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Innovation Celebration
Spotlight Is on Digital Vanguard, From Profound to Silly

By Mike Musgrove and Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

If the consumer electronics industry is right, we will soon be receiving weather advisories from our coffee makers every morning before we hop in the car to watch some satellite TV, all the while surfing the Web on our cellphones. If the carpoolers in the back seat don't like what's on, they can always watch David Letterman or "CSI" on their own phones. Consumer electronics makers are showing off the latest software and gadget tricks from their research-and-development teams at the Consumer Electronics Show, which opened yesterday in Las Vegas. And because the expo is designed to be a showcase for everything electronic or digital, its floor -- with 2,700 exhibitors -- can be a strange mix.

In one corner, a software company is showing off the latest data backup product; in another, an audio equipment company has rolled in monster trucks to show off the chest-thumping bass of its new car stereo systems.

Some of the new devices and services being showcased this week are actually already available in some form. But some of the pie-in-the-sky technologies that will generate a buzz at the conference may never make it to market or may fizzle without much fanfare on retail shelves.

Regardless, a peek at something new at CES, no matter whether it makes it commercially, gives the world a chance to see what innovative minds in the industry are working on. Eventually, that's good for consumer choice, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington trade group that produces the event.

"What almost all of these products, technologies and announcements have in common is that they change the status quo," Shapiro said in his keynote speech yesterday. "They create something new, and by doing so they challenge something old. They give consumers a new choice."

This year, the consumer technology industry seems determined unlock the entertainment that's on a computer and deliver it to the living room TV set. There's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to do that, as companies from Sony to SanDisk all pitch their own technologies -- incompatible with their competitors', of course -- to bridge the computer-to-TV gap.

It's also an issue that many analysts and techies are expecting to hear about soon from Apple, which has its own trade show this week in San Francisco.

Chief executive Steve Jobs is scheduled to speak this morning at the show, Macworld, and many expect him to launch iTV, a product he announced in that fall that will connect iTunes downloads to the TV set.

One of the most popular rumors, though not a new one, is that the company is also going to roll out a mobile phone that doubles as a music player.

So hot is connectivity to TVs this year that, at the consumer show, Microsoft's Bill Gates highlighted the company's vision of consumers using their Xbox 360 video game consoles to watch videos from the Web via Internet protocol television.

And why not watch that programming on a nine-foot television set? There's an informal competition of sorts at CES every year among companies trying to display the biggest TV. This year's winner seems to be Sharp, with a 108-inch LCD screen. The company was mum about how much the giant set would cost but said it should be available this summer.

Microsoft's crowd pleasers yesterday included Sports Lounge, software for Media Center PCs that delivers Fox Sports news and statistics around a TV broadcast of a game.

There was also software from Microsoft that allows photographers combine pictures to produce better images, instead of the less-desirable images that, say, capture family members with their eyes closed.

Last year's new rivalry still poses the biggest question in the consumer technology industry: Which format will replace the DVD as the high-definition standard now that DVD sales have flattened out? Advocates for both of the next-generation DVD movie standards -- HD-DVD and Blu-ray -- held news conferences yesterday, each declaring an early victory for their formats.

As CES continues this week, the waves of announcements can generally be classified into a few categories:

The weird: Sears said it is opening a virtual showroom in the Second Life online world, allowing do-it-yourselfers to fix up virtual versions of their homes. The company is hoping the virtual space will spark real-world sales.

The useful: A few companies are showing off wireless speaker systems designed for iPods so that music lovers don't have to string wires through their homes.

The somewhere-in-between: DirecTV revealed a suitcase-size satellite system that can travel with you and pick up signals on the go. And the $200 "Melitta Smart Mill & Brew 10-Cup Programmable Coffee Maker with MSN Direct Weather" receives forecasts via FM.

Noguchi reported from Las Vegas.

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