Gadgets and gaming in the desert

For a girl who loves tech toys, the dot-com culture and warmth, the jazzed up allure of that desert oasis known as Vegas in January was never so enticing as it was last week during the annual geek trek to The Consumer Electronics Show.

I wasn’t disappointed, particularly since leaving a Puget Sound snowstorm and hearing that the rare snowfall on the Vegas strip had just melted. I was about to be hands-on with cutting edge digital gadgets that hadn’t even made it to retail.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is the largest trade show in North America, where about 129,000 industry and press folk from 110 countries – it’s not open to the public – visited 2,500 exhibitors January 8-11. Yes, there were plenty of electronic gadgets. There was even some gaming – but not of the gambling kind. The Digital Games Summit had a simultaneous conference focusing on software for game consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox.

But oddly, I didn’t see any Vegas showgirls on the conference floor. In fact, there were precious few women exhibiting or attending the 2004 CES. Electronics appears to still be something of a male thing.

Here’s what I saw at CES which I found enlightening:

Best Classroom Lightbulb Moment: Keynotes, panels and speakers comprised about 100 educational sessions delved into each consumer technology market, including wireless, mobile electronics, home networking and digital technology. While I watched Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Rob Glaser (Real Networks) and others give their extended sales pitches to standing room only crowds, it was the panel discussions that expanded my world tech vision. I found the panel on Road-Testing New Car Technologies fascinating. BMW, Honda and DaimlerChrysler unveiled how video, satellite radio, Bluetooth and mp3’s will make the digital car the new living room. My new buzzword is “automobile telematics.”

Best Home Away from Home: The NextGen Demonstration Home from the Consumer Electronics Association was a hit with their ultra-stylish tech home, an actual house built in the parking lot and tricked out with home networking technology for the kitchen, bedroom, utility room and recreation room.
Best Music: A three-way between Sirius Satellite Radio, Real Networks and Windows Media. Sirius had the corner on celebrities with 10 live concerts on the convention floor – from Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Bangles. Real’s party at the Harley Davidson Café featured music by Third Eye Blind. Microsoft’s Windows Media hosted their private party for partners at the hot Vegas club “Ice” with a music provided by Grammy-winner Jewel. I went to this last one, which brings me to….

Best Surprise CEO: Jeff Bezos. While most tech leaders took to the stage to tout their companies latest gadgets and services, I noticed one who found his place in front of the stage, staring up at Grammy-singer Jewel performing for invited partners of Microsoft. That’s right –’s CEO Jeff Bezos in the mosh pit. Granted, it was the tamest mosh pit I’ve ever seen, since a solo Jewel was strumming her acoustic guitar, singing ballads and yodeling. Jeff was grinning ear to ear, flush with the stage and surrounded by other dot-com execs, all craning their necks to absorb her Jewelness.

Best Giveaway: Real Networks. If you were willing to sideline your humility as I was, you could play “Rhapsody Jeopardy”, orchestrated by Seattle’s best TV host John Curley of “Evening Magazine.” If you answered the most musical trivia questions correctly using Real’s new online music service Rhapsody, you won a stylish bag and a 3-month subscription to Rhapsody.
Best Use of an Ad Budget: Bill Gates’ Keynote. Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates poked fun at his company’s latest series of TV ads “Great Moments At Work.” This years parody was an ad mimicking the joyous, slow-motion dance of the office geeks celebrating their new Microsoft Office software, except Bill and his team are rejoicing over the creation of a working toaster and demonstrating that geeks sense of rhythm still has not evolved. This hilarious faux ad only extends the company’s reputation for sleek and self-effacing videos. Past video shorts starred Gates in The Matrix, Austin Powers and The Real World. The fun didn’t stop with Gates, the TV star. Comedian Jay Leno popped on stage to show his own parody of the Tonight Show’s “Jay Walking.”

Best Show and Tell: The “Last Gadget Standing” event, moderated by Michael Miller, editor of PC Magazine, gave 4 minutes to 11 gadgets demonstrated by their company. The various execs gave frenzied spiels to the audience, waving their products in the air. It came down to the ol’ Applause-o-meter to crown the winner: a gaming console that doubles as a PDA from Tapwave called The Zodiac, a 6-oz. device that let’s you view photos, shows movies and plays MP3’s.

My Favorite Product: A cool Personal Video Recorder (PVR) set top box called the PrismiQ MediaPlayer. It’s just about everything that the pervasive Microsoft Media Center PC is, but only $200 rather than $1500. It lets you play digital audio and video files, view photos, stream Internet radio, chat with friends, and browse the Web through TVs, stereos, and entertainment centers anywhere in the home. I’m definitely getting one.

Best Coddling of the Jaded: The CES Press Room. The CEA knows how to take care of weary journalists and analysts. The staff brought us food and drink, fed us a gourmet lunch buffet every day, gave us luggage on rollers to cart around all the press kits and free use of voice-over-IP Internet phones (provided by Vonage and Motorola) and banks of computers and printers (provided by Lexmark).

Winning Theme of CES: The ubiquity of flat panel displays, whether plasma or LCD, including a huge 80-inch TV. There were no tube TV’s. I particularly loved the exhibits of furniture for these TV’s. You think you want to hang a flat panel on your wall? Do you really want to see those wires running down to the closest outlet? The 21st century hi-tech versions of the entertainment center are like chic museum pieces. One of these will be my next big purchase.

Oddest Absence: The original king of gadgets – Palm – was MIA. They did have a small cubical meeting room in an obscure hallway on an upper floor, but both times I entered, it was completely empty except for a moldy fruit plate.

In summary, International CES 2004 was largely about the integration of computing into the rest of the home. TV displays now have peripherals like CD burners, inkjet printers and wireless capability built in. A DVD tray may pop out from behind the TV. Although their predecessors such as TV/VCR combos have never been very popular, this new integration is mostly inside. No moving parts to break.

Many consumer electronics presented last week have been around a few years such as Smart Watches, flat panel TV’s and the movement of digital media into the living room and beyond, but now these devices are starting to mature and becoming real things, not just concepts.

Dana Greenlee is co-host/producer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based nationally syndicated radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.