It's official: The Consumer Electronics Show is too big for me to cover or digest.
This year it expanded to both Las Vegas convention halls (the Las Vegas and the Sands) and forced many showgoers and media attendees to fight for cabs and hop on the somewhat frustrating monorail — which has gotten more expensive but added no new stops— to get to appointments between the two venues.
It was a circus in almost every sense of the word. There were 120,000 attendees, hundreds of companies exhibiting, more booths than I could see in a lifetime and a competing porn convention that gave silicon a very different and less technical meaning.
(At one point, the erotica conference let out an hour earlier than CES, and an army of porn gods and goddesses prevented CES attendees from getting back to the Sands convention center. All anyone could do was sit back and watch the parade go by.)
With all this madness, I found myself focusing on smaller, more manageable areas. I especially loved traversing the back alleys where the smaller booths and tiniest companies lived. They're always more interesting than the big Phillips and Samsung booths, and they certainly offered more substance than glitz.
Overall, I found some interesting trends, a few surprising technologies, one important omission, and assorted and entertaining highlights.
Take Me to Your Leader
The Sands was the home of CES's Innovations Pavilion, including a Robotics TechZone. At its center were Radio Shack's VEX Robotics Kit arena, where two hand-built robots struggled to find and control a bunch of green rubber balls, and LEGO's Mindstorms, with the new NXT kit, which oddly won't ship until August of this year. The LEGO guys smartly built a functioning LEGO slot machine just for the event.
The pavilion was run by Robotics Trends, so it was largely a rehash of vendors from last fall's RoboNexus. I did see a Roomba competitor — CleanMate 365, a disc-shaped robot from Metapo. CleanMate 365 not only vacuums, it promises to "sanitize and deodorize" at the same time.
In some ways, it looks and works so much like the iRobot Roomba that I can almost smell the lawsuit. On the other hand, this robot does not map the room. So while it can avoid falling down stairs, it uses five preset room patterns to clean an entire room.
Oddly, neither iRobot or WowWee, perhaps the two most successful consumer robotics companies around, were actually inside the Robotics TechZone. Instead, they were aisles away. iRobot demonstrated its new Scooba robot floor mop and WowWee showed off its eagerly anticipated 2006 line.
I played around with a couple of WowWee's new bots on the show floor. The P.E.A. Bot, a product of a development partnership between Segway (makers of the Human Transporter) and WowWee, does, in fact, continuously and autonomously balance on two wheels, all the while blathering on with semi-humorous and sarcastic remarks.
The Roboreptile, an update to the wildly popular Roboraptor, is one of the angriest and most vicious toy robots I've ever seen — great fun and I can't wait to test the final one.
The new Robosapien looks a lot like the current V2, but the one at the show had a functioning display in its chest. It's still early in the development process, so the camera was in not in the robot's head.
Instead, it sat in a large box next to the robot — there's some irony here, though I can't quite figure out what it is.
Future Robotics showed off a vaguely humanoid looking robot called Solo, which had a flat head, four wheels instead of legs, and two stumpy arms. He wasn't out roaming the floor, so I wasn't that impressed.
There were some sparsely attended conferences going on adjacent to the robots zone, but the speakers were hard to hear and no one looked that excited. Honda's Asimo was at the show, too, but nowhere near the other robots. Here's hoping that CES and Robotics Trends can make this a more cohesive area next year.
I See IPTV
I also took a tour of the Internet Protocol Television Zone at the show. These companies have been at this a while, but it's only recently that anyone has started to care. Now IPTV is all the rage.
DaveTV (Distributed Audio and Video Entertainment) is still trying to sell its monthly services and proprietary set-top box, which is very much like a TiVo Series 2, with an 80GB hard drive and a $99 to $199 price tag, mostly through service providers.
Now, along with downloadable shows from its library of niche content, end users can stream IP television shows. It has National Geographic shows, college basketball games and lots of other niche shows among its 100,000 hours of programming content.
