will have hundreds of such Next Gen Internet chips in the car, in cell phones and game consoles, and in every kitchen appliance. Hitachi showed just how compact an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chip used for tagging products could be (see www.hitachi.com/New/cnews/030902.html ) smaller than a thumbnail.

A final technology we will now see more of is solar panels, produced by companies such as ICP Solar (www.icpsolar.com). These range from small sets the size of a PDA for powering cell phones and other portable devices to much larger sets with flexible sheets some of which are so thin they were used as clothing in a fashion show at the CES. With so many portable devices becoming de rigeur, its assuring to know we will have some lightweight sources of power available.

Christopher Harz is a program and business development executive for new media enterprises around the world, and covers topics such as the Next Gen Internet, vfx, online gaming and wireless media. As vp of marketing and production at Hollyworlds, he produced 3D games for films such as Spawn, The 5th Element, Titanic and Lost in Space, and for TV shows such as Xena, Warrior Princess. As svp of marketing and program development at Perceptronics, Harz helped build the first massive-scale online game worlds, including the $240 million 3D animation virtual world, SIMNET. He also worked on combat robots and war gaming at the Rand Corp., the American military think tank.

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