CES - Great gadgets abound: Which will last?

Despite the overwhelmingly positive buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show here, history shows that even the coolest-sounding gadgets at this year's show could be long gone by next year. (Does anybody remember Internet appliances?)Yet optimism abounds. In front of a packed conference room, executives from eight companies plugged their wildly divergent products four minutes each in a bid to be dubbed "The Last Gadget Standing." They want to be the one from this CES that you'll remember (and see) next CES.

Judging from the audience's reactions to the presentations, at least two of the products have a better-than-average chance of lasting until CES 2003: Panasonic Consumer Electronic Inc.'s Authenticam Iris Recognition Camera and Danger Inc.'s HipTop cell phone/PDA (personal digital assistant) device. Other contenders ranged from cell phones to services to wearable technology.

The eyes have it

Panasonic's Authenticam connects to a PC through a standard USB (Universal Serial Bus) port, costs US$200, and is already available. Running Iridian's Private ID software, Authenticam records four images of each of a person's eyes, said Tim Meyerhoff, business development manager of the Vision Systems Group.

And no, it's not dangerous, he said: "There are no lasers, and you are not going to go blind."

Iris recognition offers several advantages over conventional security methods such as passwords and PINs, he says. Passwords are clumsy and forgettable, so many people simply tape reminders to their monitor--defeating the purpose entirely, he says.

Iris scanning is easy and it's more precise than fingerprint scanning, he said. Even identical twins have different-looking irises. And no, you can't defeat the system by holding up a photo of somebody's eyeball, he joked.

Finally, in addition to the security uses, the Authenticam has a second built-in camera for basic Web-conferencing capabilities.

Funky HipTop

To illustrate why his company's HipTop will have a long life, Danger's Senior Director of Developer Support and Applications Mark Harlan killed one with a bowling ball on stage.

The HipTop will sell for about $200 when you buy it from an as-yet-unannounced cellular service provider, which will also brand the product, Harlan says. Products are expected to ship in late spring.

Danger crams an impressive number of tools into the tiny product, which weighs just 5 ounces and measures 4.5 inches wide by 2.6 inches deep and 1.1 inches thick. Among its many features the device offers cellular phone service, a Web browser, instant messaging, e-mail access, an address book, a to-do list, and a calendar. Oh, and you can turn it into a camera with optional accessories.

Harlan actually drew cheers when, to demonstrate entering a message, he clicked a button and the unit's small LCD (liquid crystal display) flipped around to expose a QWERTY keyboard.

After pointing out that his particular HipTop was a beta version that cost "thousands of dollars," he typed a message on it, and then dropped the bowling ball on the device--obviously damaging it beyond repair.

His point? The information on the now-deceased unit actually resided on the company's servers. To get it back, you'd simply replace the unit and access your information anew.

Other contenders

Six other companies made a case why their products will also be around next year. Nokia plugged its 9290 Communicator; OnStar its vehicle services. ExpertCity showed its GoToMyPC service, and SnapStream presented its Personal Video Station software. ZapMedia showed its ZapStation, and Xybernaut demonstrated its Poma wearable computer.

Show organizers collected ballots from the audience members who voted at the conclusion of all eight presentations. The "Last Gadget Standing" is to be announced before the close of the CES event this week, and will be featured on the CES Website.

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Tom Mainelli

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