Photo: Chad Vander Veen
In early January, Sin City was once again transformed into a showcase for the latest and greatest gadgets from around the world. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is one of the largest trade shows in the world. In 2008, the four-day event attracted 140,000 attendees from 140 countries, 2,700 exhibitors -- and covered almost 2 million square feet of exhibit space. CES is so large that it cannot be contained in the massive Las Vegas Convention Center alone. To accommodate exhibitors and attendees, CES also had satellite facilities in the Sands Expo and Convention Center at The Venetian as well as the Las Vegas Hilton.
CES attendees are confronted with the boggling task of navigating the show floor. In fact, there's so much to see and so much ground to cover, CES actually provides shuttle service from one end of the Convention Center to the other. Other shuttles run every 10 minutes to move people to and from The Venetian. Those who attend CES to marvel at technological wonders may be surprised to learn just how much work it takes to traverse the show and get a glimpse of the thousands of electronics.
There were plenty of gadgets to drool over at CES, and plenty to steer clear of as well. Most in attendance would agree the heaviest hitter of the show, and also one of the physically biggest, was Panasonic's 150-inch HD plasma behemoth. A crowd favorite, the giant was never short of gawkers mesmerized by its 12-and-a-half foot, corner-to-corner screen. Literally weighing almost a ton, the titanic television made the company's 108-inch screen -- which it introduced three years ago -- seem downright diminutive.
It seemed every exhibitor had HD on the brain as most booths boasted of some sort of high-definition display capability. Those able to make their way through the slew of HDTVs, somewhat smaller cell phones and the latest laptops (slightly higher performance than last year!) could find some things worth a second look. While not as prominently positioned as the giant TVs, Microsoft Surface is one technology that is both practical and astounding.
Invoking fond memories of pizza parlor Ms. Pac-Man machines, Surface is a touchscreen tabletop PC that users control with their hands and fingers. One demonstrator showed how easy it is to place a digital camera on Surface and, using one finger, drag images to and from the camera and the hard drive. Also shown: a finger-painting tool, an interactive wine guide and a travel planner -- all of which can be used without a mouse or keyboard, though a soft, virtual keyboard is available onscreen. The interface is very much like the feature-laden computer terminals as depicted in the sci-fi film Minority Report, in which applications were programmed for control via a multi-touch, reactive screen. Microsoft expects the first Surface units to run up to $10,000 each, but figures that price will drop after several years.
Forgive the cliche, but thin was most definitely in at CES. Big names like JVC, LG and Hitachi proudly showed off their ultra-slender LCD TVs -- each of which had a girth of less than two inches. That's skinnier than a business card is tall. But the most anorexic of the bunch were Sony's OLED TVs and a concept TV from Pioneer. OLED, or organic light emitting diode, is a technology that allows for screens that are truly paper thin. Though it debuted last year, Sony's flexible OLED screens were again a big hit with attendees. And Pioneer's 50-inch plasma TV measured just under 10 mm thick. There was no manufacturer's suggested retail price for the Pioneer TV, which may not be available for a year or two. Buyers hoping to snap up the 11-inch screen, 3-mm-thick Sony OLED TV can expect to pay $2,000 or more.
Storage capacity was another hot ticket at CES. Several companies announced the arrival of advanced flash memory storage drives. Intel showed off its dime-sized 2 and 4 GB cards while SanDisk and Samsung displayed Compact Flash drives that offered up to 128 GB as well as memory cards with 8 GB of capacity. Samsung and Hitachi also chose CES to introduce 500 GB laptop hard drives, besting the current champ by 180 GB.
