Today, electronics advance at an incredible rate, to say the least. Every year, gadgets get smarter, TVs get bigger, cell phones get smaller, megapixels and RAM get more plentiful and the electronics industry unveils thousands of new ideas and clever twists on old ideas. Why so much stuff? Simply put, there's that much demand. In the United States alone, consumer electronics is a $113 billion industry.
Each year, the electronics wave kicks off with the world's largest consumer technology show, the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At the 2006 CES, there were 2,500 exhibitors and 130,000 attendees, representing 110 countries. The show sprawled across hundreds of rooms in multiple buildings, totaling 1.6 million square feet, the equivalent of 28 football fields.
To give you a taste of the CES experience, here is our annual sampler of cool gadgets and toys that caught our eye.
At CES, the streets are lined with giant TVs. You are never far from a shiny flat-panel display, and you frequently run into tall stacks of them. It was a glimpse into our not-too-distant future.
In the sheer size category, there's the star of the Panasonic TV display, a prototype of a 103-inch, 1080 progressive high definition plasma display.
This is the biggest plasma display to date -- it beats the biggest Samsung plasma by one inch -- and the picture (footage of a lady riding on a motorcycle) looked fantastic.
The set uses Panasonic’s 1080p HD high-speed pixel drive and incorporates a newly developed "rib," the element in a plasma that divides each gas cell, preventing interference between cells to create a clear picture.
At this point, this plasma display is for CES eyes only. Panasonic has not announced a release date.
Samsung just barely lost the plasma competition, but it does have one of the biggest LCD displays in existence, and a 82-inch 1,080 progressive set that will come out at the end of 2006.
On the hunt for interesting technological evolution, we found the HL-S5679W shuffled in with various big-screen sets in the Samsung booth.
This 56-inch set is special because it's a DLP that uses 18 light-emitting-diodes (six red, six blue, six green) as a light source, instead of the conventional light and color wheel set-up. It eliminates the "rainbow effect" distortion seen in DLPs, making for a very clear picture for a rear-projection set. It will also extend bulb life and shorten turn-on time. The set will hit shelves in April of 2006 and will run for $4,199.
Finally, Hannspree wasn't out to win any size or technology contests, but it did show off some of the cutest TVs you've ever seen -- LCD flat screens packaged in unique decorative cabinets.
For those who want a 70+-inch picture for a true home theater, but aren't up for installing any of the giant plasma displays coming out this year, there is another path. Nestled in with the TVs, we found a small selection of front projectors built for high-def movies and TV.
Epson was showcasing its entry-level MovieMate 25, a DVD player, speakers and projector packaged together in a microwave-sized box. The basic idea is you can set this on a table, aim it at the wall, connect some speakers and voila: instant home theater.
Epson says you can project an 80-inch picture, with just 6 1/2 feet of space between the projector and the screen.
For a bit more, you can move up to Epson's Powerlite Cinema series, which range from a 480 progressive picture projector to a 720 progressive picture projector.
Epson put their flagship, 720 progressive Powerlite Cinema Pro Cinema 800 through its paces with the robot-on-futuristic-Lexus battle from I, Robot.
Over at the InFocus booth, the centerpiece was the Play Big SP777, a massive, industrial-strength projector that sells for $15,000.
The SP777 is basically the same type of DLP projector used for the "pre-show entertainment" in some movie theaters, but designed for smaller rooms. InFocus also used the tunnel robot attack from I, Robot to show off its projector, and it looked fantastic. It boasts native 1280x720 resolution and 2,000 lumens of brightness. InFocus says it can project a good picture on screens up to 15 feet (measured diagonally). In the demonstration theater, the picture was a respectable 122-inches.
InFocus has some smaller, less expensive DLP projectors as well -- the $1,299, 480p-resolution Play Big In72 and the $1,699, the 576p-resolution Play Big IN74 and the $2,999, 720p-resolution Play Big IN76.
Nearby, in the Sony booth, we saw the massive SXRD digital cinema projector.
