A glimpse of the future from the hi-tech gamblers

Digital high-definition televisions, handheld PCs and even a computer for your car's dashboard were all the talk of the town at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

Steve Homer reports.

Las Vegas is famous for its gambling and, every January, the consumer electronics industry rolls into town to gamble on its future. Companies spend fortunes developing products. Some take off and the companies backing them earn millions. Others disappear without trace and leave the chancers well out of pocket.

The Consumer Electronics Show is huge, attracting around 100,000 visitors. It is an amazing spectacle, showing everything from $10,000 TV sets to telephones in the shape of Darth Vadar head. But amongst the tat, some genuine strategies are worked out and glimpses of the future shine through.

At this year's show, most companies were rubbing their hands with glee. There were half-a-dozen new technologies that looked set to see serious dollars pass through the shops for the next three or four years. The big excitement was once again the convergence of the computer industry and the consumer electronics market. The word "digital" now seems obligatory and digital high-definition TV was the talk of the trade show.

In Europe we gave up on HDTV years ago. What consumers wanted was more choice of channels, not better pictures. But that was before digital television. Digital TV lets you squeeze lots of channels into a space where previously only one channel would have fitted. That has changed the economics of HDTV.

It now seems likely that HDTV (with the picture promising to be about twice as sharp as today's picture) will take off in the US. For a start, the US television system produces worse pictures than in Europe. This is doubly important because American's like their TV screens big. The fastest-growing sector of the TV market in America this year will be those with 30-inch screens or bigger. But with sets typically costing $5,000, only a few programmes promised for later this year and nothing to record those on until next year, it looks like being a slow start.

What was surprising at this rather savvy show was that almost nothing was being made of digital TV's potential to send text as well as pictures. That was left to an established technology, WebTV, the system for viewing Web pages on TV. It showed what could be done with simple convergence and some careful thought. WebTV Plus, a new version of WebTV, allows users to access additional information when viewing TV programmes. Information is simply sent out by the broadcaster along with the pictures.

A single click of the button and the new information will be displayed with the TV picture continuing to be displayed in a box. You can see background details of the movie you are watching, sports statistics and so on. For more detailed information, the WebTV Plus box will simply dial out to a suggested Web site. WebTV Plus also includes a faster modem and a 1- gigabyte hard disk. Amongst other things this allows good quality video clips to be sent with it, taking 30 seconds for a 15 second clip to download.

With the standard WebTV box costing $99 and the new one costing $199, retailers says they are selling all the machines they can get. When will WebTV, which is trialing in the UK, be available? Manufactures Sony and Philips say ask WebTV, WebTV says ask the manufacturers.

The computer is merging with the TV in many different ways, and Philips was proudly showing off the granddaddy of them all. The DVX 8000 is a techie's dream. A top-of-the-range computer married to a super-league audio-visual system. The DVX 8000 boasts a 233MHz Pentium computer complete with 32Mb RAM, a 3.1Gb hard disk and everything else you could ever want. With a price tag of $5,000, the rather sad-looking black box is squarely aimed at the home theatre enthusiast. Along with digital multichannel sound system, the DVX 8000 incorporates the "must have" for this group - a DVD player. DVD, the system for storing good-quality videos on disk, is doing well in the US. It has sold 300,000 units since its launch in March. Not huge sales, but then expensive new consumer goods never take off fast.

With computers coming more and more into the sitting-room, it was perhaps no surprise to find Microsoft trying to steal the limelight with its eve- of-show announcements: two new types of computer based on its Windows CE operating system. It showed hand-held devices designed to compete directly with US Robotics' Palm Pilot. These tiny units let users input information with simple handwriting recognition. The new machines from Casio, Samsung, Philips and others appear to out-pilot the Pilot, but time will tell.

Microsoft's other big announcement was of its Auto PC, a computer that can be built into the dashboard of your car. With an optional GPS system for navigation, an optional CD autochanger and/or an optional mobile phone cradle, you never need to take your eyes off the road.

The system uses voice recognition to control all these devices and an FM/AM radio. It will dial the number you want either by you telling it the name of someone you have already stored or by you just reading out the numbers.

The Auto PC can even read downloaded street maps so you can give it details of any town you happen to be visiting. If only it could have navigated me around CES I would have voted for it as best product of the show.