Consumer Electronics Show 2004


This year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas covered more than 30 acres of floor space. Over 2,000 companies gathered to show off the very latest in consumer technology -- thousands of products, services, gadgets and systems were on display, and hundreds of thousands of attendees came to see it all.

The floor of the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show
Photo courtesy CES

HowStuffWorks was there, and the goal here is to let you experience CES virtually if you were not able to get there yourself. We'll show you some of the coolest stuff we saw at the show, and give you links to each company so that you can learn more.

Let's get started!

Wherify

We have to start somewhere, so let's begin with this tiny portable device from Wherify.

Inside this little package is a GPS receiver, a cell phone and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery.

Wherify has made a name for itself with products that use GPS technology to help you keep track of your kids. If your child is wearing a Wherify device, you can go to the Wherify Web site and see your child's current location on a map (and do all sorts of other things).

This new device contains a GPS receiver to support that basic Wherify capability. The new part (besides the incredibly small size that allows you to wear it as a pendant) is the fact that it contains a simple cell phone, as well. The cell phone offers only two numbers:

  • 911
  • Any single phone number that you wish to program in

When the wearer has a problem, he/she can push one of the two buttons to make a call and get help. The pendant acts as a tiny speaker phone.

Battery life from the internal battery is expected to be about 70 hours. When this product is released, the price is expected to be somewhere in the area of $150, with monthly fees starting somewhere in the $10 to $15 range depending on usage.

For more information, visit the Wherify Web site.

OQO Computer

OQO ultra personal computer (uPC)
OQO ultra personal computer (uPC)

This new device from OQO is trying to cram an entire laptop computer into a PDA-sized package. It has an internal 20-GB hard drive and runs Windows XP Professional operating system.

uPC cable

The idea is that, instead of having a PC and a PDA, you would use the OQO computer as your desktop PC and then stick it in your pocket and take it with you whenever you leave your desk. That way, you've got just one computer, and you never have to worry about syncing up. Also, you have access to all your normal applications and files wherever you go.

OQO has managed to shrink things so much by using a couple of different tricks. First, they've reduced the internal part count by eliminating support components and transferring the functionality of those components into software that runs on the main CPU. Second, they are using an innovative cable (shown at right) that combines all of the connectors for a network cable, USB device, monitor, etc., into one wire that has multiple taps.

When you are using it in portable mode, the screen size is 800x480 pixels -- much bigger than a normal PDA display, and wide enough to browse standard Web pages without a lot of hassle.

For more information, visit the OQO Web site.

Sony F828

Sony Cybershot DSC-F828
Sony Cybershot DSC-F828

Sony was showing off the new high-end F828 digital camera:

This camera has an 8-megapixel resolution and uses a four-color pixel mask over the CCD instead of the traditional three-color mask (see How Digital Cameras Work for a description of the mask). The four colors are red, green, blue and emerald. In addition, instead of a flat mask, each pixel on the mask has a microscopic dome-shaped lens over it to gather slightly more light per pixel.

This camera has everything, including full automatic and manual modes, a 7X optical zoom (28mm to 200mm), both Compact Flash and Memory Stick memory slots and a host of other professional features. Amazingly, the price is only $999.

For more information, visit the Sony Web site. See Digital Photography Review: Sony Cybershot DSC-F828 for a review that calls the F828 "arguably the most important prosumer digital camera this year."

ICPSolar

Solar-powered jacket prototype
Solar-powered jacket prototype

One thing that all the electronic gadgets at CES require is power, and you may not have a plug nearby. If you are outdoors and it is sunny, then this jacket from ICPSolar in conjunction with SCOTTeVEST might be an option:

Although not available yet, it generates 5 volts at 50 milliamps and can power something like a cell phone or a portable CD player. Another option is this roll-up mat, which is significantly larger:

PowerFLEX 20

It generates 1.2 amps at 16.5 volts (20 watts) and can therefore power or recharge just about any portable electronic device.

What's making these wearable and rollable solar arrays possible? It's these new flexible solar cells manufactured on a thin plastic film:

Thin-Film

For more information, visit the ICPSolar Web site.