Since this was the Consumer Electronics Show, TVs were lords of the realm. Beyond those already mentioned were 3-D TVs (with special glasses, of course), waterproof TVs, even TVs that let two people watch two different things on the same screen at the same time (also with special glasses). One nifty bit of tech made for one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments. An outfit called Vievu was showing the crowd its wearable video technology. Also referred to as a personal video recording device, the Altoids container-sized camera clips onto a user's collar or belt and features a 4 GB flash drive that can store more than fours hours of VGA-quality video. Since Vievu uses flash instead of a spinning hard drive, the only moving part is a lens cover that turns the unit on and off. Exposing the lens starts recording, while covering the lens ends it. Once the recording is ended, the unit automatically saves the recording as an individual file. Vievu also claims the unit is ruggedized and essentially weatherproof. As long as high definition is not a requirement, this little camera beats the heck out of carrying around a handheld recorder. Depending on the model, buyers can expect to pay $500 to $700.
One of the most hilarious gadgets came courtesy of the makers of the insanely popular Guitar Hero III. The Guitar Hero games find players strumming along to popular rock songs using a game controller-guitar hybrid. Guitar Hero III is one of the best-selling games of the year, and the developers gave their official backing to a product that made its debut at CES -- Guitar Hero Air Guitar Rocker. Now, instead of being encumbered by a pseudo-guitar and video game console, players can pantomime their way to geek rock stardom using only a special bracelet and belt buckle with built-in speaker.
Somewhere in the cavernous convention center was the "international" part of CES. After a cursory inspection, it seems that China, South Korea and Taiwan made up 99 percent of the international exhibitors. Row after row, exhibitors hawked low-cost power supply units, PC cases, and Webcams, as well as components and cables of all variety. There were also a number of children's toys, some of which were genuinely terrifying. One such item was an iPod dock for the little ones in the form of some sort of pig and insect hybrid/mutant. With huge, black eyes and a glowing mouth, those not traumatized by the mere sight of the machine can insert an iPod into its back and control the volume by touching the ears.
Another ubiquitous doodad was the personal video screen. Every sixth booth had its own version of what was essentially a pair of glasses with built-in video screens and little speakers. Most accepted input from a variety of sources, such as TVs, video game consoles, DVD players and video iPods. Some were of better quality than others, but most succeeded in giving the user an engrossing experience by simulating the sound and sight of a home theater.
Perhaps the biggest story of CES was the latest development in the high-definition DVD format war. Though claiming only a sliver of the home video market, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray Disc have been battling for next-generation supremacy. Both formats offer beautiful images, but the higher-capacity Blu-Ray Disc had been holding onto a commanding lead, thanks largely to the Sony PlayStation 3's built-in Blu-Ray player. Though more expensive to manufacture than HD-DVD, Blu-Ray had won
exclusive deals from a majority of Hollywood studios. A day prior to CES, what many believe was the final nail in HD-DVD's coffin came when Warner Bros.
announced it too would switch from producing both formats to becoming Blu-Ray exclusive. With their respective -- and massive -- booths almost side by side, the Blu-Ray camp was abuzz with attendees whereas the HD-DVD display was a virtual ghost town. While many in the geek set decry both formats obsolete in favor of streaming media, the industry seems to acknowledge the fact that slow consumer adoption, as well as technological incapability, means widespread application of streaming high-def content is a long way off.
There were countless other devices to take note of -- home media servers, GPS devices, and largely useless robots -- but high-definition technology ruled. From the monster displays at the Panasonic, Sharp and Sanyo booths to wireless HDTV sets for those fed up with the requisite rat's nest of cables, high definition defined the 2008 CES.
Perhaps the only real drawback to CES is its sheer size. A few days out of the office to attend might seem like a good time, but it turned out to be lot more taxing than relaxing. The show requires attendees to literally walk miles to try to take it all in. After a few seconds spent at one booth wondering what the heck this thing is they're showing off, it's time to move on to the next gadget. Even being there the full four days isn't enough time and at the end of the day, most people wearily trudge off to their hotel rooms to reflect on the enormity of it all.
CES is an exciting yet ultimately tiring experience. By the time it's all over, attendees might find they're glad to be back home where the people are few and the gadgets fewer.