It could be described as a sprawling Olympic village for techno-geeks. Or an after-Christmas present for electronics lovers - manufacturers, buyers, analysts, and news media. For most people, though, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas - which attracts more than 2,400 exhibitors and 120,000 visitors from 110 countries - offers a peek at the not-so-distant future of electronics. A chance to gawk and talk about the latest in gadgets and gizmos from digital cameras to satellite radios and automobile navigation systems.
So, what might you expect to see in a store near you?
When everyone packs up for home this Sunday, video in all its many shapes, formats, and sizes may make the biggest impression. The year 2005 could mark the real liberation of video from a modest screen in the corner of the family room to moving pictures that truly move - anywhere, everywhere, whenever - in cars, on laptops and portable DVD players, on mobile phones and other hand-held devices. One vendor at CES is even showing special eyeglasses that display video into one eye while the other keeps aware of the viewer's surroundings, a kind of video iPod.
The maker of TiVo, the digital video recorder, has announced a new "TiVo to Go" system just in time for the Vegas extravaganza. This product lets television programs be transferred from a TV to laptops and hand-held devices for portable viewing. It's all about flexibility and mobility, as wireless technologies begin to allow video (and other data) to move easily and conveniently between devices.
A new computing platform called Sonoma, powered by Intel, promises to turn a laptop computer into a mobile media center, including high-definition audio.
Battles of titans, of course, will be waged. Microsoft and others from the world of computers are confronting Sony and others from the world of entertainment to see who will capture a consumer market that values not only faster and cooler, but also simple and reliable. Consumers who can't be bothered to set their VCR timer don't want to have to become their own technical support department every time they use a gadget.
Of course, as the crown jewel of home tech, the TV in the living room will continue its makeover, getting bigger and flatter. Thin is in. Many companies are competing for eyeballs with screens up to 102 inches in size and technologies such as plasma, LCD, and LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon) are giving screens breathtaking clarity.
Large-screen, rear-projection TVs that offer a home-theater experience but hog half the living room are being put on a diet. RCA's new DLP (digital light processing) 61-inch rear projection TV, less than seven inches thick and capable of being hung on the wall, was named the best innovation in digital display at the show. Groundbreaking technology for a mere $6,995.
"It gives you all the advantages of plasma or LCD at a price point that's actually considerably lower for this screen size," says spokesman James Harper.
Meanwhile, as people accumulate thousands of digital photos, games, songs, and videos, they need a way to store and find them. Meedio Essentials, from year-old Meedio LLC, for example, helps people record and organize their digital treasures on their PCs - the long-anticipated home media center - and its HouseBot product will control appliances and lights using a PC or hand-held device.
Companies are vying to control who will bring content - data, video, etc. - into the home and who will distribute it around the house, says Sean Wargo, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Association, which sponsors the show.
Consumer electronics became a $113.5 billion industry in 2004, a healthy 10.7 percent increase over 2003, Mr. Wargo says.
The sales star? Flat-screen LCD TVs, which grew by 204.5 percent in 2004, followed closely by digital video recorders (TiVo and competitors) at 203.9 percent. Plasma-screen TVs, the first of the big, flat, and skinny, were up 58.4 percent.
When polled, Wargo says, consumers list a plasma TV as No. 1 on their wish lists of high-tech products. "What they're really saying is they want a flat-screen TV," he says, regardless of the exact technology.
Consumers spent some $4 billion on flat-screen TVs in 2004, and prices slid 30 percent, indicating more affordable models are on the way. Might the familiar, venerable, and chunky cathode-ray-tube TV disappear soon from the market?
Not in 2005, Wargo says. But by 2008, the "tube" could well be an endangered species.