This column originally appeared on the Writers Guild East website.
January, 2008. The calendars have it wrong. Early January is actually the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The time of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Yes, it's a madhouse circus. But it's Disneyland for adults. A menagerie of All Things Tech that will come pouring down on you during the coming year, and years to come around the corner.
There was something particularly fascinating about CES this year: it's that there was so much that wasn't fascinating. But I mean that in a good way.
For many years, CES has been on the verge. There's long been a promise of "convergence" or integration. Where technologies were just on the edge of blending with one another, or being finally mature, being so rich and developed that they were second nature. In several fields this year, that was finally the case. Not that anything was settled -- technology is so fast-changing it wouldn't allow that -- but there was a notable leap which entered that arena.
Three areas stood out as deeply uninteresting for being so mature: LCD-TVs, digital cameras and cell phones. Time was when it was exciting wandering through these particular CES fields and looking at what they had to offer. Now, it's just so overwhelming. Not so much fields but ocean waves washing over you. And the lowest ends were so vibrant that it became almost too much. You wanted to yell out, "Yes, I get it, you're all great, amazing, but honestly the buzz words you use to describe your differences are meaningless to even nuclear physicists." To have someone breathlessly explain that they offer the world's first XJ-25 adapter with non-double interlaced scan resistors for InstaClick accessibility is just mumbo-jumbo. They're all that good. Yes, certain things stood out, when your brain could focus, but for the most part, you just figure it's best to wait until you're in the market for a TV, camera or cell phone, and that's when you'll see what's on the shelves.
Okay, having said all that, here's one digital camera that somehow managed to stand out -- from of all places, Casio, who does make the very good Exilim line. This is at their high end, the EX-F1. It not only takes up to a remarkable 60 images a second (!) that lets you get every conceivable opportunity for capturing the perfect instant, but a buffer setting lets you "pre-record" an image without actually taking the picture. (Their example is if you're at the zoo, and a dolphin leaps out of the water. It's too fast for you, and by the time you begin snapping, it's high in the air. With the buffer on, you can just scroll back and grab the shot you missed. Pretty darn snazzy.) Further, it can take high-speed continuous video. Most high-speed is around 300 frames/second. This can shoot at up to (ready?) 1,200 frames a second. The results were dazzling. The retail price will be in the range of $900-1,000.
Casio also is developing many of its cameras that allow for iTunes connectivity, which will simplify transferring pictures (and video) to an iPod. The Exilim SX-10 is one such model, in the $280 range.
To display all your new digital photos, digital picture frames are sprouting everywhere like weeds. More than just the once-simple display units, they now are wi-fi compatible and many can support MPEG files to show video, as well, like the Xias PF-821F. (Certainly, the high-end companies have it, but the point here is that even the lesser-knows are part of the game.)
For those of you who like to take underwater shots (or are clumsy around pools), Sanyo has a waterproof model, the VPC-E1. It's only waterproof to 1.5 meters though, so those deep-sea efforts will have to wait.
Also in the area of digital photography, the VieVu PVR-Pro offers an oddly-interesting product. It's a cigarette pack-sized video camera hung around the neck, allowing you to video-record whatever you see, leaving your hands and eyes free. In business applications, for instance, police can video all their interactions, or video bloggers can record their efforts while taking notes and holding normal conversations. At home, the parent assigned the job of standing apart to make a video of events can now return to participating, even while recording. It appears to works well, particularly when walking is kept to a minimum or the pace is reasonably slow. But even at a quicker step, the bumping-effect didn't appear unwatchable, though in fairness this was just a brief demo. The home version retails for $500.
And though cell phones were indeed an ocean unto themselves, as noted, some of the technology stands out, as the field develops further.
Mobivox is one such item. Unlike much of the better-known VoIP Internet phone services, like Skype, Mobivox lets you use any telephone, not requiring a special phone that ties you to one location. And the cost for long distance and international calling is near-free (and even completely free in some instances). You register on their website for free, and from there get a local access phone number - a free call. You'll then get voice prompts for the long-distance number you want to reach, and then you're connected. That's it. For use to or from 40 countries, calls cost only 1.9-cents a minute. But if you're calling someone who's registered with Mobivox - in any of the 40 countries - those calls are free. There appear to be some limitations in different countries whether cell phones can be used to make calls, but the website describes those options. The service works for all countries, but rates will be higher than for the Top 40.
Another VoIP option is MagicJack. This is a small $40 device you plug into a USB port on your computer, and then plug a regular telephone into that. MagicJack assigns you a phone number and from then on you can make all the long-distance calls you want for $20 a year. (The first year is included in the $40 device.) This requires a high-speed Internet connection, though you can move the MagicJack around to any computer.
Callwave is a completely different kind of service, but what this does (among other things) is convert the phone messages you get - using voice recognition - and transfer them into text, which will then be forwarded to you on any mobile device. You can then respond via email.
