Series: Reports from CES 2008
Jeff Porten, our roving correspondent, wanders the aisles at CES 2008 and finds a slew of cool new gadgets, services, and companies. But CES is a big place, and Jeff is sufficiently fried by the end that he accidentally asks a Playboy Playmate about Tasers and is pranked by Dan Frakes of Macworld.
Article 1 of 4 in series
by Jeff Porten
You may have thought that Macworld Expo is a big trade show, and it's not small. But compared to CES, as our intrepid correspondent Jeff Porten found out, Macworld is small and (luckily) highly focused.Show full article
[Editor's note: Intrepid roving correspondent Jeff Porten braved the aisles at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which was held last week in Las Vegas, Nevada. We published his reports on our Web page as he filed them, when he was conscious enough to write.]
Hello from CES, the largest consumer electronics trade show in the world, dedicated to testing the upper limits of human endurance and forcing its attendees to exceed them.
No, really. I just spent the first day of CES at The Venetian/Sands Expo and Convention Center in Las Vegas, where I succeeded in covering just about half of the show floor. There's the other half of this floor, three other levels of exhibits, the Tower Suites for select companies, and an additional exhibition next door at the Wynn that runs until 10 PM.
After I finish all that tomorrow, I head to the Las Vegas Convention Center. The Venetian holds just the satellite show; most of the exhibits and events are at the LVCC. All told, CES has 1.8 million square feet of exhibit space, and around 250,000 people are expected to walk on it this week. The entire show requires seven different folding maps.
To put it another way, given my habit of attacking a trade show floor in grid style (up one aisle and down the next), and since most exhibitors are all too happy to hand me paper brochures made of thinly sliced wood, I'm expecting to hike 10 miles a day carrying upwards of 40 pounds of conference swag. (If anyone is interested in my Getting Things Done approach to trade shows, see my sidebar article.)
I have a stack of such swag which I have yet to go through and write about, so here's a quick note about what I'm looking to cover for TidBITS. There are a few companies here with products that are more or less unique in their area, and interesting products will catch my eye. But the majority of exhibits have devices that differ only in slight ways from the competition, so my focus is on the products whose competitive differences really connect with the target audience.
I have some items here which illustrate this idea. In front, a media kit from Solio (manufacturers of solar power accessories); by putting this on a flash drive, it's easy to carry and will in the future be useful to me in a way a DVD won't. The round red pen is a giveaway from Genius; unlike most other pens given away at the show, it won't get lost in the bottom of my bag. Finally, the official World Series of Poker lighter I bought yesterday; not for the logo, but for the form factor: it's flat and will fit in just about any pocket I care to throw it into.
I'll generally be too polite to mention the companies whose competitive features are negatives, but there are many people here who are making the same mistake by giving out information on mini-CDs the size of a business card. These are guaranteed to break the slot-loading drive in my MacBook immediately, and if that's the only way they're circulating information, it counts as points off on their friendliness to the Mac community; unless someone came here with a Mac Pro desktop, they're not reading those disks.
Onward! Tune in soon for some actual product coverage.
Article 2 of 4 in series
by Jeff Porten
CES is all about gadgets, and Jeff Porten has hunted down some of the most interesting ones, including a keyboard that can change the picture on each keycap, a USB flash drive that backs up files online, a head-mounted display for your iPod, and more.Show full article
You know you're a geek when one of the best parts of your day in Las Vegas is seeing a new hot new keyboard.
Art Lebedev is showing the real, non-vaporware, made-of-actual-atoms Optimus Maximus keyboard, on which each key houses a tiny OLED display. When you switch your layout from QWERTY to Dvorak, all the keycaps change with it. Perhaps more usefully, special function keys and the standard Fkeys can display application icons to remind you what they're all going to do.
At $460 a pop, the Optimus Maximus is a splurge for most people, but I can see how it would be useful for public computers that are used by an international group - I've been to dozens of conferences where the participants had to mentally remap a physical keyboard to their home country's layout. I suspect it's also just a matter of time before some lifehack Web site comes up with a method to make this a fantastic productivity tool; just think of what you could do with AppleScript, macros, and a keyboard that dynamically changes functions and shows you how it's changing to automate your workflow into one or two keystrokes.