Rad2Go Q

Rad2Go Q
Rad2Go Q

CES is so big that it fills multiple buildings in the Las Vegas convention center, several local hotel convention centers, and a number of outdoor tents and pavilions. Therefore, you spend a fair amount of time outdoors walking between all the venues. The first time this thing zipped by I thought "Segway," and I wished I had one. But then a second look revealed it to be something else:

Following it led me to the Rad2Go booth, where they were displaying a variety of scooters and other electric vehicles.

The Q has four wheels instead of the two of the Segway, and therefore none of the automatic balancing is required (two of the wheels are visible in the photo -- the other two are small, 4-inch, non-powered casters at the back of the platform that the rider stands on). Otherwise, it has the same basic form factor and footprint of a Segway, the same speed and range, and costs about one-third as much.

Other vehicles shown by Rad2Go included everything from basic scooters up to this Harley-esque motorcycle:

Rad2Go E-Hog

The motorcycle has a 1,000-watt motor and enough battery power (36V, 17AH) to give it a 25-mph (~40-kph) top speed and a range of 30 miles (~48 km).

For more information, visit the Rad2Go web site.

TracVision

TracVision A5 automotive satellite TV receiver
TracVision A5 automotive satellite TV receiver

Also outside was a demo SUV from TracVision. The goal of TracVision is to let you access the 300+ channels of satellite TV available from DirectTV while the car is moving. On the roof goes not a dish, but a motorized, phased-array satellite antenna that looks like this:

The phased-array design lets TracVision reformat a dish antenna into a pancake-shaped package. The motors let the antenna rotate as the car turns. A computer in the controller keeps track of the signal strength and rotates the antenna to keep it pointed right at the satellite.

It's not cheap -- $3,500 -- but if you want TV in your car while you are in motion, and local channels don't do it for you, then this is an option.

For more information, visit the TracVision Web site.

Quantum-Optical RAM

Quantum-Optical RAM
Quantum-Optical RAM

It's hard to know if this is real or not, but I will report what I saw. A company called Compu-Technics was showing something called Quantum-Optical RAM -- a very dense, non-volatile, high-speed memory device:

In another display (and on the AtomChip Web site), there is a 256-GB device not much bigger than the connector on a USB cable. The brochure the company was handing out says things like this:

  • The chip has a much higher capacity when compared with Flash memory, has the lowest cost per gigabyte, and does not have a limited number of cycles to update information. Therefore, Quantum-Optical memory can be used as RAM, unlike Flash memory, which can only be used as storage.
  • The new Quantum-Optical technology has a minimum sustained write speed of 6 GB per second and a read speed of 8 GB per second.
  • Does it all with low power consumption, which means longer battery life.
  • 256 GB of memory fits in a recording [medium] with the physical dimensions of 10 mm x 4 mm x 4 mm.
  • Complete lack of mechanical parts combined with ultra-high density, ultra-high speed and extremely compact size distinguish this memory from all existing memories.
  • Patent #5,841,689

So, either this is like cold fusion and it's a hoax, or we are about to see a fundamental paradigm shift that completely redefines the nature of computer storage. A typical hard-disk bay could hold many terabytes of this Quantum-Optical memory.

We will see...

For more information, visit the Compu-Technics Web site.

Toshiba 0.85" Hard Disk

Toshiba's tiny hard disk
Toshiba's tiny hard disk

More in the realm of the here and now... Several companies were showing off tiny high-capacity hard disks, and the 0.85" drive from Toshiba pictured at the right was typical.

It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, so pull a nickel out of your pocket. That's about how big the platter is. The drive comes in a 2-gigabyte (single-sided) version and a 4-gigabyte (double-sided) version. It spins at 3,600 rpm, weighs 10 grams and can handle 1,000 G's of shock. These tiny drives will be fighting it out with Flash memory on the price/capacity/speed/size curve over the next several years in devices like digital cameras and MP3 players.

Another thing at the Toshiba booth was a caricature artist drawing caricatures using a Toshiba tablet PC:

Caricature artist using Toshiba's tablet PC

The thing that was interesting about it was the fact that the artist seemed to be working in a completely natural way. But instead of using colored pastels, he was using the pen on the screen. Looking at the image he was creating, it looked just like a pastel image.

For more information, visit the Toshiba Web site.

HDMI

Back of typical digital video components
Back of typical digital video components

One of the buzz words this year is an industry standard for digital video interconnection called HDMI. In the Panasonic booth, they were doing a whole presentation on this new standard.

