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January 7, 2008 4:43 PM

Back to the future at CES

Posted by Brier Dudley

LAS VEGAS -- After looking at the 500th high-definition flat panel TV on display at the Consumer Electronics Show, wondering who could afford this stuff with the housing market collapsing, I was feeling a little jaded.

Then I passed a guy from Peavey, the music equipment maker, who was practically skipping through the crowd toward a group of co-workers.

"It came through -- 35,000 units!" he beamed, literally rubbing his hands together.

I guess there are still plenty of buyers for the stuff on display at this crazy show, even if they may spend a little bit less this year.

The trade group that holds the show, the Consumer Electronics Association, expects industry sales to pass $171 billion this year, up 6.1 percent from the $161 billion sold in 2007, when sales grew 8.2 percent.

TV sales will grow even faster, the group expects, along with sales of videogames and navigation devices.

But the show seems to reflect the dip in overall sales growth, with many of the companies adding new features and capabilities to products that are otherwise familiar.

For instance, one product that received an innovation award at the show is a three-way surround sound speaker system Samsung demonstrated. Every company seems to have a wireless speaker product on display, many using the same Bluetooth wireless technology to play music stored on nearby MP3 players or phones. Samsung's is special, though, because it also uses Bluetooth to sense when a user approaches and automatically powers up the speakers and starts playing music.

Besides wireless media, another emerging theme at the show seems to be touch interfaces. Apple doesn't exhibit here but the influence of its touch-controlled iPhone is clear at Toshiba's booth, for instance.

The Japanese company is exhibiting a prototype mobile computer with a 5-inch screen, a hard-drive and the Windows Vista operating system, but its key feature is a touch-screen with gesture controls. It's basically a Windows Ultra-Mobile PC, but a software engineer working on the project said the company may opt to drop "PC" from the description and call it a "mobile Internet device" instead.

Toshiba also showed a gesture-control system for a home-theater PC -- a Webcam watches your hand and turns up the volume when you give thumbs up, for instance.

It also demonstrated a new system for wireless transmitting video from a high-definition DVD player to a flat-panel TV, one of several technologies presented here that finally seem to be making this feasible.

But a tiny little TV that Toshiba's rival, Sony, introduced may be the belle of the ball. The screen is only 11 inches in diameter, but it's about a quarter inch thick and uses and ultra bright organic light-emitting diode display. Not many people will buy the thing at its $2,500 list price but OLED feels like the future of television.

I'm guessing the future of newspapers and other print media was shown by LG and Philips, which will begin mass production later this year on a 12-inch flexible, paperlike display they are demonstrating at the show. The electrostatic screens are made of thin stainless steel foil that's 0.3 millimeters thick, or 0.6 millimeters thick with a protective sheet. A 14-inch color version looks like it may be ready a year or so later.

As a newspaper employee nervous about my industry's future, I felt like skipping and rubbing my hands together and ordering 250,000 units.

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.