Live From CES 2011: Before It Begins

The eternal question asked when anyone hears you've been to CES is: "So -- what did you see that was cool?!" I'm always more impressed by the less-flashy products, that operate in a way that simplify the way people actually work and live.
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The circus has again come to town. The Consumer Electronics Show puts up its tent in Las Vegas today. For some, most perhaps, it's a madhouse of 200,000 inmates converging on the incomprehensible world of technology. But for me, this isn't a zoo that must be tolerated, but (with all deference to the holiday season just passed) it's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. This is Disneyland for adults.

CES is a unique asylum, and yes, there is something deeply geekish about it. As massive as the turnout is, and as much as Las Vegas is used to conventions, employees throughout the city don't necessarily look forward to it with open arms. Most conventions mean a big influx of tourists to gamble, eat, shop, see shows, partake of the tinged offerings the city provides, and gamble. And also, gamble. But ask the workers, and for them CES usually means a drop in tips. Techies not only don't gamble, they don't even tend to leave their high-tech cocoon to take in the city. What they do, shockingly, is immerse themselves in the convention -- why they came there. This is no vacation. What happens in Vegas during CES literally does stay there. Techies adore technology. They live and breathe it. It's what they talk. It's their sustenance. There's a reason geeks are considered geeks. They actually spend all their time at the convention -- and at end of day, most don't head to the gaming tables, restaurants, stage shows or strip clubs, but rather to the evening events to dive into even more technology. Because the technology truly and deeply interests them, because it's fun, because it actually is Disneyland for adults. And admittedly, in some cases, because it's the only language they speak...

Though the convention doors don't officially open until today, that doesn't mean that CES hasn't started. Press conferences have been filling the days, along with seminars, speeches and the shows within the show -- sideshows, if you will -- exhibitions of companies and vendors to attract early attention. Sneak peeks of what's to come.

Another barometer of what's to come is the avalanche of press releases that have been pouring in for the past month, pushing the product of choice. Tablets appear to be very big this year, hoping to find a place in the new market that Apple currently holds 95 percent of. Also, 3D -- televisions, yes, but that was largely last year. This year, there's been a massive influx of material for 3D glasses, whether for TVs, gaming or theatrical use. (Big as 3D TV has been pushed, I still have qualms about it breaking through in the short run. The quality is there, but it's simply not the way that people socialize and watch television at home. Further, the whole "glasses" issue is a serious one, because they're not compatible. Having a Super Bowl party with 40 friends? Got enough glasses for them all?) And oddly, automobiles seem to be high focus this year. Yes, cars. Not the mechanics, though, but how they're turning into moving Internet convergence zones.

As for a real, hands-on look, though, that's where you get to start to answer the eternal question asked when anyone hears you've been to CES. "So -- what did you see that was cool?!" Personally, I'm always more impressed by the often less-flashy products, sometimes breathtakingly simple, that operate in a way that simplify the way people actually work and live. Cool is good, too, of course, but then there's plenty enough of both on view..

Two of the more notable products showcases are Showstoppers and Pepcom's Digital Experience, put on specifically for the press. Last night was the latter. It's just a hint of what's to come once the convention doors fly open, but infinitely more civilized and organized than the general free-for-all of the convention proper. No zoo at all, but rather top vendors present their upcoming products in a low-key, contained ballroom, as reporters wander their way around with decibel levels manageable, stopping long enough to refresh themselves at the rows of buffet tables.

Barnes & Noble was there, showing off its new Color Nook ebook reader, hoping to leap past Amazon's black-and-white Kindle. The 7" LCD touch display was vibrant and crisp, and flipped through pages with seamless ease. It's only Wi-Fi (no 3G connection) and has mediocre battery. Somewhat similar is a color touch ebook from PanDigital, generally known for its picture frames. In fact, it just signed a deal to partner with Barnes & Noble for its content. It comes in several configurations and sizes, and will be introducing a 9" screen 3G version in February. Thanks to the color screen, it too has only fair battery life with a range of six to nine hours.

A synching technology that's been around for a couple years, developed by Pogoplug, is finally growing to maturity, with quite a few new products hitting the market. Basically (and oversimplifying), this is a technology that allows one to create a network-like server at home with great ease, which allows you to access all of your content wherever you are in the world. Pogoplug has its own product, of course, but licenses the technology to Seagate that offers its GoFlex Net Media device (that uses Seagate's own GoFlex drives), and also Buffalo whose Cloudstor comes with either a 1 or 2 terrabyte drive included.

Somewhat similar are a couple of software product/services -- Dropbox and SugarSync. You install the free software on your computers, which creates a space for you in the cloud that will allow you to access from anywhere any content you put in it. (The content can also be accessed from any computer via an online account.) The free space is limited -- quite small compared to an external hard drive -- though it's probably plenty enough for most people -- but you can purchase extra space.

Mitsubishi showed off its 3D PLP home cinema TV -- and "home cinema" is an apt name. The demonstration unit was 73" and the company has 92" model coming very soon, ready to immerse you. The 3D process was extremely impressive, though the picture wasn't totally crisp -- in fairness it was streaming a movie under oppressive conditions. The active shutter glasses were very light and would fit around one's own glasses, though I found the nose guard pieces a bit distracting.

As for 3D, Fujitsu introduced itsAH572 Lifebook notebook with 3D capability. It wasn't the best 3D quality I've seen, but solid. And impressive to see in a notebook.

There are now a huge amount of products that let you watch internet content on your TV or TV on your computer. Things like the Roku box, Logitech's Revue and Yahoo Connected TV. And many more on display. Just think, it was but a few two years ago that Hollywood studios and the AMPTP were telling striking writers that the concept of TV on computers was oh-so far in the distant future and they had noooo idea if there was money that could be made from it. (Pay no attention to the billboards promoting HBO Go. "It's HBO. On your computer.")

Finally, there was one piece of technology that is likely of little or no use to the home user, though has other applications, and it was definitely in the "cool" category: Samsung's transparent AMOLED display. Think of it like the display window of a store that can act like a monitor, playing movies or anything. Though only 2D, because it's transparent and you can see everything in the room behind it, it gives the sense of great depth and richness.

But all that's just a brief touch of what's to come. Merely a three-hour exhibit. The real madhouse starts today, in 30 minutes...

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