The most promising consumer gadgets

Consumer electronics remain a lively area in a recently lackluster tech market. Phones with built-in cameras, wireless connections between your stereo and TV, and ever-smaller, more capable gadgets are only a few of the latest novelties--and they're already here; even cooler stuff is around the corner.

The consumer electronics boom was evident at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, for example. We saw a return to the good old days of computer shows in Las Vegas: crowded flights, long cab lines, scarce hotel rooms, full convention halls, lots of excitement, and most importantly, plenty of cool stuff to see.

Here's an overview from a day and a half walk through the show.

UPnP and the Digital Home

A couple of Oregon-based retired Intel Corp. engineers are among those betting on Universal Plug and Play, a technology that will help link disparate devices together. The startup Optema Inc. showed a conceptual demo of a scrabble game played on a monitor or TV using personal digital assistants as game controllers. You compose a word on your PDA (no fair using the dictionary) and beam the word to a PC that keeps score and displays the board.

The name Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) is unfortunate since it brings to mind the early days in device interconnectivity, often called "Plug and Pray." However, this standard is much different and could emerge in wireless communication among computer devices like servers, notebooks, desktops, and PDAs, as well as consumer electronics products like DVD players or sound systems.

UPnP was also talked up at the Intel booth, which was showing the Digital Media Station. The device was a Linksys Group Inc. wireless adapter that accepts encoded media streams, decodes them, and outputs them to your TV or stereo. In other words, the PC in the basement could send a stream of digital music to this Linksys adapter, which turns it into analog music that can be played on the stereo in your living room without needing a special adapter on the stereo.

The Linksys device also incorporates Intel's Remote I/O so you can tell the server which song to send to your stereo. Imagine having one of these everywhere you had have a stereo or TV. Just a pair of "smart speakers" that spoke UpnP could do the job. Add a few flat-screen "wall computers" and you have the house of the future.

Intel representatives were also eager to talk about their forthcoming Centrino chip, designed especially for mobile devices. They say it's fast and efficient, with special considerations for wireless users. On preview at the booth was a new Samsung notebook with Centrino inside. It's due out around March.

Microsoft's Showcase

The Microsoft pavilion had an assortment of digital home vignettes; Mom's office, the teenagers' rooms, and so on, all featuring Microsoft products to make your digital lifestyle more fulfilling.

Microsoft showed several implementations of its SPOT technology, which beams data from FM transmitters to devices you wear, have in your hand, or on your desktop or night table. Besides sending talk shows to your radio, FM broadcast signals can also carry data on subcarriers.

The assortment of products includes watches from Citizen Watch Co. Ltd., Fossil Inc., and Suunto Corp., scheduled to become available in the fall. They're a tad on the geeky side, but the concept is cool. Microsoft Chair Bill Gates had demonstrated the SPOT clock at Fall Comdex 2002, but the watch and PDA-type device are new.

Next-Generation Graphics Card

While I cruised the Microsoft booth, a dancing elf on a display caught my eye. PC World has already covered NVidia Corp.'s GeForce FX, announced at Comdex, but here's what I learned about the technology.

This is the classic case of being able to do for a couple hundred dollars today what it cost tens of thousands in computing power a few years ago. NVidia was showing a demo of a prototype card that renders computer-generated images in real time. The image was as realistic and detailed as anything you've seen in the movies recently. It even had a goose-bump slider in the setup menu. The fellow demonstrating the card said he likes to call it "Renderman on a chip," a reference to Pixar Inc.'s high-end graphics rendering tool.

The specs are impressive: a 500-MHz GPU, DDR2 memory with 1-GHz effective transfer, 125 million transistors, 0.13-micron technology--and it even uses a quiet cooling system incorporating heat pipe technology. NVidia representatives said you may be able to get one of these cards for around US$500. If that sounds pricey, consider this: A few years ago, you would have paid $5000.

Creative Keyboards

In the gizmo department, I ran across a selection of keyboards from a Canadian company named Ideazon. The "Zboard" uses specially designed keyboard overlays for various applications like games and graphics applications.

The one pictured has keys labeled for Photoshop functions. The keyboards also feature built-in macro keys, which could come in handy.

Screaming Car Audio

While the adult video industry was nowhere to be seen at the convention hall (they had their own thing going on at the Sands) I have to say the car audio section was almost as obscene.

It featured cars fitted out with multi-thousand-watt amplifiers and capacitors the size of paint cans to handle peak voltage requirements. The red LED displays on the capacitors blinked out the voltage values as demand fluctuated. Liquid cooling systems even ran through the speakers and amplifiers.

That much sound in your car can't be healthy for your ears or very safe for driving. And if you want video in your car, plenty of companies at CES were ready to provide screens for every nook and cranny of your minivan or sports car. I guess with people spending more time on the road or stuck in traffic jams, turning your car into your living room might make sense.

It's a Sony Show

After being overwhelmed by car audio equipment, I stopped in at the Sony Corp. exhibit.

CES is definitely a Sony kind of show, and the company had plenty to show off. Just inside the door was a video player based on blue laser (which supports a smaller beam than red and more data), showing 1080i HD content on a plasma display. This is stunning video. Details emerge that you might otherwise miss, and the picture fills your field of vision. Once these displays get a little less expensive, anyone who sees one will want one in their home.

Sony also showed a brand new, first-of-its-kind DVD recorder that probably won't make it to the United States anytime soon.

The prototype on display at CES records multi-DVD formats for between 60 and 360 minutes, depending on video quality. Sony provided no model name, number, or price--only a glimpse of products to come. This may be a successor to the RDR-GX7, which records DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-R, and was unveiled at CES.

Sony also was showing a DVD-based camcorder. The DCR-DVD100 provides 60 minutes of video on a mini-DVD disc--imagine the ease of pulling down clips for editing. The unit uses a mini DVD, and is due to ship this summer priced under $1000.

Also, Sony's newly announced PEG-NZ90 PDA was on display. The $799 device incorporates a 2-megapixel camera, flash, and Bluetooth. It is scheduled to ship by the end of February.

On the Horizon

And, finally, a couple of prototypes from Toshiba demonstrated a flexible LCD panel and a gorgeous little display that emits light when activated, unlike LCDs' need for backlighting. The result is higher-contrast ratios and more vibrant displays.

Theoretically, this technology will allow you to wear displays like clothing and watch a movie on your cell phone, but real products are still a few years off--like many of the most intriguing products at CES 2003.

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