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Live from the Consumer Electronics Show

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I first covered the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas 14 years ago, and it's always been a joyous madhouse of a circus. Though some weary and wince at the mania, to me it's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, at least as far as non-official holidays go. And even then, it overlaps and gives a good run. This is Disneyland for adults.

Some of the technology, you scratch your head and wonder what some people were thinking, a bit wistful at the hopes (and money) that's clearly going to go down the drain. Some, however, is enthralling, and you know that in a few years this "vaporware" will not only be in homes, it will be standard, second nature. This is no hyperbole: 14 years ago, DVDs weren't even to be found on the show floor. Now, they're already so "old news" that the Writers Guild was willing to drop its request to raise royalties on them because it was clear they will soon be surpassed.

Lots of fascinating products, of course. But almost equally fascinating how some fields have become so mature that they almost aren't interesting. LCD and HDTV are all so amazing, even at the low end. The razzle dazzle to differentiate one from another is...razzle dazzle. Certainly one feature is better than another (though some are just brain-melting in their meaninglessness to normal, sentient humans), but they all tend to blend into one another. Same with digital phones. And digital cameras.

Among things that have stood out thus far, at only a cursory glance:

Magic Jack is a $40 device you plug into any computer, and then plug a phone into. After registering, you then can make phone calls anywhere, as many as you like, for only $20 a year. (The first year is free.) It's VoIP -- the same Internet technology used by Skype, for instance. The difference is that they own their lines, whereas Skype and most others rent theirs.

Mobivox is another VoIP. You register for free on their website, then call a local access number (in cities throughout 40 countries), use voice-activated commands to give the number you want to call, and you're connected. Moreover, once you've registered and have your phone number, you can use your Mobivox from any telephone. Calls to any of these 40 countries are just 1.9 cents a minute -- and if you call someone else who's registered with Mobivox, it's...free. (Calls to other countries will be a bit more.)

Toshiba is developing a rechargeable battery pack that you don't plug in to recharge -- you fill it with methane gas. It's called their Direct Methane Fuel Cell. Once full, you then charge devices like with any charger. But you don't have to be near a charging source. You just need to have the fuel to refill. It won't be available in the U.S., though until 2009 or 2010.

Solio has a different wrinkle on battery charging. Their chargers will either charge normally, with AC, or via a solar panel. Again, you don't have to be around a charging source -- unless you consider the sun a charging source.

A product I've seen in prototype for two years is finally coming to the market. In demos, it's the best handwriting recognition product I've seen. From EPOS, though it will be sold in the U.S. by Dane-Elec, the core product in its line is basically a USB-flash drive and pen. Clip a small receiver on any paper, and what you write with the flash-pen will be saved on its flash-drive. Then, just plug into your computer, and it opens as a graphic file -- but the excellent hand-recognition software did an extremely good job converting this to a text .rtf file. Another product doubles as a mouse and will display whatever your write in real-time on your computer screen. This too can then be converted.

In an odd, but fascinating product, Meridian Health has built a GPS into athletic shoes! It's for families who have someone (most likely a child, but not necessarily) who has a health risk, and this way you can always keep track of where they are.

(The winner of odd product thus far -- odd as in bizarre, bordering on stupid, even though it probably works fine, but it just sounds so ludicrous -- is the Health Mate digital sauna. Yes, you read that right.)

And admittedly, I did see a digital camera that leapt out. It's from Casio, makers of the popular Exilim cameras. This is their high-end EX-F1. It allows you to take pictures at up to an amazing 60 frames per second. And a fascinating feature lets you "store" images before taking a picture and then backtrack to it. (Their example was if you're at the zoo, not expecting a dolphin to leap out of the water, and you miss it. If you've set the feature -- and have the camera positioned -- you can "scroll back" and grab the shot, even though you hadn't officially taken it. Also, the camera takes hi-speed video. Most hi-speed might be 300 frames per second. This can go up to 1,200 frames per second. The results were stunning. It's not cheap, retailing for around $900-1,000.

The funniest moment thus far was at the Samsung press conference, where they opening speaker began his greeting by saying, "Unfortunately, I won't be funny today. Because of the writers strike, all of my remarks have been written by the product development division."

