Improving Instead of Inventing

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 14, 2007

LAS VEGAS The Consumer Electronics Show amounts to a weeklong State of the Union speech for the computing and electronics industries. Thousands of companies gather here each January, filling acres of exhibits with every imaginable device that can beep, blink or buzz.

The idea behind this excess of gadgetry is to predict the future in the most accurate way possible -- by inventing it.

Many of the products on display at CES, from Internet-connected cellphones that slip into shirt pockets to flat-panel HDTVs that can't fit into the average home, remain far from mass-market relevance, but some will eventually make that leap.

This year's CES, however, didn't offer any clear guidance on what the must-have gizmo of 2008 might be. There was no high-profile launch that captivated everybody's attention in the way that the first high-definition sets did in 1998 or the Xbox did in 2001. This year, CES was more about incremental upgrades than one big breakthrough.

As ever, increasingly spacious flat-panel HDTVs dominated the floor. But the usual who's-got-the-biggest-screen competition seemed to fade this year: Sharp's 108-inch prototype LCD was only a little larger than the 103-inch plasma that Panasonic has been selling to well-heeled, video-obsessed buyers since last year.

The picture for TVs instead was one of the slow, steady improvements that tend to show up in hardware once it moves past the early-adopter market. For example, most manufacturers had at least some LCD or projection TVs that used LED or laser backlights instead of the usual fluorescent lamps, a change that's supposed to yield better color and contrast and longer life. (It will also yield a higher profit margin, at least at the start.)

The more interesting change in video may be coming outside the TV -- aside from the ongoing fiasco of a format war between two incompatible high-definition video disc formats.

For example, Verizon Wireless demonstrated a couple of phones that can tune into its own TV broadcasts -- not blurry content streamed over its data service, but higher-quality video broadcast on a separate signal -- allowing you to watch Comedy Central while you wait for the bus.

And a variety of new vendors exhibited new boxes that could bring Internet video to your TV: Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link, Sling Media's SlingCatcher and networked TVs from Hewlett-Packard and Pioneer. The computer has finally become a TV channel in its own right.

To cement that role, Microsoft showed off an upcoming HP device, called the Windows Home Server, at Bill Gates's keynote speech Sunday evening. It will collect your photos, music and videos and make them available to other devices at home -- PCs, certainly, but also things like the Xbox game console and networked TVs and DVD players.

Apple is doing some of the most interesting work in this category of networked entertainment, from its new iPhone to the Apple TV box that will relay your photos and iTunes songs to a home theater. It had no presence on the CES show floor, saving its exhibits for its own Macworld Expo show in San Francisco, but it still dominated many conversations after Steve Jobs's keynote presentation Tuesday morning.

Other vendors have their own ideas about fusing the Internet with the living room or the kitchen. Kodak showed off a digital picture frame that can use its WiFi connection to download new photos from Kodak's EasyShare Gallery Web site. Seemingly every cordless-phone vendor at CES touted a model designed to connect to a VOIP Internet-phone service for cheap long-distance calling.

Adding new functions to a device that somebody's already planning to buy is a long and honored tradition in the business. Witness the global positioning system receivers that now double as XM satellite-radio players or Bluetooth hands-free kits.

It was only after a couple of days of roaming the show floor that I found two genuinely fascinating, never-seen-before exhibits. Both could legitimately claim to be the stuff of science fiction -- wireless power. And both came from tiny companies located far from the stereotypical hot spots of innovation.

Powercast, of Ligonier, Pa., had an exhibit tucked away in a Philips exhibit hall of its technology, which can beam electrical power to devices three feet away. To recharge over the air, a device needs a tiny circuit board, about the size of a pinky toenail, that should only cost a few dollars.

The eCoupled system developed by Fulton Innovation of Ada, Mich., is more plugless than wireless. It flows power into any compatible device touching a charging surface -- a phone left on a car's armrest, a smart phone dropped on a cradle, a kitchen appliance on the counter. The company says the first eCoupled-compatible products should arrive in 2007.

The future of electronics remains an unfinished puzzle after this year's CES, but one thing seems certain: If next year's show has a room where journalists can recharge their laptops and cellphones wirelessly instead of fighting over the last power outlet, the company responsible for that service will not be hurting for press coverage.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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