This projector is for the emerging digital cinema movie theater market, not the home theater market. More and more movie theaters are replacing film projectors with top-of-the-line digital projectors (see How Digital Cinema Works for details), and Sony is re-setting the bar with this model. It provides 4096 x 2160 resolution (8.8 million pixels), which is four times the maximum resolution of a high-definition television.
Sony didn't have this one projecting I, Robot, but with those specs, we imagine the picture is quite good.
For more information on each of the projectors mentioned above, check out their respective Web sites:
How do you get a full-body home-theater experience to go with your massive home-theater screen? A company called ButtKicker was proudly demonstrating their line of patented "silent subwoofers." They had us at "ButtKicker."
The idea behind the ButtKicker is to use an audio signal to drive a "low-frequency transducer" -- a 3.25-lb piston suspended in a magnetic coil. As with a normal speaker, an electrical audio signal fluctuates the magnetic field in the coil to drive a piston up and down. But in this case, the piston doesn't move a diaphragm to create sound waves; it just moves a weight to create vibration based on the bass signal that goes to a subwoofer. If you fasten the Butt Buster to a chair, couch, car seat, et cetera, you can feel the vibration, rather than hear it.
ButtKicker had a few demonstrations set up. One unit was wired to a PC and fastened to a chair. Sitting in the chair and playing "Battlefield 2," you could feel every gunshot and explosion.
They had also rigged a car with multiple units connected to a stereo system and rigged a couch with multiple units connected to a home theater sound system.
For more information on the ButtKicker, check out TheButtKicker.com.
Vex Robotics Design System
In April 2005, RadioShack launched the Vex Robotics Design System, a robotics kit line designed for middle level robot-builders. The kits are more complex than LEGO's Mindstorm kits but not as demanding or expensive as the most advanced robotic systems.
The inspiration for the Vex line was the FIRST robotics competition, the premiere robotics competition for high school students. RadioShack developed the kit with the input of professors at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, who helped create the Vex User's guide and are working on K-12 educational materials based on the kits.
As part of its Vex program, RadioShack has partnered with FIRST to start a new intermediate competition at FIRST, the "FIRST Vex Challenge."
The $299 starter kit comes with 500+ parts, including:
- A configurable chassis
- A programmable micro-controller
- A radio receiver
- A radio transmitter
- Four motors
- Eight tires
- Two intake rollers
- Twelve gears
- Two hex drivers
- Five jumper clips
- Two limit switches
- Four clutches
- A huge assortment of bars, pivots, bearings, washers and spacers.
In late 2005, RadioShack launched a new set of accessory kits, including:
- A $99 programming kit
- An ultrasonic range finder kit
- A light-sensor kit
- A sprocket and chain kit
- A tank tread kit
Check out Marshall Brain's video tour of the Elecksen booth
For more on the Vex line, check out VexRobotics.com.
Kodak Dual-Lens Camera
In the Kodak booth, the first thing that caught our eye was this striking, if creepy poster campaign:
It turned out the posters were promoting the Kodak EasyShare V570, the first Dual-Lens digital camera.
The camera itself is less than an inch thick. The lenses are both Schneider-Kreuznach-C-Variogon prism lenses that don't extend from the camera. Lens 1 is a 23-mm ultra-wide-angle lens and lens 2 is a 39-117mm 5x optical zoom lens.
The camera also features "wide-angle panorama stitching," a system where you can combine three pictures into a 180-degree panorama. Additionally, the camera shoots video at 30 frames per second.
Kodak says the camera will be available in January, 2006 for $399. For more information, check out Kodak.com.
The central attraction at the Tiffen Company's booth was the Merlin, a compact steadicam designed for consumer camcorders. You attach your camcorder, grab the handle and get smooth, steady footage.
The Merlin is a revamped, smaller version of the Steadicam JR, which debuted in 1990. It's made mostly from lightweight aluminum alloy, with a 3-axis gimbal that connects to the camera, and two sets of weights that balance the camcorder.
