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CES: Gadgets to Excess

By Jim Bray

Some 122,000 technophiles converged on Las Vegas over the first weekend of January for the annual Consumer Electronics Show.

This year's show seemed smaller and less populated than others I've attended, though that's really just a feeling. Still, there were plenty of nifty toys on display, gadgets that we'll undoubtedly be seeing in our neighborhood stores in the months and years to come.

2001 didn't really seem to be a year for breakthrough technologies, like when DVD's were introduced. Many of the things on display this year were merely new applications of existing technology, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

For instance, one of the "Innovations Award" winners was a frying pan! Not just any frying pan, naturally. The Smart Pan resembles a conventional item of kitchen ordnance, but with a sensor mounted in the handle to keep track of when your burner has reached the proper cooking temperature. Better still, it'll also let you know if the temperature gets too high, potentially saving your prize creation from turning into a little black rock suitable only for use as a doorstop.

A minor innovation, perhaps, but it could make life a little easier for cooks - and insurance companies.

Not surprisingly, everyone was demonstrating high definition television (HDTV), even companies that don't make televisions. This is good news, because it shows the format is catching on, though it'll still be several years before it takes over.

Also not surprisingly, electronic gizmos continue to get smaller. You're probably familiar with the likes of Palms and Pocket PC's, but Casio is upping the incredible shrinking microprocessor ante with a gadget that would do Dick Tracy proud. Its PC Unite puts Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) functions into a wristwatch, and upcoming models will also offer global positioning satellite and digital cameras.

Samsung, which threw a wonderfully ostentatious media bash at the Bellagio Hotel, also has a wristwatch unit that doubles as a phone, Web Browser and MP3 player, while Palm proclaimed that its hand held device operating system is now appearing on some cellular phones from companies like Kyocera and Nokia. This means you'll be able to use the one unit to serve as both a mobile phone and PDA.

Hard disk TV recorders appear to be spreading as rapidly as the "I Love You" computer virus. Companies ranging from Panasonic, which is using Replay's technology in its "Showstopper" models, and Sony (which has chosen Replay's main competitor Tivo) now offer units that can record in excess of thirty hours of TV's mindless drivel.

I wish you could merely buy the box itself and use it as a "digital VCR" without getting tied into their enhanced program guide services at the same time. Such recorders will come, possibly later this year, but so far the purveyors of these VCR replacements seem intent on saddling you with the programming service.

This is a shame because, where I live, neither Replay's nor Tivo's singing and dancing on screen program guide is available and, since the services are integral to their boxes, I can't use such units (and I want to try one very much!).

RCA and Sony are taking the digital video recorder concept a step further by hopping into bed with Microsoft to offer "Ultimate TV," a concept that blends a conventional digital satellite system with digital video recorder and WebTV services, all in a single set top box.

Now that DVD's are becoming entrenched in our homes they're moving into our wheels as well. Many companies showed off LCD screens designed to work with mobile DVD players that you mount inside your favorite vehicle. They let you play DVD movies on the road, which might be an ideal way to keep the kids from fighting while you're on a long trip - though it could also be the cause of new fights as they argue over which disc to play!

Unless, of course, you were to install a six disc DVD changer (the Sony model I saw looks virtually identical to the caddy type of CD changers that have been in cars for years), in which case you can probably appease them all.

Just remember: the screen shouldn't be mounted where it'll tempt the driver's eyes to stray from their duties, especially if you're playing a movie like "The Road Warrior."

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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Updated May 13, 2006