The future has arrived and it's brought toys

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      This week I'd like to highlight a few interesting gadgets that have come to my attention. And I'd like to start by praising WowWee ( ). That's a great name for a company that makes such fun products. Most shoppers are probably familiar with the Robosapien and Roboraptor lines from WowWee–they always seem to be on display in electronics and toy departments because they're so cool. I've been somewhat acquainted with consumer-level robotics since the early 1970s, and I just can't believe the level of technology packed into something like the Robosapien V2 for $250. Yet despite its sophistication, that's probably the most mundane product WowWee makes.

      Not that Robo2 isn't astounding–it's an actual miniaturized realization of what we all expect a robot to be. Maybe that's why it seems so ordinary. But if you visit the Web site, check out the upcoming insectoid Roboquad and the similarly not-yet-available Robopanda. A cute and furry panda? Not really. It's all smooth plastic, with a strange anime, cartoonlike face. Besides looking odd, it purportedly performs a lot of interactive and learning activities.

      And that's just the robotics division. There's also WowWee Alive, where the first product is a pretty realistic and life-size animatronic chimpanzee head that moves its features, makes authentic sounds, and is operated by remote control. The company's Web store (which only operates in the States) lists it at US$70, and apparently it isn't being distributed in Canada yet. However, you can always find one via an obliging eBay retailer for around US$50 (plus shipping). Allegedly, the Alive division's next product will be a singing Elvis Presley head. Flytech ( ), WowWee's latest division, has received a lot of attention for its remote-controlled Dragonfly, which flaps its wings to fly. It's due out in Canadian stores this month.

      A Burnaby company named Icron ( ) has patented and now sells USB hubs that let you connect up to four devices. What makes the WiRanger Cable Free USB 2.0 Hub special is that it works wirelessly over a distance of up to 30 metres from its base station.

      You can expand to a maximum of 14 devices (including hubs). Admittedly, the average home user might not need or want such a thing (at least until the US$395 price for a paired hub and receiver inevitably comes down to a more palatable level), but I can think of lots of office layouts that would benefit from having fewer wires running around.

      Hopping up the price scale a bit is the PJ258D ViewDock video projector from ViewSonic (about $1,300; ). It uses one of those DLP chips, so the projector unit is small and lightweight (less than two kilograms). The resolution is 1024 by 768 pixels, the projected image size can be anywhere from 40 inches to 300 inches (measured diagonally), and besides the usual video, HDTV, game-console, and computer inputs this model offers a docking port right on top for a video iPod. You'll probably want to connect some kind of external speakers (there's only one internal speaker, and it packs a measly one-watt wallop), but it's fascinating to think of a wall-sized picture coming out of a tiny iPod. Salvage an old VCR to act as a TV tuner, and you've got a unique home-theatre setup that's overwhelming when it's on and essentially invisible when it's off. Don't forget the mobility factor–make a business presentation in the afternoon and turn your garage into a drive-in theatre in the evening.

      I rarely pay attention to digital cameras anymore, but I did notice the Olympus SP-550UZ ( ). It boasts the biggest optical-zoom range available in a compact digital, a stunning 18 times. That's like having a 28mm wide-angle lens that transforms into a 504mm telephoto at the push of a button. As an old 35mm photographer who used to carry four separate lenses (including two heavy zooms) to achieve less range than that, I think it's astounding, especially in something that only weighs 365 grams (without batteries) and can easily be held in one hand. It even auto-focuses and has image stabilization.

      It has a 7.1-megapixel sensor that's good in low-light conditions, a huge bright LCD screen on the back, and it sells for around $600, which is a whole world of amazement just by itself.

      Finally, you know how in the computer world Apple has always been a boutique brand with a better product but at a higher price? This has been especially true in the mobile media player market. Well, Archos ( ) has always built products that are to iPods what iMacs are to PCs, with features like video long before Apple got into it. The latest is the 80-gigabyte Archos 704 WiFi ($650). Why should you pay $250 more than what an 80-gig video iPod costs? Well, to get wireless Internet and audio/video streaming from home computers, a seven-inch high-resolution touch screen, an optional docking station ($100) that turns it into a TV-recording DVR, a removable battery, and let's mention that screen again because it's a lot bigger than the iPods' are and shows full DVD-level resolution (800 by 480 pixels). I think I'll get two, strap one over each eye, and go lie down for a while.