You can adjust the number of counterweights to balance any camcorder. Tiffen says that with a ultra-compact DV camcorder attached and properly balanced, the entire rig weights about 35 ounces.
For more information on the Merlin Steadicam, check out Tiffen.com.
CES was loaded up with stereo equipment, but these giant speakers really stood out.
Pushing the limits of loudness technology, each 60-inch Tethys speaker tower has one 8-inch mid-bass silk-coated cone, one 5 1/4-inch mid-range cone, one 1 1/2-inch silk tweeter dome and two 12-inch silk-coated subwoofers. Each tower weighs 392.7 pounds.
The 36 and 3/16-inch-wide Rhea speaker set has four 5 1/4-inch silk-coated mid-range cones and three 1 1/2-inch silk tweeter domes. It weighs in at 250 pounds.
Cellboost Instant Battery Power
Supplementing a lot of the gadgets on the rest of the show floor, Compact Power Systems displayed its Cellboost line of disposable battery chargers.
The basic idea is simple: you find a Cellboost charger made for your particular phone or gadget, and you plug it into to the charging port when your normal battery goes dead.
Cellboost has chargers for a wide range of products. You can get eight more hours of music from an iPod, an hour more talk time on a cell phone, two more hours of gaming on a PSP, six more hours of gaming on a Nintendo DS and 100 minutes more shooting time from a camcorder.
For more information on the Cellboost line of battery chargers, check out Cellboost.com.
Jabra JX10 Bluetooth Headset
If you must stick a Bluetooth wireless headset in your ear, this is a nice one. And it's small enough that a lot of people won't even notice.
Respected Danish designer Jacob Jensen came up with the JX10's unique design. It's also noteworthy because at 1 1/2 inches x 3/3 inches (3.9 x 2 centimeters), it's one of the smallest headsets currently available. It's also one of the lightest, weighing in at only 1/3 ounces.
It comes with an equally stylish desktop charger, and can also be charged from a PC via USB cable. It supports Bluetooth 1.2 headset and hands-free profiles.
For more information on the Jabra JX10, check out Jabra.com.
Now this is a robot.
It's a charmer, anyway. The Robonova-1 from Hitec Robotics did push-ups for us, then one-armed push-ups, then cartwheels. It can also dance, do flips, and (when programmed) compete in "robo One class J" competition.
The robot sells for less than $1,000 and comes in two forms: an unassembled kit form and a "ready to walk" pre-assembled form. Each set comes with a CD-ROM with programming software, a batter, charger and set of stickers.
Hitec is also planning to offer a set of accessory kits, including a gyro kit, a speech synthesizer kit, a speech recognition module, a sonar sensor kit and an accelerometer kit.
For more information, check out HitecRobotics.com.
The PocketDISH player is a lot like a portable media center -- you can play games, watch TV, look at pictures and listen to music on it. But you can also transfer TV shows to it from a Dish Network DVR instead of buying them.
The PocketDISH players connect to DVRs and computers through a USB cable, and you can also record straight to the player using a docking station. The PocketDISH comes in three sizes:
- AV700E: 40 GB hard drive and 7" widescreen display
- AV400E: 30 GB hard drive and 4" display
- AV402E: 20 GB hard drive and 2.2"display
Its most obvious use -- getting caught up on Lost during meetings.
Check out Marshall Brain's video tour of the Dish Network booth.
For more information, check out PocketDISH.com.
The thought of reading a whole book on the glare of an LCD display makes most of us cringe. That and the absence of holding a real book and turning pages have been two of the biggest obstacles in the way of e-books. Sony's new Reader makes a good effort to overcome our objections. To cut down on the glare, it uses "eInk® microcapsules" that are either black or white, depending on the charge applied to them.
It still feels like an electronic device, not a book, but it's a step up from other e-book readers we've seen. The Reader can hold up to 80 average-sized books (without illustrations), and it can also display illustrations, photographs, blogs and news feeds. It will also play MP3s, but it doesn't come with headphones. The battery lasts through about 7,500 page turns.
