'Gadget Nirvana' Opens In Las Vegas

This is an undated handout photo from intel of their persoinal video player. Analysts are agog over the personal video player, or PVP, that chipmaker Intel and ReplayTV maker SONICblue are working on. Intel will show off several prototypes of the Walkman-sized PVP, with a 4-inch screen and storage for more than 10 hours of movies, at the Las Vegas International Consumer Electronics Show. CBS/AP

Panasonic, Palm, Philips and other makers of cell phones, handheld computers and electronic doodads would have you believe the good times are rolling now like never before.

They may have a point.

More than 2,000 such companies are trucking their newest wares to Las Vegas' International Consumer Electronics Show this week, promising to overwhelm the city's gargantuan convention hall. The show, which features keynotes by chiefs of Sony, Microsoft and Intel, has normally pessimistic analysts abuzz with a fervor that seems alien in times of war and uncertainty.

"If you're a techie, this is gadget nirvana," said Tim Bajarin, president of technology consulting firm Creative Strategies.

As once-mighty technology shows like Comdex and TechXNY falter, CES thrives.

The reason, perhaps, is that the now-ubiquitous personal computer was never central to the CES show. Now, PC technology is being integrated into slick gadgets that have stolen the limelight from the PC and the trade shows created to tout it.

Even Microsoft, the company that cashed in most on the PC revolution, is eager to talk about home entertainment hubs, wireless displays and Internet appliances like the alarm clock that downloads weather and traffic news while you sleep.

In 1967, when the first CES opened in New York City, vendors extolled the latest in transistor radios, audio cassettes and small-screen black-and-white TVs.

This year's show focuses on the same patterns of electronic consumption. Instead of transistor radios, companies are expected to show car radios that receive broadcasts of digital music - as well as television.

The portable storage seen in the audio cassette has morphed into many forms, including the Secure Digital card, the size of a U.S. quarter. Panasonic will announce a new one that holds a gigabyte of digital data - roughly the same as a 90-minute analog cassette.

And TVs are still a hot item 36 years later, with several companies proffering flat-panels the size of a small garden patch that are digital cable-ready.

Analysts are agog over the forthcoming personal video player, or PVP, that chipmaker Intel and ReplayTV maker SONICblue are working on. Intel will show off several prototypes of the Walkman-sized PVP, with a 4-inch screen and storage for more than 10 hours of movies.

The Intel PVP won't be the first such device. France's Archos released its $399 Jukebox Multimedia, with a 1-inch screen, last year.

Analysts also admit pent-up reverence for the finally emerging wireless "smart displays" such as the ViewSonic airpanel and Philips iPronto. Both are the first of a slew of such products using touch-screen technology Microsoft announced at last year's CES, under the name Mira.

Instead of tethering computer users to a desk, smart displays allow folks to wander the house or office with a screen that links wirelessly with the computer.

At least two companies will offer systems for those who want live TV beamed to their cars, rather than just DVDs playing on their seat-back screens.

KVH Industries will unveil a car-mounted 4-inch-high disc antenna that pulls in satellite TV. The $2,000 antennas, already in use by the U.S. military, devote an array of tiny gyroscope-guided dish antennas to lock onto a satellite during the twists and turns of the road.

Sirius Satellite Radio also plans to demonstrate that a Sirius-configured Kenwood car stereo can receive satellite-beamed video alongside radio broadcasts.

A handful of cell phone and handheld computer makers will further blend the two devices. Hitachi and Samsung will introduce PDA phones with picture-messaging capabilities. Both can access higher-speed wireless networks to send e-mail and surf the 'Net. The Hitachi also integrates a keyboard.

Several analysts point to the emergence of a wider "digital lifestyle" which aims to steer folks back into their own homes, away from terrorists and foreign vacations.

The concept is boosted by converging home entertainment devices and software known collectively as "media gateways." The gateways bundle stray audio and video formats - from MP3s to recorded TV shows to digital pictures - to allow control them from a single device.

"There's a blending between the home PC and the home entertainment systems, your stereo and TV," said Forrester Research's Charles Golvin.

The gateways can take the shape of a PC-centric system, a set-top box, or a handheld computer imbued with software, like Scientia Technologies' Plexus, that can control everything from the TV to the swimming pool pump.

The show has also become the gadget industry's venue to persuade the U.S. government to see things its way.

A dozen members of Congress are expected, along with top officials from the Federal Trade Commission, Department of Commerce and Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell.

Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is expected to introduce "Plug-in to Recycling," an EPA campaign aimed at prodding Americans to stop tossing toxic electronic waste into the trash.

The EPA will announce "e-waste" recycling opportunities, with help from vendors, manufacturers and waste haulers, including Best Buy, Sony, Waste Management, Panasonic and Dell, the EPA said.

For federal officials without funds to fly to Las Vegas and stay in the Hilton - the hallowed venue where Elvis Presley started his comeback in 1969 - CES organizers will pay, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. The industry finds itself struggling to compete with the entertainment industry's lobbying push to persuade Congress to block some technologies, especially those that allow digital recording of music and TV broadcasts.

"We're not Hollywood. Certainly we don't make the campaign contributions that the studios can," Shapiro said. "But (Congress) regulates these products. If they're going to regulate us they should see the industry up close and personal."
  • Dan Collins

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