The problem that HDMI is trying to solve is summed up nicely in this picture:

Instead of using half a dozen of the two dozen connectors on the back of a home theater component, you use just one HDMI connection. HDMI offers two big benefits:

  • Instead of needing multiple cables for the video signal and multiple cables for the sound signal, HDMI integrates all video and sound signals onto a single, thin cable. It makes it trivially easy to connect components together.
  • Instead of converting digital signals to analog (to run through the cables) and then back to digital, everything on an HDMI cable remains in its original, uncompressed digital format.

The first benefit should drastically simplify home theater setup, and the second benefit should significantly improve picture and sound quality by keeping everything digital as it moves between components.

Of course, if you want to take advantage of these benefits you have to buy all new stuff, and it all has to have HDMI connectors. But in theory, if enough manufacturers get on board, everything should become HDMI-compatible eventually.

For more information, visit the HDMI Web site.

LG 71" and 76" Plasma Screens

LG was doing its best to make a huge splash at this show. Everywhere you turned it seemed there was an LG banner, billboard, or ad. Even the sides of several buildings were draped in five-story LG ads.

One of the things LG was promoting was its pair of gigantic new plasma screens measuring 71 inches and 76 inches, respectively. Right now, these are the two largest plasma screens available in the consumer market. The features of the 71" screen are impressive:

  • True HD resolution at 1,920x1,080 pixels (2,073,600 total pixels)
  • Contrast ratio of 1,500:1
  • 168.4 cm x 100 cm x 8.3 cm (66.3 inches x 39.37 inches x 3.26 inches) dimensions

This was the best photo I could get of the 71" screen given the number of the people in the booth while I was there:

LG's 71" plasma screen

The 76" screen is similar, but a touch larger.

LG was also showing a number of LCD screens -- both TVs and computer monitors. For example, LG had a 23-inch TFT LCD monitor with 1,920x1,200 pixels and a 400:1 contrast ratio, as well as a 42" LCD HDTV screen with 1,366x768 pixels and a 176x176-degree viewing angle.

For more information, visit the LG Web site.

CyberTrak

CyberTrak
CyberTrak

CyberTrak is a small box that you install in your car:

This little black box contains a GPS receiver and a cell phone, and you can use it in conjunction with the CyberTrak Web site to do things like:

  • Find your car on a map (great if you lose your car, if it's stolen, or if you've loaned the car to someone)
  • Look at the current and maximum speed of the car (great if you are keeping track of someone who's borrowed the car)
  • Put a "fence" around the car and have the car page you if it leaves the fenced area (great for detecting if the car is being stolen, or if a valet is having too much fun with your car)
  • Remotely start or disable your car

For more information, visit the CyberTrak Web site.

Sony UX50 PDA

The Sony UX50 PDA
The Sony UX50 PDA

Sony demoed and is currently shipping the UX50, a state-of-the-art PDA:

In this picture, it is shown sitting on its docking station, so it is actually thinner than it looks.

This PDA runs on the Palm OS and has just about anything you've ever imagined stuffing into a PDA. For example, it has a decent-sized keyboard, a nice little color screen, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, a camera, a Web browser and e-mail capability. It also uses a new low-power processor that gives it great battery life. For example, I was told:

  • You could go into a Wi-Fi hot spot and browse the Web for more than four hours on one charge.
  • It can play MP3 files for 16 hours.
  • If you cannot find a hot spot, it can communicate with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and use it to get an Internet connection.
  • It can play video files that you've saved on a Memory Stick.
  • And it will accept an external battery that triples the battery life.

For more information, visit the Sony Web site.

Netgear Media Router

Netgear's Media Router
Netgear's Media Router

If you have a router from Netgear, you know that it is common for the company to integrate several different parts in the same box. For example, there might be a router, a wireless access point and a firewall combined in one unit. That trend is now extending. Netgear showed off a small box for adding storage to your network.

The idea behind a "media router" is that you can take an external hard drive with a USB 2.0 connection, plug it into the router, and the drive will suddenly appear on your network as a new place to store data. You access it through the standard "Network Neighborhood" feature of Windows XP.

This little box does the same thing with a USB printer:

Netgear's printer connection

You plug a network cable into one side of the box and the printer's USB cable into the other side, and the printer is instantly available network-wide through the standard "Network Neighborhood" feature of Windows XP.