For more information, check out the Sony Reader site.
You can get a DVD player and TV for your car, and you can watch satellite TV on an airplane -- it was only a matter of time before someone made satellite receivers for cars. RaySat's SpeedRay is a two-way satellite communications device that can receive data and TV signals.
The most obvious use is to keep passengers entertained during long car trips and to give RV vacationers constant access to TV and the Internet. The SpeedRay also has uses for emergency and military personnel.
Check out RaySat's Web site for more details.
Etón makes radios. Lots of radios. They have the standard AM/FM and shortwave models, plus satellite, high-definition and DAB models. They also make those emergency radios with hand-cranked power generators, which are very handy in the event of a zombie attack.
For more information, check out the Etón Web site.
Everybody knows the stereotype of the sedentary, out-of-shape gamer. Yes, we know, it's just a stereotype, and plenty of gamers are active people. But wouldn't it be cool if you could combine a workout with a first-person shooter instead of wasting prime gaming time in the gym?
Enter the GameRunner. It's exactly what it looks like -- a game controller built onto a treadmill. It would be impossible for anyone, no matter how fit, to run nonstop through hours of gaming, so it's really meant more for walking than running ("GameRunner" certainly sounds cooler than "GameWalker"). It's compatible with a variety of PC games, as well as any FPS for Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. You can use it to play games you actually like instead of trying to work out to "Dance Dance Revolution."
You can get more information (or order one) from the GameRunner site.
While we're on the subject of better living through video games, Powergrid Fitness has also come up with a fitness-oriented controller. It's the Exer-Station, and it's compatible with the PlayStation, Xbox and GameCube. You push, pull and lean on the controller to control the game.
Best Buy will start carrying the Exer-Station in March. Until then, you can get information and testimonials at the Exer-Station site.
MP3 Player Watches & Sunglasses
You got your MP3 player in my sunglasses! I got my watch in your MP3 player!
The best thing about these is that they don't hold much music (between 128 MB and 1 GB). You'll be less heartbroken when you leave them on the table at a restaurant and never see them again.
They also make watches with retractable USB plugs, earphone ports and player controls built into the watch face, which is kind of neat. The watches look a little less dorky than the shades.
They're from Xonix Electronics.
The Xebra Electric Car
The world's newest electric car is manufactured in China and should be available in February in the United States. The Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) is $8,995. Here's what you get:
- An electric vehicle that can seat four people
- Top speed of 40mph and a range of 40 miles
- Recharges in about eight hours from a normal 110-volt outlet using the built-in charger(faster with the optional 220-volt charger)
- Yes, it has three wheels rather than four
- It is 9.5 feet (290 centimeters) long, 4.7 feet wide (142 centimeters) and 5 feet high (154 centimeters).
According to Zapworld, "Even after counting emissions from electric generating plants, Xebras produce 98 percent fewer pollutants than gas cars." For getting around in urban spaces, a Xebra may be just the thing you need. However, you cannot take a Xebra on roads where the speed limit exceeds 45 mph, and regulations can vary from state to state, so check with local regulations before investing in one.
Click here for details from Zapworld.
The Planon Docupen
Think about the normal scanner that is sitting on your desk. Chances are that it is big (mine is about as big as two thick phone books stacked side-by-side) and bulky. If you read How Scanners Work, you can see that there is a motor inside that moves a read head down the sheet of paper being scanned. Almost all the space inside a scanner is air.
The Planon Docupen is a full-color, battery-operated scanner that fits in the palm of your hand. They're able to miniaturize it so much by eliminating all of the air inside a scanner and letting your hand act as the motor.
Here's how you use it: place the Docupen at one end of the sheet of paper you wish to scan, push the "scan" button and drag the pen across the sheet of paper. A tiny roller keeps track of the movement and causes the scanner to store the scanned image in memory. Later you connect the Docupen to your computer to download all of the scanned images. You can also plug an SD memory card into the Docupen and use it to store images.