There are some fascinating power accessories here at CES. Powercast is demoing various methods of transmitting power without wires, which would be great for charging cell phones and laptops without plugs. Aqua PowerSystem is looking for American distributors for their batteries that run on water. Any kind of water: "It will work with alcoholic drink, beer, cola, coffee, and even saliva or urine in an emergency situation without water." Apparently fuel cells are also being demonstrated elsewhere on the show floor; finding them is on my to-do list.
The winner for Best Geordi LaForge iPod accessory is i-Vue's video eyewear. A decent display and built-in headphones make this a killer toy for watching movies on a plane, but text starts to break down at greater than 800 by 600 resolutions, so it won't do much for portable productivity.
It's cool, but is it useful? SanDisk's Cruzer Titanium Plus is a USB flash drive with 4 GB of memory, with a twist. The gimmick is that everything you put on the drive is also uploaded simultaneously to online storage. (Through your computer; the drive itself doesn't go online.) It's good to have a redundancy plan, but I can't think of a use where I'd need to have a file in three places, one of them being on my person - if I'm physically carrying a file, that's because I've decided I won't have online access to it. The drive costs $60, and the online storage costs $30 per year after six months for free. (I have to say, when you're carrying around about 20 GB in free flash storage from exhibitors, it lowers your opinion of the market value.)
Another neat idea - I think - comes from PhoneCasting, which lets you record a podcast or audio blog entry by phone, simplifying what can be a tricky process. PhoneCasting also assigns a phone number to every podcast it records, enabling your listeners (all 3.25 billion worldwide cell phone subscribers, according to PhoneCasting's rather breathless press release, which you can hear at 702-553-2764) to call up and hear your latest podcast over the phone. There are SMS messages to alert people to the existence of a podcast show, and PhoneCasting can insert radio-style ads into your podcast so you can generate revenue as well. How many people want to listen to podcasts via long and likely expensive phone calls? I can't criticize too much, having accidentally left my iPod nano at home, but it seems questionable. Podcasters receive 250 MB of storage for free and presumably pay for extra; the cost, if any, to those making the calls is oddly not mentioned in my press kit or on the home page.
Article 3 of 4 in series
by Jeff Porten
Jeff Porten continues to wander the cavernous halls of CES in search of cool stuff... and this time he finds something that could help him get around: the 13 MPH iShoes! (Really. We're not kidding.)Show full article
CES continues to amaze, with an astonishing variety of products and services. Here's what stood out on my second day.
ifrogz caught my eye with their interesting "thumpz" iPod cases with built-in speakers, about the same size as earbuds. Unfortunately, my ears don't work well enough for me to report back on speaker quality, so I turned down the demo in the soundproof booth. Versions for the 3G iPod nano are slated to ship 14-Jan-08 for $24.99, with a version for the iPod classic to follow.
Earbud or spaceman? Speaking of poor hearing, if you're interested in keeping your ears in pristine condition, or if you're encouraging your children to do so, you might want to check out the American Speech-Language- Hearing Association's Listen to Your Buds campaign. Featuring, er, either an anthropomorphic earbud, or a Lego spaceman, depending upon your interpretation. Essentially, you can permanently damage your hearing with your headphones, and children are especially susceptible; if you'd rather avoid learning to lip-read in noisy environments like I have to, stop by their site.
Are you bored with that monotonous single-color case for your MacBook or iPod? Gelaskins impressed me with their eye for design in their line of custom skin cases. I'm particularly fond of MC Escher's Drawing Hands laptop case and Hokusai's The Great Wave for iPods. But if that's not enough for you, Digiskin showed off their kiosk, which they claim can be used to print custom images for any device, including cell phones. I neglected to ask for the price, but this looks like something a business would use to sell customized cases to its customers. If you can't pick up one on your own, look for it at a mall near you.