With functionality like this, it is very easy to add disk space and printers to your network. The representative I spoke to mentioned that all of this functionality soon may be integrated into a single box, as well.

For more information, visit the Netgear Web site.

Athletic GPS units

Garmin Forerunner 201
Garmin Forerunner 201

At the Garmin booth, they had GPS units in every imaginable shape and size. This is the smallest GPS that I saw:

It has been configured primarily for athletes, to provide pace information and a "virtual trainer" that helps you meet your fitness goals. But it also contains all the normal functions that you expect from a GPS receiver.

Over at the Timex booth, they were doing something similar with the Bodylink system:

Timex Bodylink system

Timex describes the Bodylink system as "a network of up to 4 devices worn on the body that act together as a single information and sport monitoring system." There is a GPS unit, a heart sensor, a data recorder and, of course, a watch. The data recorder records information from the heart sensor and the GPS, and you can dump the data to your computer to analyze it when you get home.

For more information, visit the Garmin and Timex Web sites.

Dock-n-Talk

Dock-n-Talk
Dock-n-Talk

Dock-n-Talk from PhoneLabs is a great idea. You take a normal cell phone, attach it to the Dock-n-Talk box, and plug the Dock-n-Talk box into a phone outlet in your home. Now, when you pick up any other "normal" phone in your house and dial a number, the call goes out through your cell phone. When calls come in on your cell phone, all the normal phones in your home ring.

What this means is that you no longer need an account with a "land-line" phone company to have phone service in your home. All you need is a single cell phone account, and it can handle both your home and your mobile needs.

For more information, visit the PhoneLabs Web site.

321 Studios

The 321 Studios booth
The 321 Studios booth

321 Studios is well known for its software that can make a duplicate of a DVD.

They were showing off several new products at CES, including a piece of software to duplicate game CDs, and a feature called DVD Vault, which will transfer a collection of DVDs to your hard disk.

You could use DVD Vault in several different ways. For example, if you have a laptop computer, you could store dozens of DVDs on your hard drive and take them with you. 321 Studios has a compression technology that can shrink a DVD image to about 1 gigabyte of disk space.

For more information, visit the 321 Studios Web site.

Visteon

Inside the Visteon Hummer
Inside the Visteon Hummer

Visteon is a huge company, but chances are you have never heard of it. They make components like steering systems and instrument panels that go inside of cars. At CES, Visteon became more visible by demonstrating a variety of in-car entertainment and computer systems.

For example, Visteon had a Hummer 2 that they had outfitted with a variety of new in-car systems. The Hummer had an onboard Pentium 4 computer, and in the back of every headrest (along with the front console) there was a dockable ViewSonic Smart Display. You could detach the display and hold it in your lap, or leave it in the headrest. The computer had Wi-Fi, so you could also fire up a normal laptop inside the car (or up to 100 meters away) and interact with the car's network, as well. A cell phone connection provided the car with Internet access. The car's computer could understand voice commands. And that's just a few of the features. It was a very impressive demo.

In the center armrest was an innovative charging system from a company called Splashpower. A compatible PDA, cell phone, etc., doesn't need any wires to recharge. You simply place the device on the SplashPower pad and it starts charging automatically through induction.

For more information, visit the Visteon Web site.

FliWire

FliWire Necklace
FliWire Necklace

At the FliWire booth, they were demonstrating two things. The first was this illuminated necklace:

By using a larger piece of strap, it could also be worn as a belt.

Inside the small box is a microphone, a sound processor and a pair of LEDs. FliWire envisions you wearing this in a dance club, so the sound processor listens to the music, can pick out bass and treble beats and then illuminates the necklace in time with the music. If you are not in a dance club, then it illuminates when you talk and follows the sounds of your voice.

That's an innovative piece of jewelry for the club scene, but it was the other part of the booth that was even more interesting. The technology that makes this necklace possible is called "side-emissive fiber optics." In the case of the necklace, the fiber is a thick plastic rope about a quarter-inch in diameter. When an LED shoots light down the fiber, particles embedded in the plastic cause the light to be emitted out the side of the fiber, so the entire fiber lights up. It looks exactly like a neon light.