Speaking of the Writers Guild (and you just know that was coming), what leaps out at CES is how pathetically ludicrous is the the AMPTP corporations' contention that "the Internet" is not a mature business model yet for profit, that they need three years to "study" it. Not mature? Study? No profit? Without the Internet and its ungodly profit, the Consumer Electronics Show would collapse like house without walls. This is an industry that is thriving, deeply-developed and is only set to explode further. It's mature financially and technologically.

As has been noted previously, media today is all blended so that it's seamless. On the same monitor, people stream series, watch webisodes, record shows on Tivo, download movies, play DVDs and watch network TV.

If anyone doubts that the media corporations will be putting their content on the Internet, which is why paying zero for it is in their greed-ridden interest, the reality is that it's already being done. But if you need any convincing of how deeply it will be going, take a spin around the CES show floor. Be careful though, because if you stop too long at one booth, you risk getting run over by the next one coming up right behind you.

One example. I received a press release from a company, ICTV, which said in part -

"I see that you are planning to attend and want to make sure you stop by the ICTV table for a glimpse at the future of TV entertainment.

"Simply put, ICTV's ActiveVideo service brings the interactivity and control of Web videos to the television through your existing cable box - with no new hardware to install or additional costs for the consumer. Viewers can navigate the broadcast-quality videos with their existing TV remote control, making it simple enough for anyone to use."

I'd say that's pretty blunt and clear. Their words. And then there's this from ".TV," which would be promoting its product -

"Get your .TV! Carson Daly demonstrates how to be the Master of Your Domain by creating your own online .TV channel."

You can create your own online channel. That's how blended it is. (And poor Carson Daly, the guy's timing just sucks eggs. Not that there's anything wrong with his promoting this -- there isn't. It's just that if you're going to be forced by your employer to cross the picket line or get fired, you'd probably want to have at least a little more breathing space before you cram the Internet-irony of this product in people's faces.)

Speaking of which, I figured that as long as the fellow was there, I'd go over and chat. Walking up in my WGA On Strike t-shirt, I said, "I just want to let you know that I'm not here to picket you." His initial surprise turned into relief. When I later said, "I really wish you hadn't done what you did" -- he interrupted me and said, with a look of anguish on his face, "I do, too." I happen to think he got a raw deal in the protests, since he'd been forced to go back on the air or be fired. We spoke for a few minutes, and it was clear from our conversation that he felt absolutely horrible about the whole situation, not a hint of bravado or anger at the protests, just profound disappointment by it all. And he ended, "I wish this strike was over."

The abundance of technology at CES to blend media content together just gets deeper and deeper. In fact, if you want "mature," take the Slingbox. Although introduced only last year, it's already grown and become mature enough to have been given an Emmy award for technological achievement. The Sling Media website can describe themselves best:

Sling Media's first product, internationally acclaimed, Emmy award-winning Slingbox™, has literally transformed the way we are able to watch TV. The Slingbox turns any Internet-connected PC or laptop, Mac, or smartphone into your home television. That means you can watch TV virtually anywhere in the world.

So, you remember that thing a few paragraphs above about blending TV with the Internet and New Media? It's real. (So is the part about the AMPTP corporations not wanting to pay for it.)

How real? "For a long time, the line between content and hardware has been blurring," Jonathan Shambroom told the Los Angeles Times. He's senior VP at Crackle Inc., an online video site owned by, er...Sony. "Now content is really driving a lot of the technology."

But then, why not take the word of a major expert in the field. Dr. Jungwoo Park, president of Samsung. He was speaking at his company's press conference about Internet TV (IPTV), that blends video with Internet content and more. "We think IPTV will change the way we interact with our TV." That's pretty clear.

Indeed, the blending of TV, Internet, movies, video on demand and PVR recording can't be seen any more clearly that Microsoft's Media Room. (Microsoft. No tiny, hopeful start-up, looking for three years of study.) The short version is that this is an amazing product that integrates all the aforementioned media in one experience. On the CNN Politics screen, you watch their TV broadcast live, with links off to the side to ever-changing options. When Barack Obama came on screen during the newscast, you could choose from options like: Barack Obama. Bio. Polls. News.

The content that is offered, all blended together is not just the future. It's now.

Indeed, "content" is the techie buzzword at CES. It's the gift that truly keeps on giving. Yet, contrary to the famous dictum, there is no need to be wary of Geeks bearing gifts. Those gifts of New Media are here in abundance. And like another famous Geek, er, Greek, they all have the Midas Touch of gold.