- 100 dpi to 400 dpi resolution
- 56 grams
- Internal lithium ion battery recharges in less than an hour
- 8 MB RAM on board, expandable with MircoSD memory card
- Recharges from the USB port
If you need to scan images on the go, this could be the scanner for you.
Check out Marshall Brain's video tour of the Planon Docupen.
Visit the Planon Web site for details.
NVidia Quad-SLI PC
NVidia and Dell were showing a PC containing four Nvidia 7800 GPUs. It was dubbed the Quad SLI PC.
To pull this off, each GPU comes on its own card. Two cards are sandwiched together into a single module so they share a single PCI Express slot (an internal splitter in the module shuttles the PCI traffic to the two cards). Then the PC contained two of these modules for a total of four GPUs in a single machine.
These four GPUs were acting together, combining their horsepower so that the computer and game software thought it had a single graphics card of immense power. NVidia pegged the total horsepower at greater than 5 TeraFLOPS, with a total of 2GB of RAM and 40 billion pixels per second.
Nvidia then demonstrated the computer’s abilities by running the game Fear full-screen on a Dell widescreen display. The display had 2,560 x 1,600 pixels. That's 4 million pixels -- about twice as many as an HDTV. Then they cranked up the anti-aliasing and filtering to the max and played the game at frame rates that looked completely fluid. It was an amazing demonstration of computing power.
For more information on the Quad SLI system, visit NVidia.com.
Netvizon LCD Touchscreen Computer
NeTVizon demonstrated their new super-desktop and super-kiosk machines. On the desktop, this is probably the largest touchscreen computer available.
NetVizon has integrated an LCD HDTV display with a touch panels and an integrated computer, giving you an all-in-one PC. It comes in 32-inch, 42-inch and 47-inch configurations.
You use the computer a lot like a very large tablet PC, touching the screen either with your finger or a stylus instead of a mouse.
One of the big applications of the NetVizon all-in-one approach is to create super-kiosk touchscreen interfaces. For example, imagine going to a car dealership and being able to configure different options by touching the options you want on the screen. By providing an all-in-one hardward spolution, NetVizon makes this kind of thing much easier than it has been in the past.
Idex USA manufacturers the 47-inch LCD touchscreen PC.
For more information, visit the NetFaze Web site.
Xavix Video Workout Equipment
Xavix is carving out an interesting niche in the video sports arena. Using a custom console that you hook to your TV, you can now play sports like these in your living room:
- Ninja fighting
When you buy a game from Xavix, you get the appropriate piece of equipment (like an electronic baseball bat and baseball with the baseball game, an electronic bowling ball with the bowling game, et cetera). You also get a cartridge containing the software for the console.
Say you buy the bowling game. The software shows you the bowling alley, and you use the wireless bowling ball to go through the motions. On the screen you see your ball hit the pins and count your score.
In the same way, with electronic baseball, you see the electronic pitcher pitch the ball and you swing the bat. Or you pitch by "throwing" the electronic ball.
The goal, according to Xavix, is to get you off the couch and let you exercise in front of your TV. Boxing and running games can be strenuous and let you work up a sweat. Bowling and baseball are a little more relaxed.
For more information visit Xavix.com.
Eleksen ElekTex Smart Fabric
For many years engineers have been trying to perfect "smart fabric," and Eleksen may be on the verge of reaching the finish line. Eleksen has created a fabric with electrical properties that allows the creation of control panels integrated into items like clothing and backpacks.
The ElekTex technology is actual fabric. You can fold it, wad it up, wash it or dry clean it. But this fabric has special properties. When hooked to a small piece of electronics to "read" the fabric, it is possible to sense X/Y coordinates, the amount of pressure being applied and even motion of touch across the fabric.
Eleksen demonstrated several jackets with controls for MP3 players and iPods integrated into the sleeve or the inner pocket of the jacket, as well as backpacks with controls integrated into the straps. They also had a fabric Bluetooth keyboard that you could roll up and stick in your pocket.
