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CES = BIG

A report from the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show

If I had to come up with a one-word description of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it would have to be big: 2,200 exhibitors, 122,000 visitors, and 1.2 million square feet big. However, the feet I measured it with were my own, and after three days of seemingly endless walking, my dogs were dead and my brain was mush. Not only is the Las Vegas Convention Center huge, but exhibits filled several massive outbuildings and a couple of nearby hotels. Taken as a whole, the array of gadgetry was equally overwhelming–if the economy is slowing down, CES certainly wouldn’t be the place to prove it. In their CES keynotes, Intel’s Craig Barrett declared the PC alive and well; Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft’s high-powered Xbox gaming system; and Palm’s Carl Yankowski demonstrated a future in which PDAs could act as digital wallets, beaming transactions to cash registers or remote Web sites and keeping track of your credit.

It seemed like every other exhibitor was showing off their latest MP3 players: plain-vanilla, Dick Tracy wrist models, 500-hour hard-drive units, and A/V and auto component combos with CD or DVD units, to name a few. Internet appliances of all descriptions also sprouted up everywhere. Another pervasive theme was satellite radio, with a couple of broadcasters (XM and Sirius) and lots of hardware makers vying to render mere AM/FM obsolete in everything from your car to your PC. Speaking of PCs and satellites, DirecPC showed off its new two-way satellite broadband service, which eliminates the need for a phone line for uplink. Besides speeding up service, this truly untethers users, from RV owners to those out in the boonies.

As ever, the format wars rage on. Probably the most prominent example of this is in DVD technology. Rewritable DVD has the distinct promise of finally killing videotape after its record two-decade run, as well as providing inexpensive removable storage and backup for today’s large PC hard drives. Manufacturers are salivating at the prospect of developing the proprietary scheme that everyone else will have to license. Of course, the result of all this jockeying for position is multiple competing “standards,” mass consumer confusion and a very muddled marketplace. Given the large and growing population of DVD players, the rewritable Holy Grail is a format that can be read by existing DVD players and DVD-ROM drives. The most compatible of these is called DVD+RW, promoted by a consortium of companies including Philips, Ricoh, Sony and Hewlett-Packard. DVD+RW has been “just around the corner” for three years, and skeptics wonder if they’ll ever deliver. However, the consortium demonstrated working prototype units at CES (and at Comdex before it), and Real Soon Now may in fact be later this year as promised.

In another optical storage development, a company called DataPlay demonstrated a new format: a two-sided, write-once, 500MB cartridge-encased optical disk just a bit bigger than a quarter. With a price around $10, or almost a couple of orders of magnitude less than equivalent flash-RAM modules, DataPlay hopes to troll the booming MP3 and digital camera markets with their little shiner. Time will tell if this digital “film” (its non-erasability makes it closer to real film than the flash-RAM it wants to replace) will gain public acceptance. Of course, can a rewritable version be far behind?

Speaking of flash RAM, many devices at CES used or supported this technology. Capacities continue to grow and prices are finally starting to drop, with the availability of 256MB Compact Flash (CF) modules and prices under $100 for the popular 64MB size. While CF remains the dominant format, there are several competitors, as usual. Most notably, Panasonic showed off the tiny SD card, developed with Toshiba and SanDisk. “SD” stands for Secure Digital, meaning that copyright protection is built into the cards, which are currently available up to 64MB but are planned to grow to 1 GB in a couple of years. Sony is gamely waving its Memory Stick around and has an impressive array of new devices from dozens of manufacturers using its technology. These range from Sony’s own engaging Aibo robotic dog to a tiny holder that lets you plug a Memory Stick into a USB port. Incidentally, Sony demonstrated its second-generation Aibo (which one wag called “the first draft of a dog”), now smarter/cuter than ever–albeit at a $1500 AKC purebred price. At least Aibo doesn’t eat much, has no vet bills, and doesn’t excrete at all–perhaps the latter will show up in the third generation.

So what was the most memorable gadget I saw at the show? I guess that would have to be the iSmell, from DigiScents, Inc. A device that looks and hooks up like one of those stylized computer speakers, the iSmell synthesizes and emits scents, using a cartridge similar to that of an inkjet printer. It can be controlled by small bits of code embedded in a computer program such as a game (smell the gunsmoke and burning rubber) or Web page (smell the rose on the florist’s page or the baking bread on the supermarket site). Given the power of scent to bring back memories and evoke emotional responses, this one should be a sure hit if they can seed the marketplace with a enough units–for which they’ll likely get plenty of e-commerce and gaming subsidies.

To conclude, suffice it to say that I’ve come back with plenty of fodder for future articles–including 70 pounds of press kits. As I left, exhausted, I asked a colleague to remind me to have my head examined if I came back. But like childbirth (so I’m told), the memory of the pain will fade–I suspect I’m hooked.

Contributing Editor Ken Henningsen is a principal partner in the Interface Group, a Minneapolis provider of online services.

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