Wandering through the masses of the Consumer Electronics Show is always an adventure of endurance and perseverance, albeit a joyful one. Sort of a Disneyland for adults. It's fascinating to see the direction that the electronics industry is going, as themes rear their ugly head.
Networking of all types seemed to hold center stage this year, though not necessarily the bewildering kind that people tend to think of, running home computers through a router. More, it's a case of getting different products to work together and in as seamless a way as possible. ("Convergence" is probably a better word, though in the past, that's been used without being reality. This year, it started to become real.) There was also a lot of anticipation about 3-D technology, though not as much was on display as I was awaiting.
(That said, what was in 3-D was evidence enough to "Watch this space." While 3-D monitors for computer gaming have been around for a while, there was significant advances in other areas that bear the most attention. The LG company had two separate home systems running - one for LCD, the other PLP - that were utterly breathtaking, among the best 3-D I've ever seen, which speaks to where the technology is likely heading. Samsung also addressed having an upcoming 3-D unit. By the way, LG even had a 3-D monitor that didn't require glasses. The quality isn't ready for the big time, but it was an impressive feat regardless.)
At this point, however, much of the technology (notably TVs, cell phones, and digital cameras) is so mature that it's bells and whistles that are being added more than great technological advances - better design, for instance or ultra-thin - rather than new directions for the industry. (I've never quite gotten ultra-thin TV screens. Is 1-/2" deep really all that more significant to most people than, say an inch?) But despite that, there actually was one notably theme that predominated the show. And that was -
Ease of use. Serious ease of use.
Companies for years have been claiming that they've made their products "easy." But all they've generally been doing is making their products "less difficult." My standard for "easy" is a landline telephone. When you're reached that, you're officially easy. And for the first time, the technology industry seems to finally get it.
Here's an example of what I mean. One of the most important things a person can do with their computer is...Back The Freaking Thing Up. But studies show that most people tend not to, leaving all their important documents and data at risk. It's just too hard, people think, although it's not. But last year a company named Clickfree introduced a backup drive that fit all the qualifications of easy. A small, external hard drive the size of a notepad, you plug it in, its pre-installed software automatically searches your home computer for hundreds of the most common file types, and backs them up. That's it. You just unplug the drive. This year, companies like Seagate and Toshiba have followed suit with their own somewhat-simplified version of one button or no-button back-up. But one company, Rebit, took it to its own high level. You plug in the external hard drive...and...well, that's pretty much it. You leave it plugged in, and it backs up your entire computer, and then constantly monitors your system for whenever you change a file. Rebit then backs it up.
That's the kind of easy I'm referring to. Landline phone easy. Okay, not all the "easy" was that simple, but what was impressive was that so many products were in that ballpark. Actually, what was most impressive is that so many companies finally understand that it's the simplicity and ease of use that will drive their industry. The less you scare people, and the more you make is SO easy for people to use your products without effort, the better chance you have of people actually using them.
That leads to what is always THE question anyone attending CES gets asked the most. What I refer to as, SWDYSTC - "So, what did you see that's cool??!!"
I have a different standard for "cool" than most What I like most and find the coolest is not the big, flashy whizbangs. I like the small, basic products that people use in their everyday lives that have been taken to new levels and made easier and better to use. With "ease" being so predominant this year, a number of things stood out.
The most notable may have been Pogoplug. Keep in mind that I haven't tested this yet, but assuming it does as promised, it's the perfect example of the two main themes of the show: ease and networking. This is a device about the size of a battery charger that you plug into the wall. Then you plug any external drive into it - an external hard drive, or a flash drive, whatever - that has your data on it. You also plug the Pogoplug into your home's network router, with the provided cable. Once you've done that (are you ready?) - you can access that drive from any computer in the world, in essence, accessing your home computer, presuming you keep that external drive backed up and current. You can either log in a My.Pogogplug.com and enter a password to access your drive, or you can download a free application onto your notebook that gives you instant access to it. (There's also an app for use on the iPhone.) It retails for $80
Another cool, simple product is from LiteOn, which had the Skyla Memoir 580. It's was nothing more than a digital picture frame. But what they added was a slot into which you could slide a hard-copy photo. It gets scanned and digitized, and then uploaded into the frame. Not only is this brain-dead easy for all those people who can't conceive of being able to digitize their photos, but it's a tremendous boon for people who decades of old photos they have sitting around, unseen.
I also liked the cleverness of Griffin's Power Jolt Reserve (for charging an iPod in a car), or the Power Block Reserve for home charging. It's nothing more than a basic iPod charger. But what they did that was so smart is that while charging your iPod, it's also charging a removable battery pack, which you can then take with you for extra power.
By the way, I include the aforementioned Rebit and Clickfree as pretty cool and very simple devices, and both belong on the list. (Clickfree is from last year, but they upgraded their software with notable improvements.) Also, those LG 3-D televisions, which admittedly do fall into the whizbang category.
I also was impressed by Casio's FS-10 camera in its Exilim line. This is a pocket camera that utilizes the same, remarkable high-speed technology that Casio introduced last year, but in very high-end pro models that went for $1,000. This is more in the $350 range, I believe. Casio's high-speed technology is incredible, taking pictures at 60 frames a second and video at 1,200 frames a second (though it gets slightly less for the FS-10.) It also incorporates the ability slow down the action you're looking at, in order to be able to get the best shot and not miss something as it whizzes by. Honest. Yes, it basically stops time. (My assumption is that when you enter Slo-Mo mode, it sends the image into a memory buffer, which is where the real world gets slowed down.)