To create these different products, ElekTex uses a three-layer fabric sandwich. The top layer has conductive stripes impregnated into the fabric in one direction. The bottom layer has conductive stripes as well, oriented 90 degrees around from the top layer. Then a semi-conductive middle layer is a mesh that separates the top and bottom layers. When you press on the top layer, it makes a connection through the mesh to the bottom layer and that gives the controller an X/Y coordinate.
The fabric keyboard seemed especially cool for people needing to type a lot on their PDAs or e-mail cell phones. You simply pull the keyboard out of your pocket, unroll it and turn it on. Bluetooth wirelessly connects the keyboard to the PDA, and you're typing.
Check out Marshall Brain's video tour of the Elecksen booth.
For more information, visit ElekTex.com.
Texas Instruments 1080p DLP Chips
At CES 2005, Texas Instruments announced its new 1080p DLP chips. At CES 2006 there were actually products using these chips. Many manufacturers showed rear-projection TVs and front-projection projectors built using the new 1080p chips.
Most HDTV sets on sale today do not produce the full 1920 x 1080 resolution than the HD specification indicates. A typical plasma screen, for example, might have only 1365 x 768 pixels. The HD signal's resolution is down-converted to fit into the smaller number of actual pixels.
With these new DLP chips you get full HD resolution.
Most of the sets and projectors on display are still using a single DLP chip and a color wheel. However, a handful of the higher-end products were using three of the DLP chips. This lets them eliminate the color wheel for a more solid image.
The new DLP chips from TI also incorporate what's known as "Darkchip" technology, meaning blacker blacks on the screen. Contrast ratios are increasing, with some sets going as high as a 6000:1 on some projectors.
Check out Marshall Brain's video tour of the Texas Instruments booth.
For more information, visit DLP.com.
Let's say that you have an iPod, a PDA, a GPS receiver or a tablet PC and you need to take it "into the wild." For example, you are going to take it with you as you ride on a speed boat, caravan through a desert plagued by dust storms, or trek through a rainforest on an expedition. You'll need a case that protects your equipment while at the same time allows you to use it.
That's where Otter cases come in handy. Otter is making a line of sealed, watertight cases for electronic equipment. The best thing is, you can still use the equipment while it is inside the case.
For example, the Otter iPod case is completely sealed, and a rugged membrane over the scroll wheel lets you use the iPod just like you normally would. You can even drop your iPod into the ocean -- it will float and is completely watertight to three meters.
To see the complete line of cases, visit OtterBox.com.
Digital Antenna Cell Phone Booster
What your office is buried deep inside a concrete building and you want to use your cell phone? It used to be that you had to walk outside to make a call. Now you can solve the problem completely using the cell phone booster from Digital Antenna. At CES 2006, DA was showing a number of products to cover everything from a dorm room (500 square feet) to a large building (20,000 square feet). These repeaters and amplifiers are also being used on boats to increase their offshore range.
The basic idea of a cell phone repeater is fairly simple. You place an antenna outside where it can get a clear cell phone signal. Using a piece of coax, you connect that antenna to an amplifier. Then you put a small antenna inside to rebroadcast the signal and connect it to the same amplifier.
When you make a call from your office, the indoor antenna picks up the signals from your phone, which are then amplified and rebroadcast outside on the exterior antenna. You get great reception no matter how deep inside the building your office is.
For more information, visit digitalantenna.com.
New Nokia Phones
Nokia was showing a number of new phones at CES 2006, and two of the more interesting were the N90 and the 770.
The N90 is the ultimate camera phone. The two-megapixel camera can take still photos and video, and the lens can flip for video calls.
The 770 is trying to bring real Web surfing to your cell phone. It offers WiFi access, an 800 x 480 pixel touchscreen and the Opera 8 Web browser with Flash player, PDF access, e-mail access, media players and more. With the media players you can view MPEG videos and listen to MP3 files. The 770 allows you to replace your PDA, and comes close to replacing your laptop if you only use it for e-mail and Web browsing.
For more information visit Nokia.com.