What the FliWire technology will become, eventually, is a replacement for glass neon tubes. The plastic fiber is cheap, extremely flexible and nearly impossible to damage. It takes very little power to illuminate it with an LED, and it is as bright as neon. FliWire had samples of the fiber up to 1 inch thick. If side-emissive fiber optics are as good as they claim, expect to see the demise of traditional glass neon lighting over the next year or two.

For more information, visit the Fliwire Web site.

Microsoft

Microsoft Portable Media Center
Microsoft Portable Media Center

The easiest way to describe Microsoft's booth at CES is to say that it was "a trade show inside a trade show." Microsoft was showing so many things:

  • Xbox
  • Microsoft TV
  • MSN Direct (special wristwatches that are updated wirelessly by MSN)
  • Media Center
  • Portable Media Center
  • Microsoft Class Server
  • Microsoft Encarta
  • Microsoft Automotive
  • And so on...

Just an amazing amount of stuff.

For more information, visit the Microsoft Web site.

Flat Speakers

S3i Wall Speakers
S3i Wall Speakers

Two different companies were showing flat speaker technology. S3i had speaker drivers that you build into a wall to turn entire sheets of drywall into speaker elements:

You could attach these drivers to anything -- the inside or outside of walls, large sheets of glass, etc.

NXT had a flat speaker technology being used by a variety of manufacturers (Pioneer, Sony, NEC) to make flat speakers. It is also possible to turn a laptop screen into a speaker with this technology.

NXT Flat speakers

For more information, visit the NXT and S3i Web sites.

Accele

Accele Mobile TVs
Accele Mobile TVs

One thing that became apparent at CES is that in-car television viewing is about to explode. There were dozens of manufacturers showing hundreds of models. Accele is one of those manufacturers:

These are aftermarket products that you can install in any automobile. Typically, you would install a DVD player, as well. Screens ranged from tiny ones that you would embed in your rear view mirror to flip-down and headrest displays.

For more information, visit the Accele Web site.

Realtec

5.1-channel headphones
5.1-channel headphones

Have you ever wished you could get real 5.1 surround sound in a pair of noise-isolating headphones? Now you can:

They sounded great!

For more information, visit the Realtec Web site.

ViewSonic

ViewSonic Tablet PC
ViewSonic Tablet PC

Let's say that you would like to read Web pages, instead of a book or magazine, in bed. ViewSonic had two different ways to do it. The first way is a tablet PC:

This is a pure tablet (as opposed to a laptop with a screen that folds back). That makes it smaller and a little more rugged. It is running the tablet version of Windows XP, so it has all the nice note-taking and character-recognition options. The operating system runs on an 866-MHz Pentium III-M processor with 256 MB of RAM and a 20-GB hard disk.

The other option is the less expensive Smart Display:

ViewSonic Smart Display

This seems to be a unique product. You hook it up to a PC like it's a normal touch-screen monitor. However, at any point you can detach this monitor and carry it with you. It continues talking to your PC wirelessly, with a range of several hundred feet. Your desktop PC needs to be running Windows XP Professional for this to work.

For more information, visit the Viewsonic Web site.

NisisUSA

NisisUSA booth
NisisUSA booth

There were a couple of booths that got my attention because of the number of people stacked up around them. NisisUSA was one of them:

They were selling a single product directly from the booth, as well as from their Web site. It was a 4-megapixel digital camera/AVI video camera (VGA resolution)/MP3 player-recorder/portable hard disk. The price was $199.

It comes with 16 MB memory and accepts Secure Digital memory cards. The use of Secure Digital cards seems to be universal -- Secure Digital has become the de facto standard, with nearly every camera, MP3 player, etc., accepting it.

For more information, visit the NisisUSA Web site.

Cell Bungee

Cell Bungee
Cell Bungee

The product is called Cell Bungee. It's a way to attach your cell phone to your belt or your purse with a thin, retractable cord so you never drop or misplace your cell phone again:

What was more interesting about this company than the product was the nature of the business. There were three people at the Cell Bungee booth, all related, who started the company together, imported the products, packaged them, did the marketing materials, got a booth at CES and came in from Brooklyn, NY, for the show. The only reason I noticed Cell Bungee was because the people grabbed me as I walked by and made sure I heard about their product.

There were lots of small companies like that from around the world at CES, selling products both simple and complex. All of them were taking their shot at the American dream. It was cool to see that even at a show this big and sophisticated, the little guy still has a shot.

For more information, visit the Cell Bungee Web site.

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