Stuffed with laser beams, customized computer chips and liquid crystal displays, this year's bumper crop of Christmas gifts and gadgets aren't just yesteryear's playthings -- they represent some of the finest state-of-the-art technology around.
High-tech products that were barely a gleam in a company's eye five years ago now are selling in the millions. Laser-based compact disc players, pocket televisions, hand-sized video cameras and high-tech talking teddy bears are some of the hottest items this year. They're all selling at prices that would have been impossible three years ago.
"These high-tech toys are finally low cost," said Steven Wozniak, cofounder of Apple Computer Inc. and now chairman of Cloud 9, a consumer electronics company that makes remote control devices. "These things were not possible 10 years ago. Five years ago, they were barely perceptible."
Indeed, Wozniak and others point out, consumers are no longer just the beneficiaries of a "high-tech trickle-down" from the defense and aerospace industries, but a driving force behind the development of cutting-edge technologies. Cost savings gleaned from high-volume consumer production can be used for industrial market advantage.
"You get the production levels through the consumer side," said Robert Lucky, executive director of communications science research at Bell Labs. "That's the only way you get the volume to make this stuff cheap."
Often, surprisingly cheap.
"Speaking as a technologist, I don't understand how they can sell [compact disc players] for under 200 bucks," Lucky said. Indeed, he pointed out, the compact disc player is one of the most complex packages of low-cost high-tech componentry ever put out into the consumer market.
The players, which sold for more than $1,000 just three years ago, use a single mode diode laser to "read" the silvery surfaces of the compact discs. These tiny pulses of light reproduce the ultrahigh-fidelity sound, which has been recorded as a series of computeresque bits and bytes.
Those bits read by the laser go into a computer chip programmed with what's known as the "Reid/Solomon" error-correcting decoder algorithms -- to make sure the reproduced sound is absolutely perfect. This program is a complex set of equations designed to make sure that every bit of information is in the appropriate order -- if it isn't, the Reid/Solomon equations make sure that the right bits are found in time to be played.
"When I went to school, this was the end of the world in erudition," Lucky recalled. "Nobody thought they'd be used for anything. They were so esoteric that they were in the back chapter of the information theory textbook.
"The idea that today you can buy a player with a laser attached to this thing just boggles my mind."
"This was a totally unexpected use," said Irving Reed, a co-creator of the algorithm who also designs error-checking programs for the Pentagon. "I originally thought it might be used for deep space communications systems that send data back from Uranus or Neptune."
The compact-disc technology even astonishes Gordon Gould, who in the 1960s invented the laser and who recently won a patent dispute that will reap him millions of dollars in royalties for laser sales.
"I foresaw an optical radar application and heating applications," he recalled, "but I must say I didn't think of them in the context of compact discs. I was never involved with consumer products at all."
But Gould, who has since retired to Kinsale, Va., intends to buy a compact disc for Christmas. "I'm really enthralled by it . . . there's an order-of-magnitude improvement in fidelity . . . but we hadn't gotten one up 'til now."
He expects to get a royalty on the laser that's inside the player.
Perhaps the most impressive high-tech gains in the consumer electronics market have been from silicon. Silicon is to electronics what paper is to print -- a medium for storing and manipulating information. Less than a decade ago, silicon barely had discovered its own Gutenberg printing press.
Today, silicon chips are produced in the same high volume and information density as newspapers, books and magazines. What's more, it now costs about as much to "print" a chip as it does a newspaper.
"The drop in the cost of microprocessors [computers on a chip] pretty much made this all possible," says Wozniak, who fundamentally built the Apple computer, and the personal computer industry, around these low-cost silicon chips.
"Basically, the bottom line is that the technology we have here in Silicon Valley is full of solutions looking for problems to solve," said Al Alcorn, who, along with Nolan Bushnell, was cofounder of Atari, a briefly successful videogames and home-computer company.
Indeed, the low cost of silicon makes it inexpensive enough to look for offbeat and unusual problems to solve.
For example, one of Bushnell's new companies -- Axlon -- has applied it to make teddy bears talk, or at least, mumble in response to questions and conversation.
"The idea of putting more technology in traditional toys is the difference," enthused Ron Milner, the designer of Axlon's immensely popular A. G. Bear. "This is the first year that we're seeing electronics improve some of the traditional toys."
How does A. G. Bear do it?
According to Milner, inside the bear is a microphone connected to a chip that "digitizes the incoming wave form." That is, it converts sound waves into a computer series of binary digits. The catch is that it doesn't digitize every single sound; instead, it "subsamples" the sound it hears. In other words, it hears only a fraction of the total sound.
Then, it plays back that sample through its amplifier, which gives the bear its mumbling, cooing timbre.
"Getting intelligibility would require a chip that would cost you a fortune," said Milner, which is why he considers A. G. just a mid-tech product. "We'll have more exciting things next Christmas," he added.
Milner points out that Teddy Ruxspin -- another popular talking teddy bear -- is even lower tech. It has a built in tape recorder, making it the moral equivalent of a Walkman in a bear suit.
Silicon isn't the only high-technology medium where enormous strides have been made. Lucky pointed out that advances in liquid crystal display technologies -- display media that allow crystals to recreate high resolution color -- have made lightweight, low-cost and hand-held television sets a consumer reality.
Electronics sources indicate that pocket televisions from Japan will cost roughly $75 by next Christmas.