The content is decent, and I guess the streaming is good news, but I still have trouble understanding who would want DaveTV's somewhat specialized content or want to pay for its premium content.
Until recently, Akimbo's business model was very similar to DaveTV's. The company sold a set-top box and had a stable of licensed, niche-market content. It also had very few users (though the company would not reveal exact numbers to me).
Now it's jettisoned the hardware business and is licensing its technology to RCA Thompson, which will begin selling a new set-top box in April. Akimbo also announced a deal with MovieLink to offer its online services library of feature-length studio films through the RCA device.
This is something I can get behind, having actually downloaded a MovieLink film to my laptop and then jury-rigged everything to watch it on my regular TV.
The RCA box will cost consumers $199, the movies will cost $4.95 a pop, and, frustratingly, you'll still have to spend $9.99 a month for the Akimbo service. I'm not sure what the value proposition is there, and once TiVo gets its act together with downloadable movies, Akimbo, and potentially DaveTV, can kiss their businesses goodbye.
I also saw my friends at ITVN (Internet Television network, formerly XTV). The company has made remarkable progress in a year and, as promised, is no longer only delivering streaming TV-quality pornography via its proprietary boxes. They've even added rudimentary file-sharing (between subscribers).
Still, the company is clearly struggling to get quality mainstream content into its mix. So far it has classic movies that are so old they've slipped into the public domain and odd sports channels, including one devoted to lacrosse.
This is a shame, because of all the IP-based TV technologies out there, this one remains the simplest and in some ways the most effective. But if ITVN can't convince even one cable TV network (like, say, The Learning Channel) to port some of its shows over, it could be in trouble.
Some of my other key CES moments and products in no particular order:
Apple was not there, but the company was there in spirit, in every aisle, and — it seemed — in most products. Steve Jobs will save his energy for Macworld. I'll withhold further comment until another column.
Best 'Aha!' Product
The technology behind Silex Technologies' biometric print server, SecurePrint, is a model of simplicity. Files printed to a network server are held in queue until you go over and put your finger on the biometric fingerprint reader. Once you've verified your identity, the potentially sensitive documents print out.
The fingerprint reader and accompanying device server are available now for $499. Company officials said that every time they demonstrate the product, someone always mentions how useful it would be to print resumes secretly on the office network printers — great minds think alike.
Best Patent Pending Idea
The Chatter Bug from Lagunawave is a product that's wacky enough to be interesting. It gives you VoIP long-distance service on any phone, without you signing up for an Internet service. It uses a little $19.95 device that sits between your regular phone and phone line, and the company wants just $9.95 a month to route your calls through its IP routers. This one I plan on trying out.
Handheld Entertainment's ZVUE 250 looked like a slick handheld portable audio, video and picture player, with a pretty decent 234-by-134 pixel screen. And at $129, it sounded like a bargain. Then the company rep told me it had just 256MB of storage space. NEXT!
The Dreameo Solo has significantly more storage (20GB), but the handheld device doesn't offer enough memory or a big enough screen to justify the $799 price tag.
A wearable USB wristband from Imation ($34.95). I love the idea of having a 128MB thumb drive with me all the time, especially one that also happens to look good. I wore it for a couple of days and found it so comfortable that I forgot it was there until someone else pointed it out and asked me about it.
Best Sneaky Idea
The Stash Card. It's a PC card that's actually a miniature safe-deposit box for your PC. Flip open the top and you can store money, tiny memory cards, a key, a piece of paper with your password, you name it (if it's flat enough). Finally, a use for my nearly useless PCMCIA slot. You can find it at www.wirelessgarden.com.
Biggest Surprise of My Trip
I traveled through New York and Las Vegas airport security without anyone noticing or realizing that I had a small pocket knife in my backpack.
My No. 1 Headscratcher of the Show
Definitive Technology's "New BiPolar SuperTowers" speakers — a concept so frightening I was afraid to ask what it really means.
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