Recognition software goes in a different direction from EPOS, sold in the U.S. by Dane-Elec. The core product in its line is basically a USB-flash drive pen. No expensive special paper is required, like most such items. Clip a small receiver on any paper, and whatever you write with the pen is saved on its enclosed flash-drive. You plug this into your computer, and it opens as a graphic file - however, if you want a text document that you can edit, the hand-recognition software did an extremely good job in its demo converting this to a text .rtf file. EPOS also makes another pen product that doubles as a mouse and will display whatever your write in real-time on your computer screen. This image can also then be converted to a text file.
If a digital pen expands the area of your home office, taking that office with you everywhere gets a boost with Fujitsu's ScanSnap Mobile S300. Weighing just three pounds, this is a very small, portable, scanner that will scan in color and do two sides of a document at the same time. There's a 10-page sheet feeder, and it creates a standard .pdf file. The ScanSnap runs either plugged into a computer's USB port or with AC power, and retails for $295.
And shrinking your home office further, putting it in your pocket, SanDisk has its Cruzer Titanium Plus USB flash drive. The same as any such portable flash drive, the "Plus" part adds automatic online backup for safety. With password protection, set-up is instantaneous and all your files are backed up to a online location. A 4 gig flash drive goes for only $60. The first six months of online service are free, and then it's $30 a year after that.
Simplicity for dummies, in fact, has become a recurring theme for many products. Clickfree offers its own brain-dead easy product for people who never backup their computer (which, alas, is most people), largely because they're too bewildered or terrified of the process. Clickfree is a small, portable, external hard drive that has backup software installed on it already - and pre-configured (though you can change it later to your own preferences). As soon as you plug the Clickfree into a USB port, the backup software automatically launches and knows to look for any file on your computer with any of the 400 most popular extensions for data. (.doc files, .rtf., mp3, .pdf, .jpg and so on - documents, music, photos, that sort of thing.) And after finding them, it will automatically back everything up. Then, unplug the drive, and you're done. When you plug it in the next time, it knows not to re-copy files that haven't changed. At the moment, Clickfree comes in a 120 gigabyte drive for $149, though other sizes will be released during the year.
The Tornado also falls into the ease-of-use category. (In fact, they are marketing a "...for Dummies" version.) This is a device for transferring files between computers. Basically, you attach pull-out cords from the device, plug it in to the computers you want to transfer files from and to, and an easy interface pops up on both monitors, letting you find and select whatever you want to move. It appears to be very fast. Later in the year, the company plans to have a version for transferring files between a PC and a Mac.
And the Yoggie Gatekeeper is an all-in-one device for protecting your system with simplicity, taking away any need to understand the many options. The small device is a USB plug-in that has 13 applications built into it - antivirus, antispyware, antispam, firewall and such. All are third-party program that Yoggie has deals with, and they appear high-end. (For instance, it uses the excellent Kaspersky for antivirus and spyware.) It retails for $199, which includes a $99 three-year subscription for the service. No updating of the various software is necessary, since that's all done automatically. You just leave it plugged into your computer, and you're protected.
With all this mass of technology, the concept of batteries and recharging is never far from mind. And "green" recharging took a major leap this year. Solio offers a wide line of battery chargers that work by both solar power or AC. Greenplug deals with the problem of energy spill (known as phantom power drain), and knows to shut itself off when something is fully charged. In a different twist, Chargepod has a way to get rid of your bagful of chargers, offering a simple, elegant device with six plugs that allows for multiple charging - it costs $99, or you can individually select the plugs you need for only slightly more.
Once upon a time, notebooks were the drawing star of CES, but that's less a case these days. Still, some manage to stand out. Toshiba has one-such impressive model, the aptly-named G45AV690. (Okay, it's a terrible name, but so are most things at CES.) This all-in-one gem has a rewritable HD-DVD drive, a 17" super-sharp Qosmio screen, 1080p graphics, Harman/Kardon 5.1 surroundsound speakers that include a sub-woofer on the bottom (!), webcam, fingerscanner, dual hard drives, and an HDMI link to connect to a television...and plenty more. It's not small or inexpensive (at $3,200), but it packs lots of high quality for those who need it.
On the far other end of the spectrum, is the ASUSTek Eee PC for a mere $259, though to be fair this is intended for beginners.
On a higher-level of smallness is the LG UltraMobile PC. Absolutely tiny with a 4.8" touch-sensitive screen, it's not available in the U.S. just yet. Its Chiclet-like keys might be problematic. (Though that's less of a problem with a competitor, the still-impressive miniscule OQO ultra-compact.) The LG will come with a 40 gigabyte hard drive, 1 gig of RAM, runs Vista Home Premium and includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
Having mentioned how the world of television has become its own unearthly CES universe, there is nonetheless much worth noting - if not for the impressive sets themselves, then for where the technology is headed, blending TV with the Internet and beyond. At the very least, it's notable for being the issue at the heart of the Writers Guild interests, when it struck against the AMPTP corporations.
