International Consumer Electronics Show brings super-size screens, wafer-thin TVs, and pink Tasers

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      Some of the biggest consumer technologies have been revealed at the International Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegas: the VCR was unveiled in 1970, the CD player in 1981, and the DVD player in 1996. But CES—which took place January 7 to 10—is bursting at the seams these days, and there have been complaints from both exhibitors and attendees that the show is too big. This year, organizers said they were considering moving the show out of Sin City, because the cost of keeping the event there is too high.

      If there was a theme to this year’s show—aside from the unofficial competition for the slickest television—it was that devices are worthless without content. An announcement on January 4, three days before the start of CES, proved that.

      Warner Bros. revealed that it was dropping its support of HD DVD in favour of the competing high-definition video format, Blu-ray Disc. That sent the HD DVD Promotional Group—suddenly left with only two major studios supporting its format—into a tailspin. It abruptly cancelled an event and began practising how to smile in the face of certain defeat.

      The press briefing by Microsoft is the unofficial start of the trade show, and this year’s keynote speech by chairman Bill Gates was his last before he retires from his day-to-day role in the company in July. Most of his announcements were about content deals for MSN (including a deal with NBC Universal for the Beijing Olympics) and Xbox Live (Disney Channel and ABC television shows and MGM films). Possibly most significant to Canadians will be the spring launch of Microsoft’s Zune media player north of the 49th.

      The television manufacturers were their usual splashy selves, trying to outdo one another with presentations of prototype models and ever-larger screen size. Mitsubishi showed off its 65-inch laser TV, which will be available this year and can deliver 3-D viewing, but Panasonic’s 150-inch plasma screen, at 11 feet long, took the biggest-screen prize.

      These days, televisions also need to be smaller—well, thinner—and the Pioneer Kuro plasma is only nine millimetres thick. Sony’s organic light-emitting diode (OLED) prototype has a screen that’s only three millimetres deep and can display a one-million-to-one contrast. The screen size is only 27 inches, though, but if you want to own one now, you’ll have to settle for 11 inches.

      Bloggers with the Web site Gizmodo, who were equipped with a bunch of TV-B-Gone devices (universal remote controls), turned off an entire wall display of Panasonic screens, bewildering booth staffers, who couldn’t figure out what was going on. “Panasonic,” Brian Lam wrote, “you’re so lucky that 150-incher didn’t have an active IR port.”

      The other screens garnering attention were two curved monitor prototypes for the hard-core gamer set. From Alienware and NEC, the monitors are served by four Digital Light Processing (DLP) projectors, and provide a panoramic view when you’re sitting at an optimal distance from the screen.

      Taser International displayed its new designer line. The Taser C2 now comes in fashion pink, red hot, leopard print, and other colours, and the company now offers the MPH holster, which doubles as a music player with a storage capacity of one gigabyte.

      In other news, LG’s cellphone watch prototype means anyone can be a secret agent. You operate it using a Bluetooth headset. Belkin’s Podcast Studio turns your iPod into a portable recording studio. The Optimus Maximus OLED keyboard prototype has tiny screens embedded in each key, so the symbols on your keyboard can be context-relevant and easily switchable, depending on the program you’re running. The iriver Lplayer media player, a tiny touchscreen device the size of a pack of gum, has a two-inch screen and eight gigabytes of storage. Microvision’s SHOW Pico Projector is another fit-in-your-palm gadget. It connects to any RGB/composite/S-Video output and, using lasers, can output a high-resolution, full-colour image up to 100 inches wide in a darkened room. Imagine having that built into your next cellphone.

      If there’s one device from the show I’d like to have, it’s Sling Media’s new SlingCatcher. The company was built on sending television signals to computers halfway across the world, and the new Catcher can do that, as well as pull content from computers for viewing on the television. It supports multiple video codecs and containers, including AVI, DivX, MOV, WMA, and XviD. Plus, it will sync content with an external hard drive. The SlingCatcher, which will be available later this year, can do more than any other set-top box promises.