When it comes to design, LaCie offers a wide variety of storage devices with cases by famous designers. They're now extending their Little Disk product line with even smaller models that look more like Zippo lighters than cases for the forthcoming 1.3-inch 30 or 40 GB hard drives; even so, they still have a built-in USB cable. Larger models (still around the size of a tin of Altoids) offer up to 250 GB and have an option for FireWire. LaCie's press release says immediate availability, but the Web site hasn't yet been updated and the booth said "next month."
TechForward wasn't demoing any technology, but rather an interesting angle on electronics insurance. They'll sell you a "buyback plan" which guarantees that they'll pay you a set amount of money for your hardware at some future date. For example, buy a MacBook today and pay them $39; sell them your MacBook in one year for $460, or in two years for $380, regardless of its market value. Interestingly, they offer plans for iPods, but not for Zunes - I wonder why. They'll sell this to you directly, or offer it as a point-of-sale purchase from other vendors. (And they're promising those vendors a cut of the revenue, so that might be a negotiating point for savvy buyers.) The idea is that you can upgrade your equipment at less than the actual cost, since you'll get a guaranteed payment later. I suspect you'll sometimes do better on eBay, but this is certainly a no-hassle alternative.
If you've ever wanted to zip around town like Woz on his Segway, but with a gizmo that fits into a backpack, check out iShoes. Somehow they've managed to come up with battery powered roller skates that can carry you about 3 miles (not quite 5 kilometers) on a single charge, with a top speed of about 13 miles per hour (21 kilometers per hour). I have no idea how safe this is, but it looks like the coolest locomotion you'll see until someone can sell us a hoverboard. They're apparently available now, for a mere $599 plus $20 shipping. If you buy a pair, let us know how it goes.
Finally, a shout-out to the folks from Opera Software, authors of (among other software) the wonderful Opera Mini for cell phones and Java-capable devices. I ran into several of them in the outdoor smoking area, and jokingly introduced myself by saying, "Hey, I think you guys just crashed my phone." To my surprise, they really cared and asked me all sorts of questions about my usage, then quizzed me about my thoughts on their product and how they could increase usage in the United States. (My reply: the people most likely to need their software are unfortunately the ones least likely to ever hear about it.) If you've ever surmised from Opera's Web site and forums that this is a company made up of really nice Norwegians, I can attest to your accuracy.
Article 4 of 4 in series
by Jeff Porten
CES is now over, but read on for Jeff Porten's final collection of products, booths, services, and more, along with an explanation of exactly how he ended up asking a Playboy Playmate for information on Tasers.Show full article
They say Las Vegas has a strong psychological effect on the males of our species, causing us to say and do things here that we'd otherwise know to avoid due to good sense or good taste.
That said, I'm probably the first man in the history of Vegas who has ever walked up to a Playboy Playmate and said, "Hi, I'm looking for whatever you can tell me about Tasers."
Really, that's the whole story. I have no excuse. Yes, I had noted that she and the three other women sitting at her table stood out from the crowd, but I somehow didn't notice that they were there to sign autographs instead of hand out product information.
As for the actual products at the show, I'll have to admit to being underwhelmed. CES is where I like to see for the first time the new technologies that I think will be ubiquitous in five years. Not so much of that at this show. If you wanted to compare 100 brands of truly massive televisions, or 350 brands of eardrum-blowing speakers, CES was definitely the place to be. But I've been coming here on and off for 20 years, and I remember seeing my first DVD and picking up the first issue of Wired. It's entirely possible I missed something with a show this size, but little jumped out at me as being truly groundbreaking.
One possible exception was the bizarre iRobot ConnectR, coming later this year from the people who normally automate your vacuuming with the Roomba. The ConnectR is another short round robot, but it's for communicating with your family: when you're away from home, you log into the ConnectR over the Internet, and use the swivel-mounted webcam and two-way audio to talk to your kids (or your extremely patient spouse, presumably). If the boy goes mobile, you just drive it around to follow him. [Editor's note: The mind boggles, but we'll save our comments from the perspective of being actual parents for another article. -Adam]
I'd write the ConnectR up anyway, just on the basis of it just being a cool piece of gear, but it strikes me as potentially breakout - if the mid-21st century finds us all using telematic devices to create a physical virtual presence, in addition to the ways we use the Internet today to cut down on virtual distance, then this will have been among the first of its kind. It's also quite possible that it's just too far out in left field to take hold; I can think of several rather geeky friends who travel away from their families often, and I still can't picture one of them using this.