Samsung offers its InfoLink and Sharp its AQUOS Net services (and no doubt other LCD TV companies offer their own versions), which employ Internet TV (IPTV) protocols to integrate New Media content directly into the TV set itself, with third-party deals. (AQUOS Net partners with NBC Universal, among others. Samsung has a partnership with Cinema Now that offers a huge library of movies for download.) All manner of "lifestyle" choices are at the touch of a button, providing RSS feeds to the Internets with headlines, traffic, weather, sports and more, through on an onscreen widget. "We think IPTV will change the way we interact with our TV," is the way the way Dr. Jungwoo Park, president of Samsung, describes it.
The company ICTV brings interactivity and control of Web videos to the television through your existing cable box. No other hardware is needed. Using the ActiveVideo service, viewers navigate high-quality videos with their regular TV remote control. Another company, Channelme.TV lets you create your own personal online broadcast channel.
Indeed where you watch television - almost re-defining what television is - is blended with New Media. Alcatel-Lucent and ICO Global Communications have partnered to provide Mobile TV programming. The product, ICO mim ™, will send up to 15 channels of pre-encoded video to your portable monitor via a satellite network. Slingmedia, which won a technical Emmy Award last year, lets you send your TV signal to most any wi-fi-enabled device, allowing you to watch television almost anywhere through its Slingbox. Its new SlingCatcher takes anything you have on your PC - movies, TV, video - and syncs it with your television. Using the SlingCatcher and Slingbox together, therefore, means you can watch or listen to anything from your PC on any wi-fi device, anywhere. Similarly, another company, Streambox, will soon be able to send video from cable TV and satellite TV to smart phones or other wi-mobile devices. They're currently dealing with CNN and Fox as partners.
Indeed, the blending of TV, Internet, movies, video-on-demand and PVR recording (like Tivo) can be seen clearly in Microsoft's Mediaroom. This is remarkable product that integrates all that aforementioned media in one experience. On the CNN Politics screen, for example, you watch their TV broadcast live, with links on the side to ever-changing options. When a political candidate came on screen during the newscast, you could choose from options like: Candidate. Bio. Polls. News.
It's a new world - except that it's been around long enough that it's not all that new any more. Gimp.TV has a rich service, somewhat like a massive television network, that provides Internet TV channels offering sponsored programs. Their software assists individuals and companies for uploading their content to the Internet. These then are blended with online forums, articles, and products for sale in a significant e-commerce experience. It's no small venue - one of their programs, "Fuel Time," is sponsored by Ford. Some shows get almost 3 million downloads. They call themselves the HBO of the Internet.
And all this integration of TV, movies and the Internet doesn't even take into consideration the new Apple movie deal with iTunes, and Netflix's "Watch Instantly" movie service.
There's so much more. Too much more. iPods and their accessories are everywhere, built into everything: JVC has a docking port built into to its TVs so that you can play your iPod video direct. On the simpler end, the iMainGo 2 is an elegant speaker system for portable iPod stereo. In addition, the iPod...oh, never mind. Really, their accessories are everywhere.
There finally appears to be a leader in the High-Definition DVD wars, and it's looking like Blu-Ray. Though it might be good to finally be nearing a standard, the downside is that this protocol has metadata options more directly built-into its players, allowing for personal user data to be more easily transmitted to parent companies, meaning more erosion of personal privacy.
A quick word about a product I reviewed last year - the Audio-Technica AT-LP2D, a wonderful turntable that connects to your computer and allows for easy conversion of old LPs into digital sound files to create MP3 or burn as CDs. I had loved the player, but my one major quibble was that it only could be plugged into a sound card, meaning it wouldn't work with most notebook computers without buying an adapter. Well, the company now offers a USB version, so you're all covered, and the quibble is gone.
In the end, of course, CES isn't just littered with the remarkable, but also the odd. And that's an important part of the joy of CES.
One product, although extremely odd, is fascinating and even, well...admirable. Meridian Health has partnered with Isaac Daniel LLC to build a GPS tracking device into - athletic shoes. It's for families who have someone (most likely a child, but obviously anyone) who has a health risk, and this way you can always keep track of where they are.
JVC leaps beyond the admirable back into the plan, old odd with its "Snap and Gesture" interface for television. No remote control device is needed - you control the TV with hand movements and finger snaps. Yes, you read that correctly. Objects, looking like balls, appear on the screen to help direct you. When I asked what would happen if two people had different ideas of what to watch, or what the volume should be, and began waving at the screen and snapping together at the same time?, the JVC rep acknowledged that there might be a few family arguments. (Now, toss a hyperactive child into the mix...) Happily, the product is only a prototype at the moment.
But the winner of Odd Product - 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. Ah, what the Viking ancestors must be thinking now...
Then again, what any distant ancestor would be thinking if they walked around CES is a concept not to imagine. After all, "distant ancestor" is far too historic. Consider that only two decades ago, the DVD wasn't even around. And DVDs will be disappearing soon enough as technology whizzes past.
Buckle your seatbelts. The ride is a blur, but amazing.
To see this column in its entirety with graphics of all the products mentioned, go to the Writers Guild East website.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg