Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) brings together the creators of the newest, most innovative products to be released in the coming year. It's a technophile's paradise, which is why HowStuffWorks has attended and covered the show for years. This year, two of us are in Las Vegas for the show, much to the chagrin of the rest of the editorial staff. We'll be covering CES as it happens, so watch this space to see what we discover on the show floor.
Las Vegas is a perfect venue for the show. Everywhere you turn, there are digital billboards promoting all kinds of shows. It's a convergence of entertainment and electronics, and every casino tries to out-dazzle the next in its attempt to get more people to come through its doors.
So every year at CES, companies try to outdo their competitors. Doing so means that they've spent millions on research -- both on what customers want and on the technology that will drive their products to reach more people. It's a challenge, and going from booth to booth, you can see how when one company zigs, another zags. Each company will tell you that its technology is better than what you'll find at the company next door.
Though the show actually begins on a Monday, the weekend before is filled with press conferences and events to warm the media up for the chaos ahead. Hordes of strung-out reporters from all over the world show up to see what's new and get the scoop. Then on Monday, people from all over the industry join reporters on the show floor, to see which products they will buy -- and which they won't. For big companies, it's a chance to show off the latest and greatest products. But for newer, smaller organizations, the show is a crucial opportunity to show off what they're bringing to market. Succeed, and they may be the next LG, Pioneer, Samsung or Sony. Failure means another great idea may never reach the greater electronics market.
A few big themes, some of them contradictory, are emerging at this year's show already. Some companies are getting into the wireless game, while others claim that in order to get the best experience from your electronics you need to invest in high-quality cables. Other trends include an emphasis on portability and convenience. In the near future, look for electronics that let you carry an experience from one environment to another. For example, one executive suggested that it won't be long before you'll be able to sync your car's audio system with your home system, porting new songs from one to the other wirelessly.
In general, many of the announcements made so far echo similar themes to ones found in past CES announcements. Gadgets are getting smaller. Flat panel displays are getting thinner -- Pioneer is demonstrating a plasma display that's only 9 millimeters thick. Several companies are combining functions traditionally found on different devices into a single gadget. The buzzwords for the show this year seem to be interactivity, convenience, portability and innovation.
On the next page, we'll look at some more trends, including environmentally friendlier electronics and home automation.
As it is every year, the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show is all about trends. One of this year's recurring themes is environmentally-friendly technology.
For example, Fujitsu has a laptop computer on display that uses corn plastic as part of its housing. According to company officials, after disassembly, the computer's plastic components could break down in a matter of months rather than years. The machine is available overseas, but to meet U.S. safety requirements, it would need to be more flame retardant. That would require additional petroleum-based plastic mixed with the bio-plastic.
Several electronics recycling companies are at CES this year. Some refurbish old phones and donate them to other organizations. For example, the Cell Phones for Soldiers project managers take old phones, repair them and send them overseas to military bases, allowing soldiers to contact loved ones.
Another big trend this year is home automation -- connecting all the major electronics in a home to a network that the homeowner controls using a simple interface. While the concept of home automation isn't new, in practice it's been limited to customers who have very deep pockets. This year, several companies claim that new home automation systems will be much more affordable and well within the average person's budget.
For those of us who are tired of dealing with the dozens of cables you need to connect all of the components in a home theater system, relief may soon be around the corner. Nearly every major home theater brand is demonstrating wireless home theater systems. In most of these systems, a set-top box containing a transmitter sends signals to a receiver connected to a television -- some manufacturers even offer televisions with a built-in receiver.
Next, well see how fashion, design and electronics are meeting in a big way for 2008.
Shape and Color
Another trend at the 2008 CES is design. Looking at the variety of ultra-flat-panel televisions, hidden speakers, ear bud headphones in nearly every color and glossy black audio-video components, it's clear that consumer electronics manufacturers have gotten the message. People want their electronic equipment to look good, even when it's switched off.
This year, anyway, people don't want their high-tech stuff to look like -- well, high-tech stuff. They want it to blend in with the décor, or even complement it, if possible. And manufacturers aren't doing it alone. They're consulting with some of the most famous designers in the world to help them out. For example, Samsung showed off a Giorgio Armani-designed wireless phone.
Convergence is yet another theme of this year's show. In-car audio companies are putting everything you'd want in a radio in one place. High-definition AM/FM, satellite radio, iPod connectivity, CD players, DVD players and even mobile TV all end up in one unit in your dashboard, ready to entertain you no matter how you get your content. And if you plan on just driving, the built-in GPS will help you find your way.
At the Sands Convention Center, several exhibitors are displaying different data security products. For example, Sentry Safe won a CES Innovators award for their ultra-secure hard disk. The drive is encased in a tough shell that's both fire and water resistant. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that sell devices designed to destroy old hard drives, making it very difficult or even impossible to retrieve data.
The Sands is also where you can find some of the quirkier technologies at this year's CES. At one booth, vendors dressed as rock stars gesticulate wildly as the sound of a frantic guitar solo drowns out the ambient noise of the show floor. They're demonstrating Air Guitar Hero -- a device consisting of a sensor and an amplifier that lets you shred riffs while practicing your best rock star grimace, all without the hassle of holding an actual guitar.
Or if you're looking for an easier way to get to work, you might try the iShoes - three-wheeled motorized skates that will whisk you down the sidewalk. There are all kinds of robotics, some of them toys, others planned for more robust applications. And Airsound brought a personal speaker that might surprise you -- placed under your chin, the unit delivers stereo sound, even without having two separate speakers. Plug in headphones, and the embedded woofer plays bass into your collar bones. You hear the bass via bone conduction, for a sound you wouldn't get using headphones alone.
For our past coverage of CES and related links, visit the next page.