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Technology Trends

I already mentioned some of the obvious trends: bigger and better flat screen TVs, smaller and more capable portable media players, all-in-one devices, and PC-less media center boxes. The Consumer Electronics Association earmarked several other technologies as "emerging tech" and gave them their own space at the Sands (along with the porn crowd...). But were these really emerging technologies or just hype? To me, it was a mixed bag. Here are the noteworthy areas.

Robotics

There were some fun products in the Robotics Tech Zone, but we’re still far short of having robot butlers in our homes. Perhaps the most entertaining exhibition belonged to VEX, a product that reminded me a lot of an old Erector Set crossed with BattleBots. They had a small "arena" set up to allow attendees to pilot several pre-built robots and attempt to collect small balls and place them in the center of the ring. These robots were remote controlled, but the inexpensive kits are also programmable.

Figure 8

Figure 8 VEX Robotics Design System in action

Also impressive was a demo by Hitec Robots of the Robonova-1. Offered fully assembled or build-it-yourself, this robot makes Robosapien look like a Barbie doll with it’s lifelike movement and acrobatic capabilities. To see for yourself, check out this short video I grabbed during a demo. (6MB video download)

Lego was in attendance with their next generation MindStorms system, designed with input from user groups and sure to be extremely popular. iRobot also demonstrated their new Scooba floor washing robot. It will do to mopping what the Roomba did to vacuuming: allow a small number of gadget freaks to spend their time watching their cool robot clean the house instead of doing it themselves. (Look for a review on the Scooba on Informit in the near future.)

Finally, Self Defense Technologies, Inc. displayed their Fighting Android FA1. Billed as a human-sized robotic trainer for boxers, kickboxers, etc, it looked like a mannequin and can also be used to teach self defense moves. I was highly disappointed that it was not being demonstrated at the show (as far as I could tell), but I suppose they couldn’t risk letting their robot walk through the show beating the tar out of unsuspecting antendees.

Figure 09

Figure 9 Fighting Android FA1

Cardio Play

Ride your bike past computer-generated scenery. Dance on a special pad to control your on-screen game character. Nothing new here. Possibly the best implementation of this technology was a system that required you to pedal your bike a certain speed to keep the volume of your TV at a listenable level. Slow down and you can’t hear. Speed up too fast and it gets too loud. Clever, but not amazing. There was even one display where people played a video game while sitting on a special chair fitted with handlebars. Excuse me, but how is that exercising when there’s no treadmill or bike attached to the handlebars? And why is this considered emerging tech?

IPTV

Billed as the future of TV, even Microsoft was displaying some of their IPTV technology in their main booth. DaveTV was probably the most visible company here, offering an internet-based TV service for your laptop or specialized set-top box. With 100 "channels," it’s still not exactly the same experience as cable or satellite TV, and the quality isn’t there... yet. But it is an idea whose time will come.

ITVN also offers a set-top box that connects to your TV just like a cable or satellite box. What do you get? $29.95 a month will literally give you 200 channels of porn. (See, I told you the Adult Expo tied into the CES somehow!) $59.99 gives you the opportunity to pick from their available movies on demand (presumably more than just adult titles). And for sports, they offer a lacrosse channel (no kidding). Despite the lack of programming for mainstream America and image quality issues, this is a service that cable and satellite companies should watch out for. Look for ITVN to be acquired by a competitor in the future -- or watch for legislation to be passed (pressed for by cable company lobbyists) making this medium financially unattractive for further investment. What? Am I being too cynical?

Portable Power

I was hoping for something big here -- some new technology that would run my iPod or notebook computer for days without recharging. But it was not to be. I saw companies offering external batteries, some designed to go with specific products, some generic. There were a few wind-up devices, too, which is a great idea, but unfortunately not new. Single use fuel cells were available for consumer devices, which is a step in the right direction, but I don’t like the idea of throwing something away when it’s spent. Good for emergencies, but I won’t be impressed until I can recharge one of these things at my kitchen sink.

Wireless USB

Freescale Semiconductor was showing off their cable-free USB chipset to send USB 2.0 signals wirelessly. Belkin even had a wireless USB hub on display. Great for wireless printing, mice, keyboards, etc, but is it really different enough from existing RF or Wi-Fi solutions? And how secure is it?

The main problem, much like with the next-generation DVD standard, is with two competing technologies. The Freescale cable-free USB uses the existing USB 2.0 spec, while Intel and others are backing the WiMedia Alliance. It will not be backwards compatible with USB 2.0, but might have the edge over cable-free USB because it’s being developed by an independent standards-based body.

Home Automation

Zigbee is a standards-based technology for home networking (think X-10), but it is suffering from a lack of shipping products. The proprietary Z-Wave spec has better vendor support, however, and looks to be adopted more quickly (at least at first). Both systems send signals via RF frequencies instead of over your powerlines, and devices create a mesh network of low-powered radios. Theoretically if you unplug one, another nearby device will pick up other nearby signals, thus ensuring the integrity of the network.

Price is still a problem, however, with kits containing a control console and two light switches costing about $99 (and that’s on the low end). Until this industry moves to lower pricing and simpler controls, the only people networking their homes will be do-it-yourself techies with a lot of disposable income or the ultra rich who can afford custom installation of proprietary equipment.

INSTEON is yet another technology that aims to solve the price problem. It is a dual band mesh networking technology that sends its signals via the powerline and RF for built-in redundancy. No central controller is needed, meaning up-front investment can be much less. Individual devices are available at retail for under $30, too, meaning it just might be the home networking standard that is affordable to the masses. (X10 devices are also cheap, but that is essentially a dead standard with no new development taking place.) An INSTEON dev kit is also available, making it a standard that’s easily built-on by the user. I’m hoping this one catches on.

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