Las Vegas -- Walking onto the floor of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is a lot like stepping into the future.
It isn't just the dizzying swirl of new technology that does it, though clearly that's a part of the illusion. CES, after all, is where the electronics industry struts its stuff, hawking the latest in hi-tech gadgetry to gawking hordes of dealers and distributors. As such, it's easy to get swept away by all the talk of CD-ROMs, interactive software, data ports and the like.
No, what makes CES seem most like the future is that it's so bewilderingly vast, boasting hundreds of booths, thousands of products and more information than any one person could possibly absorb. With over a million square feet of exhibit space, it takes days simply to walk through the thing.
Not to worry. Scattered amid all the noise and clutter are concepts that really count and gizmos that really work. What follows, then, is a quick glance at some of the more interesting gear on display at CES -- products that promise not only to make life easier and more enjoyable, but bring the future just a little bit closer.
As any salesman will attest, the best inventions are those that fill a need the customer never knew he or she had. Something, in other words, like the Koss Quiet Zone 1000.
It looks like a standard set of stereo headphones permanently plugged into a cassette-sized box, and what it does is make the world seem a quieter place. Slip the headphones on, flip a switch, and the Quiet Zone screens out all manner of low-frequency noise -- the roar of jet engines, the growl of lawn mowers and so on. But it doesn't interfere with other sounds, so if you've got a personal stereo, you'll be able to hear clearly without having to hike the volume. Or if you want to chat with your seatmate on a airline flight, you'll hear everything except that annoying rumble.
It works by analyzing incoming sound, and generating "anti-waves" that cancel out all the low-frequency noise. And it takes only a few seconds to hear how effective the approach is. Koss expects to have the Quiet Zone 1000 on the market by March, with a list price between $200 and $300.
One ingenious idea you probably won't see advertised on TV is the Commercial Brake. Basically a black box wired between the TV and VCR, it's designed to ensure you'll never see another commercial again -- at least not when you tape your shows, anyway.
What it does is watch for certain patterns in the TV transmission -- black frames, low sound levels and such -- that it recognizes as typical of commercial blocks, and then "marks" them on the tape. Then, when it's playback time, Commercial Brake fast forwards past the ads, giving the viewer a pleasant blue screen instead of the usual blur of pitchmen and products.
There's no programming involved -- everything is automatic -- and it should work with any TV or VCR. Commercial Brake will cost $199, and the manufacturer expects it to be on the market in April.
Another breakthrough on the TV front is StarSight. A couch-potato's dream, it offers a Grid Guide that puts everything in the TV book right on your screen; a recording system that lets you program your VCR by pushing a single button; a grazing function that not only tells what's on as you flip around but lets you know how much time is left in the show; and theme categories that automatically index shows by type or topic.
StarSight signals are already being broadcast to 86 percent of the country, but you need StarSight circuitry to make it work with your TV or VCR. (There had to be a catch, right?) In March, Zenith AVI televisions will hit the market with a StarSight decoder chip built in; Goldstar will put similarly equipped VCRs on the market in June. (You only need one to make the system work, by the way). Stand-alone StarSight decoders should be available by July, with a projected price of $199.
As laser disc players become more common among discriminating cocooners, interest in home theater setups has expanded exponentially. CES was positively chockablock with wide-screen TVs, elaborate surround sound amplifiers, speakers and other audio-visual gewgaws.
Still, a few items stood out from the pack. For instance, there was BIC's Integrated Home Theater system. At first glance, it looks like any other A/V cabinet, with big holes for the TV, laser disc player and amplifier, and storage space on the sides. But where most cabinets stop at the woodwork, the Integrated Home Theater has the right-, left- and center-channel speakers built into the front of the unit. (Rear speakers, suitable for wall mounting, are also included). BIC expects to have them in stores by April, with a suggested list price of $900.
Ultra-discriminating viewers may be interested to learn that Proton plans to enter the wide-screen TV market late this summer. Not only will the Proton DT-3660 provide four selectable picture formats (depending upon aspect ratio), but it also boasts 720 lines of horizontal resolution for "theater quality" images.
Proton hopes to have it in stores by August, and the asking price will be just under $5,000.
Not quite that discriminating? Well, how about Pioneer's new LaserActive machine, a mid-priced laser disc player that can also be used to play video games or as a karaoke machine?
Designed to be more than just a single-function device, the base model CLD-A100 is a standard-sized laser disc player listing at $799. But unlike most LD players, the LaserActive has a slot that can accommodate a pack for playing Sega cartridges or CD-ROM games (the PAC-S10, at $499); one that does the same for Nintendo software (the PAC-N10, also $499); and one with mic inputs and a mixer for home karaoke use (PAC-K1, at $299).
It used to be that the video game market boiled down to a simple choice between Nintendo and Sega, but those days are long gone. Now, erstwhile gamers need also decide whether they want 16-bit or 32-bit hardware, cartridge or CD software, standard games or interactive movies. . . . It's enough to make you nostalgic for the relative simplicity of Pong.
Fortunately, the biggest news in video-game hardware is actually designed to go with a gadget many gamers already have: The Sega Genesis machine. With Edge 16, a new Sega/AT&T; product, it will be possible to play Mortal Kombat, Virtua Racing or any other Sega Genesis game over the phone with a friend -- and chat as you do it! (Bet mom and dad will love their long distance bills when this hits the market.) Edge 16 is due out in the fall for under $150; Edge Cards, which allow the games to work with the new technology, will cost between $15 and $20.
Nor is this Sega/AT&T; marriage the only corporate cross-fertilization going on in gameland. Viacom, the company that owns MTV and Nickelodeon, has launched a video-game division that hopes to translate MTV and Nickelodeon programming into video games.
No, that doesn't mean we'll be seeing a Sega or Nintendo version of "Totally Pauly" (at least, I hope it doesn't). But we will see "Rocko's Modern Life: Spunky's Dangerous Day" -- a game derived from the Nickelodeon cartoon "Rocko's Modern Life" -- in stores by May or June. And yes, there is a Beavis & Butt-head game in the works, but it won't be available until September. Perfect for those back-to-school sales, eh?
Ever watch a movie on a PC? It's a depressing spectacle, really -- just a tiny picture, with grainy images, washed-out color and jerky motion.
Well, that should change soon, thanks to ReelMagic, an MPEG multimedia playback controller from Sigma Designs. This little circuit board, when added to a PC, turns that cramped, unconvincing image into 16-frames-per-second motion with a full-screen picture and first-rate color. It's almost like watching TV.
Due out in late October with a list price of $449, ReelMagic is designed for easy installation -- no jumpers to worry about, and it comes with software that automatically finds the address base -- and has full soundblaster capability. And with the CD-ROM upgrade, it will handle the full line of Philips CD-i software.
But not every great computer idea is as hi-tech as that. Screenies, for instance, have no on-board circuitry, no ROM or RAM, nothing to plug in. They're just colorful cardboard frames to spice up the outside of your computer monitor -- possibly the lowest-tech and most ingenious item on the whole CES floor.
There are over 50 designs in all, including "Drive In," "Spring Window" and "Old Glory." Some are conceptually clever, like "Etch-a-Sketch," which makes your monitor look like a you-know-what; others are slyly functional, like a corkboard Screenie for instant note-posting. Best of all, they go for under $12.
And there's not much at CES that can make that claim.