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Gadgets Galore To Make Home Entertaining

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, January 8, 2004; Page E01


The long-promised dream of digital home entertainment networks seems closer to reality than ever at the annual gadget extravaganza known as the Consumer Electronics Show, which kicked off yesterday with a dazzling lineup of new contraptions.

American computer makers and Asian electronics giants touted rival visions of how people might manage libraries of digital music and movies, and their products make it clear that innovation is back in style after a three-year slump.

Gibson Audio chief technical officer Philip Usatine shows off the Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Leslie Walker - The Washington Post)

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The new gear on display seems so diverse that consumers are likely to be overwhelmed. Change is roiling the electronics industry so fast that folks who buy today may kick themselves when rival products reach stores months later.

Debates still rage in backrooms over new formats for playing digital video and music, but companies are rushing products to market because they sense opportunity in two events -- advances in digital processing and storage power that are slashing costs, and more high-speed Internet connections to homes.

As a result, Sony Corp.; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which makes Panasonic products; and other Asian home electronics giants face fresh challenges from U.S. computer makers such as Dell Inc., Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. All are here showing new gear alongside new entrants as diverse as Gibson Guitar Corp. and Shell Oil Co.

Shell's HomeGenie networking system controls home lighting, appliances and thermostats remotely, using a cell phone, computer or handheld organizer. HomeGenie also has a motion sensor tied to a Web cam that, when tripped, fires off e-mail or instant messages to homeowners.

More impressive was Gibson's Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox, a futuristic-looking silver machine scheduled to reach retail stores by fall. It reflects the company's belief that people don't want to manage home entertainment with complicated computers. The Wurlitzers help create digital music libraries without the hassle of ripping and burning music files on PCs.

"This is targeted at a demographic that doesn't want to fiddle with computers," said Philip Usatine, Gibson's chief technical officer. "We spent a lot of time on ease of use."

Stick a CD into the Wurlitzer and it lets people create playlists with a touch-screen remote control. An online Wurlitzer music subscription service also is planned. The 41/2-foot-tall deluxe model holds 1,000 CDs and will sell for about $1,800. A cheaper tabletop version also is planned.

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