Network: Where have all the innovations gone?

This year's Live 98 boasted plenty of rehashed technology but little that was genuinely ground-breaking
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The Independent Culture
TICKETS FOR the Live 98 consumer technology show were being touted outside Earls Court last week just as they would be for an Oasis concert. Once inside the exhibition, though, another parallel was revealed: what was billed as the future was in reality nothing much more than a revamp of the recent past.

Live 98 seemed curiously subdued. There were few genuine innovations on display. The majority of products being smaller, cheaper, more efficient updates of their predecessors. Indeed, much of the show resembled an upmarket Tottenham Court Road electronics shop (without the surly staff) - high on the black box/flashing light quotient but lacking in any genuine "Wow!" factor.

The most significant new technology at Live 98 was Digital TV, billed as "the biggest development since colour."

Rather than being another alternative to satellite and cable, digital TV is simply a new way of processing and transmitting the broadcast signals. In order to receive these signals, however, you will need a decoder (set- top box), which will cost around pounds 200, though digitally enabled sets are available for those who fancy splashing out on them.

For the TV and hi-fi buffs, 1998 will be remembered as the year of the flat.

The 1950s sci-fi dream has finally come true - televisions and loudspeakers can now be hung on the wall. Flat-screen TVs have been around as millionaire's playthings for a while now but are becoming slightly more accessible. They still weigh in at the top end of the price spectrum however.

Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) is not yet the CD/VHS killer of popular hype. Yes, you can store lots of information on a DVD. Yes, DVD films come with extra information on the disc (different languages, widescreen etc). However, until recordable DVD makes its way past Hollywood's anti- piracy lobby, it is little more than a replacement for Laser Disc. Top marks in the Home Entertainment Overkill stakes for Pioneer - their DVL- 909 combines DVD with Laser Disc and Video CD in one (big) box.

One of the strangest hi-fi phenomena of the last year has been the resurgence of Mini Disc. Usually if a format is initially unsuccessful, it dies a death (Digital Compact Cassette), or finds a niche market (DAT). Mini Disc, however, has re-emerged on the back of a clever marketing campaign highlighting its status as a "Chic Thing". MD machines were everywhere, from Sharp's cute portables to Sony's in-car, six-disc monster.

Elsewhere, the buzzword was integration. TVs were PCs, mobile phones were PDAs, computers were home cinema systems. The Alpine stand played host to the ultimate multi-purpose device - a Range Rover transformed into a mobile entertainment centre - complete with Surround Sound, in- car navigation and screen-back TVs - great for subduing unruly kids on long journeys.

The Jeremy Clarkson Award for lust-inspiring inanimate object of the show goes to Sony for their super-sleek Vaio PCG-505G, an anorexically slender notebook PC that packs a 233Mhz Pentium MMX processor, 32Mb RAM and D3D graphics into a sub-A5 package less than an inch thick.

Design kudos also to the gorgeous WM-EX7 Walkman, also from Sony (can these things get any smaller?), and Philips' sleek Nino 3000 hand-held PC, but good looks were an exception, not the rule. Bland boxes abounded - it was almost impossible to tell the homogenous VCRs, hi-fi components and TV decoders apart.

Despite its billing as a new technology showcase, companies at Live 98 were not going to display their real future technology lest it put punters off buying this year's models.

It seems that Live 98's vision of the future is limited to the approach to Christmas.

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