There was also plenty of information at CES about "intelligent transportation systems," with a nice overview provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation's department of the same name. ITS seems to cover, broadly, pretty much any information technology you might want to put in a car, but there are several technologies that might change the way we travel. Most interesting to me is Vehicle Infrastructure Integration, which essentially makes every car a node in a peer-to-peer network. In the early stages, this will be used for realtime traffic data and the like, but it could be an incremental on-ramp, as it were, to the self-driving cars of the future, which can fit more cars on the existing asphalt with less congestion, and let you safely talk on the phone because the car computer is handling the driving. An alternative path being explored to the same destination is the "smart highway"; but which do you think makes more sense, putting a few billion dollars into every road, or incrementally upgrading the smarts of each automobile?
(Speaking of which... only a government would inflict its employees with a URL with the word "dot" in the domain. Imagine yourself at parties: "hi, I'm Jeff at dot dot gov.")
I did see a few other things of note.
Vonage was handing out their $39.99 V-Phone for laptops; essentially, it's just a 250 MB USB flash drive with a 2.5mm headphone/microphone jack. It came with the Windows software to make calls, but they neglected to include the Mac version (despite ample room on the drive), so I can't comment on its sound quality just yet. You can try it out yourself by downloading the Mac software, along with a 30-day trial account. You don't need the USB dongle - the Mac audio in/out will work fine - although I can tell you from experience that it's nice to have a dedicated hardware port to use with Vonage and similar software.
If you have a bunch of home electronics that aren't yet wireless, and you're tired of stringing 100-foot cables from room to room, you might want to check out MoCA (the Multimedia over Coax Alliance), an industry consortium that's creating standards aimed at letting you use your home's existing internal coaxial cable for home networking.
Wacom impressed me with the $999 Cintiq 12WX external touchscreen monitor. Hook it up as an external monitor to your Mac, and you end up with a touch-sensitive tablet displaying the video; the promotional materials show it in use with Photoshop and a Wacom pen. The 12.1-inch Cintiq 12WX requires an external control box, so I wouldn't think of it as providing an ersatz tablet computing experience, unless you're crazy enough like some people to carry around lots of hardware (see "Build Your Own 23-inch MacBook," 2007-02-05).
I didn't stick around to play with one, but I was impressed by the brief demos I saw of the Moxi home digital media recorder system; in addition to the Tivo-style capabilities, the hardware and software provides a wide range of interactivity with your home network.
I also missed a demo of the new Myvu personal media viewer headgear. Like the i-Vue video eyewear I mentioned in "CES 2008 Day 1: Keyboards, Power, Eyewear, and More" (2008-01-09), I'm intrigued by wearable monitor technology, but without trying it, I can't tell you if the Myvu video eyewear lets you see what's happening around you better.
Finally, the award for best practical joke at CES goes to Dan Frakes of Macworld. I ran into him in front of the Zoombak booth, where they were demoing the $199.99 "LoJack for dogs" (actually called "Advanced GPS Dog Locator"), a pager-sized device that you can attach to a dog, suitcase, or some other similarly sized item that might wander off without you. If it goes missing, you track said item on their Web site.
But this wasn't immediately clear to me, and the way Dan described it, I thought that Zoombak's stuffed animal giveaways were the product, and that there was a GPS locator chip inside so you could track your children. (Which, frankly, strikes me as a pretty cool idea, until such time as parents are comfortable with subdermally "chipping" their children.) Trust me when I say this led to a highly confused conversation between me and two PR guys.
I'm still not sure whether Dan deliberately tried to put one over on me, or if I'm just so fried this week that I jumped to conclusions from his perfectly good explanation. Considering my conversation about Tasers with Miss June 2004, I probably shouldn't blame him.