October's coolest gadgets

Robots, video cards, mobile phones and digital cameras at Ceatec.

October began, as it always does, with Japan's biggest electronics show: Ceatec. The show attracted a little over 196,000 visitors who got a chance to see the best of the Japanese electronics industry, including some exciting new prototypes of devices that are still some way from hitting the market.

One of the biggest draws was Murata Manufacturing's unicycling robot, but robots from Nissan also made headlines. There were lots of thin TVs too, but it seems like I've spent so much time looking at ever- slimmer TVs recently I'm going to leave those out of this month's column! Something interesting was the Au Box, a sort-of set-top box that brings together broadband content and funnels it to a cell phone or TV.

Away from Ceatec there were a couple of interesting digital still cameras to add to those I brought you last month plus, causing some excitement among gamers, a renewal of the best-selling DS Lite from Nintendo. Would you believe people began auctioning reservation tickets for the DSi, as the new model is called, fewer than 24 hours after its announcement? That's about a month before it goes on sale.

Murata Seiko-chan robot

Murata has improved on its Murata Boy bicycling robot by coming up with a model that can unicycle. Inside the robot's body are two gyroscopes. One helps keep the robot from falling sideways and the second does the same job with forwards and backwards movement. An ultrasonic sensor helps the robot maintain a distance from objects in its path and a Bluetooth module handles communications. It's also fitted with a camera that sends live video. Like Murata Boy, Seiko was developed by the company as a platform to show off the company's components and isn't destined to become a product.

Spurs Engine video cards

The first add-in video cards for PCs based on Toshiba's SpursEngine video chip are out this month. The SpursEngine is based on the same Cell processor architecture as the chip used in the PlayStation 3 console and is designed to process HD (high-definition) video. Leadtek and Thomson both have cards coming to market. Leadtek's card will arrive later this month, and will cost around ¥30,000 (US$286). Thomson's cards will arrive in November, and are expected to cost from ¥40,000 to ¥50,000. SpursEngine is capable of encoding or decoding HD video thanks to hardware MPEG2 and H.264 codecs and can upscale standard-definition video to HD on the fly, without tying up the computer's microprocessor.

KDDI Au Box

While today's cell phones offer a wide range of multimedia functions, it's sometimes difficult for users to make the most of everything the handsets offer. Japanese mobile carrier Au is hoping to bridge this gap with its Au Box, a device that allows users to easily gather and enjoy music and video content from CDs, video cameras, TV's and the Internet and get them all in their cell phones. At its simplest level it can be used to rip music from a CD to a cell phone and with a broadband connection users can also connect to Au's music download service and grab songs over the speedier broadband line rather than through their cell phones. The Au Box also allows users to surf the Internet and watch videos on demand from Au's Lismo video store using their televisions. This function is believed to benefit Japanese youngsters, most of whom do not own computers so access the Internet solely through their cell phones.

Nintendo DSi

Nintendo is refreshing its two-year old DS Lite handheld device with a new version that's thinner, has dual-digital cameras and will be out before the end of the year -- at least in Japan. The DS-i looks similar to the current DS Lite and is a little thinner because it doesn't have a slot for GameBoy Advance cartridges. The device's two screens are slightly larger at 3.25-inches instead of 3-inches and two digital cameras have been added. The outer camera has a 300,000 pixel resolution and pictures can be stored on an SD Card for transfer to the company's Wii or a computer. It will launch in Japan on Nov. 1 and will cost ¥18,900 (US$179). That's slightly more expensive than the current DS Lite, which costs ¥16,800. It will reach the U.S. and Europe in 2009. Following in the steps of its Wii console and competing devices Nintendo will launch an online applications store for the DS-i.

Casio Exilim EX-FH20

Casio's EX-FH20 is an update on the F1 that was launched earlier this year. It has a 9-megapixel resolution and 20X optical zoom. Like the F1, the new camera can take super slow-motion video and perform a host of neat tricks thanks to a burst shooting mode. For example, the camera can be set to take up to 40 images at 7-megapixel resolution per second, which means you can get it to record a series of pictures either side of the shutter button being pressed. That means that if you miss a perfect picture moment, the camera will likely still capture it thanks to these extra pictures. The fast shutter also allows video to be recorded at up to 1,000 frames per second and then achieve a super-slow motion effect when played back at the normal 30 frames per second. It will launch in the U.S. and Europe in October and will cost around US$600.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II

Canon has updated its three-year-old EOS 5D digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera with a new model, the EOS 5D Mark II, that features the ability to record HD video. And it's not just any high-def video but 1,920 pixels by 1,080 pixels video. That beats out Nikon's D90, which only manages 1,280 pixel by 720 pixel. Behind the lens sits a full-frame 21.1 megapixel sensor. A full-frame sensor is the same size as a 35mm film frame and is about double the size of the sensors used in most other digital cameras with interchangeable lenses. The EOS 5D Mark II will hit stores in late November in Japan and the U.S., where it will cost US$2,699. The camera packaged with a 24-105 millimeter lens will cost $3,499. European launch plans have not been announced.

Sony PRS-700 E-book Reader

Sony is introducing a second electronic book reader to its range. The PRS-700 features a similar 6-inch electronic paper display to that used in the PRS-505 that's currently on sale but new is a touch panel and a reading light. The touch panel means users will be able to turn pages on-screen and also search through e-books by using an on-screen keyboard and highlight passages using a stylus. The light will aid reading in dark environments. It can store about 350 e-books in its internal memory and more can be kept in Memory Stick or SD Card media. Sony says the battery supports up to 7,500 pages of continuous reading. It's compatible with e-book formats including Sony's BBeB (Broadband electronic book), Microsoft Word documents, Adobe PDF and the International Digital Publishing Forum's XML-based EPUB format. It will be available from November and will cost US$400, which is $100 more than the PRS-505 model that will remain on sale. Launch plans for areas outside of the U.S. were not disclosed.

R&D: Toshiba Direct Methanol Fuel Cell

In the next six months we should see Toshiba's first DMFC (direct-methanol fuel-cell). The company won't say what form it will take but it should be out sometime before the end of March. DMFCs produce electricity from a reaction between methanol, water and air. The only by-products are a small amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide, so DMFCs are often seen as a greener source of energy than traditional batteries. Another advantage is that they can be replenished with a new cartridge of methanol in seconds. We got a clue about the possible device at Ceatec when Toshiba showed a cell phone based on a fuel cell. The fuel cell was integrated into the clamshell phone under the keypad and made the handset a little thicker, although not considerably. Watch this space for details of the DMFC when it's announced!

(Additional reporting by Sumner Lemon and Chiara Castañeda)

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Tags CasiorobotsMurataCell processorCanonLeadtektoshibadigital camerasNintendo

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