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The gadget man of the CEA looks at the electronics that are hot now, and the ones to watch for.

More than perhaps anyone else in the world, how we Americans do love our toys. Even when the dollar is shrinking and unemployment is soaring, we seem to find room in the budget for those gadgets and electronics that make our lives a little more entertaining, if not always simpler. The business of the Consumer Electronics Association is to track what, why, and how much when it comes to Americans and their electronics-buying habits, and some of the data they come up with is remarkable. CEA spokesperson Jim Barry recently talked about what’s hot now, and what might be in the future.

What are the gadgets that are not well-known now, but that could catch fire this holiday season?

Some items that are still relatively unknown that may see a genuine surge this year include portable DVRs like those from Archos, RCA, and Apex. The prices are getting lower and the addition of video capability to a portable music player has a certain appeal.

Home DVRs, including TiVo and especially those included in cable boxes, are still in only 10 percent or so of American households, so there is lots of upside there, too.

Likewise, what are some products that have already seen their best days in the marketplace?

The obvious product that has seen its time come and go is the VCR, although we’ll still buy more than a million of them this year. Analog TV has also begun to wane too, although unit sales will still approach 20 million this year and will be significant for several years to come.

One figure cited in CEA’s study–that the average number of TVs in American homes has risen from 2.4 to 3.1 over the past year–is mind-boggling. Is high-def taking off, or are people just suddenly putting TVs in more rooms?

The number of TV sets per household is truly remarkable, I agree–of itself, and in that it jumped in the last few years. I do think the emergence of digital TV is part of the equation, but also think that the simple fact that more of us are buying big screen sets to replace a still-functioning smaller size adds to it.

What usually happens is, the older set moves to the bedroom, kid’s room or somewhere else. We’ve also seen lots of small-size sets installed in kitchens and just anywhere else in the house.

Does the uptick in high-def sales mean that consumers have become more discriminating, or simply that price points have become agreeable?

The uptick in hi-def sales is a result of a convergence of factors, including lower prices, increased high-def program availability from both cable channels and networks, and increased support and promotion by cable operators–those are the companies whom 70 percent of households rely on for their TV.

While high-def TV has taken off, it seems high-res audio is falling flat. Would you agree, and if so, why is that?

Hi-res audio is slower to catch on for a number of reasons. High-quality audio has always been a niche product and I think this new generation of hi-res products will behave similarly. And while it’ll most likely never attain mass market numbers I think it will continue to grow.

A limiting factor has been a small amount of programs. As that grows I think hi-res audio will reach its appropriate level of acceptance.

Some are saying that sales of digital cameras are flattening for good, and they’re blaming manufacturers for failing to convince consumers that digital imaging is here to stay. What will be necessary to ramp up camera sales again?

I would disagree with the view that sales of digital cameras are flattening for good. With household penetration jut past 50 percent there’s still lots of room for growth. And while the recent double-digit annual growth rates may have slowed, if you include all iterations of digital cameras including those included in phones the growth rate is still impressive.

Michael Krasny, the founder of CDW, has been touting the potential of flexible, paper-thin screens that can be rolled up and used with mobile gadgets. Is this a realistic product idea?

Flexible paper-thin screens are indeed a fascinating product idea. I think they’re still a ways away as a consumer product and we’ll see them in commercial applications before mass acceptance.

What’s next in portable audio players? Increased capacity, enhanced feature sets, or something else?

Portable audio players are getting increased capacity–look at the Toshiba Gigabeat with up to a 60GB memory. Additions include picture capability, a la the iPod Photo, but also the video capability of portable DVRs, as I mentioned before.

Specialty products are also increasingly in vogue like the Oakley sunglasses MP3 player, the Philips Keyring tiny unit, or the RCA mini Lyra–it’s splashproof and includes a calorie counter and pulse rate monitor.

How close are we to the integrated, inexpensive, one-remote, idiot-proof digital entertainment center?

Totally integrated digital home entertainment centers are already here in various forms from cable or satellite providers including DVRs. The single remote feature is still a challenge.

Do we really need an all-in-one PDA that contains the functionality of a BlackBerry, cell phone, and MP3 player?

The all-in-one phone/PDA/music player/Web browser/camera/etc. is here and getting better all the time.

The concept–and some products–has been around for half a dozen years but lots of folks still find they don’t need all those functions in one.

Dan Heilman is editor of ComputerUser.

We Heart Gadgets

U.S. households now own an average of 25 consumer electronics products, according to the 2005 “CE Ownership and Market Potential” study released recently by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). In fact, each U.S. household typically spends more than $1,250 annually on consumer electronics (CE) products. The study also reveals that households are equally enthusiastic about their content, owning on average approximately 100 music CDs, more than 40 DVD movies, and 16 video games.

The ongoing transition from analog products to digital products continues to power growth in the CE industry. The study shows that the average U.S. home now has 3.1 television sets, up from an average of 2.4 sets last year. Digital high-definition televisions (HDTVs) are present in roughly 13 percent of households, flat-panel televisions in about 10 percent of homes, digital video recorders (DVRs) in almost 10 percent, and DVD players will soon be in more homes than VCRs.

In many categories, the transition is more than just a move to digital, but rather a move away from products that use physical media (such as CDs) and a move towards hard drive-based products (such portable MP3 players). The portable MP3 player category shattered all expectations last year by more than doubling unit shipment volumes and nearly tripling revenues to $1.2 billion. These devices now can be found in approximately 15 percent of homes.

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