Speaking of digital imaging, the Aiptek Pocket Cinema does something I didn't think possible, and is pretty darn cool. You connect your video camera to it, and the device will be able to display the video on any wall, without needing a computer, just as if you were using a regular movie project in the old days. It's not the widest image - about 40-50 inches - nor the crispest, but it works, and it's fascinating.
Those might be my picks for "coolest," but there was plenty of close competition..
For instant, there were several products which are pushing the concept of networks and home theaters to new heights. One of them, from Samsung, is called Connected TV, in which they're partnered with Yahoo. Basically, they've developed a TV widget engine that lets you interact with all your favorite web content on your TV, via a remote control. You can personalize your interface however you want, as your choices are listed horizontally along the bottom of the screen.
Somewhat similar, though from the reverse perspective is Boxee. This is free software you install on your computer that organizes all your Internet multimedia content in one place, converging the Internet, TV and media - like Netflix, Hulu, CBS.com, WB, YouTube, Juiced, Rev3, Flickr, Picasso and much more. It works best with the remote controls for Apple TV and Windows Media Center PCs, and soon in conjunction with set-top boxes.
And also notably Sling Media, which for years has been on the edge of breaking through, and now appears to be getting there. The most interesting use of Sling might be its Slingplayer Mobile, which lets you send your home TV signal to your notebook computer or even Smartphone wherever you are in the world, and you control it from that mobile device, including setting your home PVR by remote. In other words, you can watch your home TV on your Smartphone. (Or notebook.) Anywhere. There's a one time charge of $30, and you also need to sign up for a unlimited data plan from your carrier.
(By the way, after reading the above, for those of you who might be scratching your head recalling the issues of the last Writers Guild strike, when writers were concerned about the merging of TV and the Internet and cell phones - and the studios insisted this was all such a new-fangled technology that needed at least three years to study...there above were just three significant examples explaining why there was a strike. And why SAG still hasn't settled.)
There was another bit of interesting Internet convergence. Nothing spectacular, but a nice, smooth blending of technologies. The Pioneer XMp3 is a small, portable XM Internet radio player that records up to 100 hours and - also is an MP3 player. It's about the size of a cigarette pack. It won a CES Innovations Award.
As for that very Internet, even it got simplified. Have you ever had difficulty finding a Wi-Fi hot spot, or been concerned about its safety and security? Novatel's MiFi lets you create your own personal mobile hotspot that you can have with you wherever you go. About the size of a pager, it comes with an on-board Linux operating system, runs on the 3G network and is GPS capable. You have 40 hours of standby power and four hours of active use. Costs will vary since you'd likely get a discount when buy a data plan through a partner carrier.
As for GPS, an interesting device for its simplicity is the Zoombak. If there's anything you want to keep track of - a car, a child, pet, or something especially valuable - you simply attach the small transmitter to it. Then your GPS receiver can always pick up its location. You can also set a "perimeter," so if the object you're tracking leaves the area, you'll get a signal.
All of this technology tends to need power, of course, and recharging has always been a tech challenge. There have been a few good solutions in the past, but two new ones offer some particularly simple and fascinating upgrades. Chargepod from Callpod has come out with Version 2 that improves on its excellent charger from last year that lets you charge up to six devices simultaneously. It now includes three USB ports, and several tips for proprietary devices are built into the hub, rather than separate prongs you have carry separately. It is scheduled to be available around April.
But the most unique charger, not just for its utter simplicity, but its deeply green technology is nPower PEG. Developed mainly for hikers, this is a "personal energy generator." It's not a battery per se, you are actually creating your own kinetic energy, and doing so simply by your body movement! The PEG is a 9-ounce baton (so it's not particularly light, something you might put in a backpack) that is tuned to 2 Hz to get power at the pace of a simple walk. Still under development, it's scheduled to be released mid-year for $149.
(It's impossible for me to discuss green technology without mention of Freeplay, which might be my favorite company in the world. London-based, it has made solar-powered/hand-cranked radios available for free in some Third World countries. It develops similar medical-based products for Doctors Without Borders. And has created the charitable Freeplay Foundation. Oh, and its products are wonderful, absolutely solidly made, the kind that feel like they'll last a lifetime. One of them, the ML-1 lantern and spotlight runs on either hand-generated or AC power and just won a Best of CES Innovation Award. Their product line of radios, chargers - including a hand-cranked MP3 charger, no less - medical equipment and more is all generally wonderful.)
And finally, once you have all this technology, somehow you have to lug it around. Most especially your computer. And that always is a mess these days at airport checkpoints, always having to open your bags and take the notebook out, lay both on the conveyer and then put everything back, as you're usually trying to put on your shoes. But now, working with the TSA, several company have developed TSA-approved aircheck friendly bags - you unzip the back, lay it flat and can only have the notebook computer in its pocket. You don't have to remove anything. Then, when finished scanning, you grab the handle, and go. Simplicity itself. Among companies that have developed such bags are Skooba, Aerovation (with a particularly interesting line of products) and MobileEdge.
And so, we end our look at the world's highest tech show with a low-tech product that doesn't have a battery in sight. And we wander off, safe in our knowledge that the circus will be back in town next year.
"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, complete with product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here