A Look Back At The Future Of Electronics

Pangfua Her, right, a senior sales planner with the Reactrix Systems Inc., demonstrates on the Reactrix WAVEscape on Samsung's large-format LCD display at the Consumer Electronics Show(CES) in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
The 2008 Consumer Electronics Show is in the history books and, sadly, I was one of the last to leave the hall after they dimmed the lights as a hint that it was time to leave. I didn't intend to stay till the last minute - it's just that my flight from Las Vegas doesn't leave until late Thursday night. I'm writing this from a Las Vegas coffee shop as I anxiously anticipate my flight home.

I'm sure I speak for the majority of the press corps as well as many of the exhibitors and attendees by saying that CES is exhausting. I'm not complaining. It's great to get to see cutting edge technology but sharing that experience with 140,000 other people in crowded exhibit halls is no picnic, especially when you have to get across town from the main halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center to hotel suites or auxiliary halls aboard taxis or crowded buses inching along grid-locked streets.

Enough griping. The real reason I spent that past five days in Las Vegas was so I could figure out the trends for 2008. Of course with thousands of products on display, trying to summarize CES would be like trying to describe all of Europe in a few hundred words. It's far too diverse for that.

A few trends I did notice however were: wireless video, increased use of touch interface, tech going green and the emergence of affordable high-end digital cameras.

A number of vendors were showing off wireless technologies to get high-definition video from the source device, such as a digital video recorder or DVD player to a TV. I was impressed by Belkin's FlyWire device that sends HDMI signals (high definition audio and video) up to 100 feet through walls. The unit they were showing can be used to connect one source device with one TV, but a spokesperson said they were working on ways to support multiple TVs around the house. It should be available by summer for a price of about $600, though that is subject to change. Pulse-Link showed similar devices that can connect one or multiple TVs to a variety of audio and video sources. Other companies innovating in this area include Hewlett Packard, LG and Westinghouse Digital which are putting its wireless adapters in TVs.

Exactly a year ago, Apple announced its iPhone, whose touch screen lets you use your fingers not only to select menus and dial the phone but to resize pictures and web pages. That revolutionary product helped jump start the touch interface. At this year's CES, LG and Verizon Wireless were showing off their new Voyager phone which features a touch screen on the front as well as a smaller screen on the inside that's controlled via a keyboard. I have been testing the phone for a few days and have mixed feelings about it. Apple did a much better job, but at least it's good to see that others are trying to find innovative ways to incorporate touch. In his final CES keynote as a Microsoft employee (he's leaving his day job later this year to work full time for his foundation), Bill Gates showed off a prototype surface computing table top device that is like a giant iPhone. It's designed to be used in retail stores, casinos and other locations for customers to use their hands to shop, gamble and customize products. Gates demonstrated how he could customize a snowboard with his own graphics and designs now that he's about to have a bit more spare time on his hands.

Just about every exhibitor at the show tried to convince attendees that they are going green. The most impressive green-tech I saw wasn't actually an end-user product but a technology that Greenplug (www.greenplug.us) is trying to sell to device makers. They have chips and software that enable "real-time collaboration between electronic devices and their power sources." What this means is that devices would draw only as much power they need for the time they need it. No more power bricks wasting energy and getting hot even when the device is "off." The other advantage would be having one power supply for all of our portable devices with the power supply being smart enough to deliver whatever power the device needs.

Listen To Larry Magid's Podcasts From The 2008 Consumer Electronics Show
Like all Consumer Electronics Shows for the past decade, there were plenty of digital cameras on display, but this year I noticed that companies are upping the ante with higher end cameras aimed at the consumer market. Professional digital single lens reflect cameras (DSLRs) have been around for years but until a few years ago they were incredibly expensive. I have a professional photographer friend who spent $25,000 for a digital camera back in the 90s. Now you can get great "pro-sumer" cameras for under $800. At CES, Sony debuted its $699 Alpha DSLR-A100. Like the Canon EOS Rebel XTi and the Nikon D40, this is a full featured camera with interchangeable lenses sold as a kit with a "starter lens." The new Sony camera features a 10 megapixel sensor, the ability to take up to 3 frames per second and the support for ISOs ranging from 100 to 3,200. What that all adds up to is a camera that can perform well in a variety of lighting conditions. Also, like the competition, it has image stabilization which compensates for our shaky hands, especially when using a long zoom.

Casio introduced one of the most innovative cameras at show. It isn't an SLR, but the new Exilim Pro EX-F1 has a 12X optical zoom and what Casio says is "the world's fastest burst shooting performance." The camera fires at an amazing 60 frames per second. You could use it to photograph someone diving and capture every position before he or she hits the water. The Casio representative I spoke with argued that it's an ideal camera for parents trying to keep up with active infants or kids on the soccer field. I took a couple of seconds to shoot off a hundred frames or so and was amazed by the performance though, rather than spending $1,000 for it when it comes out later this year, I think I'll settle for a slightly slower camera.

Covering CES has been fun but now it's time for to visit my favorite part of Las Vegas - the US Airways departure lounge at McCarran International Airport