Leaving Las Vegas with a vision of the technology of tomorrow

From 3D TV to voice-activated car control systems, the Consumer Electronics Show has it all
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There is a new way to spy on your neighbours: send in the drones. The item that is creating the early buzz, literally and metaphorically, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year is a remote-controlled helicopter (manoeuvred using software on your iPhone, no less), which sends data back from its onboard camera. Several of these toys, AR.Drones, made by the French company Parrot, hovered in the air as the annual gadget fest opened up its doors.

The manufacturers showing in Vegas must wish they could send a drone across to Cupertino, California, to peek over the wall at Apple headquarters. The maker of the iPhone never attends the CES, but with perhaps just three weeks to the rumoured launch of its new tablet computer, its influence hangs over the show.

Scores of little companies are piggybacking on the success of Apple's products, launching accessories for the iPod or applications for the iPhone. More importantly, the biggest beasts are positioning themselves to counter the threat from the Apple tablet, a kind of giant iPod activated using a touch screen.

Already at the show, Lenovo, which makes cheaper laptop computers, has launched a netbook PC with a screen that can be detached and used as a mobile tablet-style device; other manufacturers have added touchscreen technology to many of the new netbooks on display.

According to one report yesterday, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer planned to use his address to the CES last night to reveal a new Hewlett-Packard tablet that has a Microsoft operating system and which the pair hope will stop the march of Apple. The HP product could be available by mid-year, while the latest rumours suggest a March launch for Apple, setting up a potentially vicious marketing battle.

The recession has taken a nibble out of the size of the CES this year, with 110,000 attendees expected over the course of the three-day event, down slightly on 2009. About 2,500 companies are exhibiting, compared to 2,700 a year ago. Sports legends, reality TV stars and actors are among the celebrities giving the event a little glitz, but the real stars are the gadgets themselves, and on that score, hopes are high.

Jean-Laurent Poitou, managing director of the electronics and high-tech business group at Accenture, the consulting firm, says companies have continued to spend during the downturn to advance their technology – and insists there will be plenty of demand to ensure a flurry of potential winners. "This year's CES is probably going to see more innovation impact than most in the past couple of years," he said.

Last year, it was big-screen, high-definition televisions that were among the must-have gadgets, 10 years after the technology was first getting buzz in Vegas. With the advent of a new decade, it is 3D television that is hot. Most major manufacturers are launching 3D-enabled models, now that technological standards for 3D Blu-Ray disks have been agreed and sports channels such as ESPN have promised to broadcast some games in 3D.

This year has also seen a slew of options for watching television live on mobile devices, whether directly on a phone (thanks to an upgraded version of the Samsung Moment being shown at the CES) or via an intermediary device such as the Tivit, which sends broadcast television signals to the Blackberry or iPhone.

The effort also continues to help consumers attach their PCs to their televisions, making it easier to watch downloaded or streamed video on the big screen at home. Boxee has upgraded its much-touted $200 device, while PC makers are getting in on the act.

The 30-year war between Apple and Microsoft is not the only titanic battle being played out on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Somewhat surprisingly, the keynote address to the show this morning is being made not by a technology sector executive, helicoptered in from the West Coast, but by Alan Mulally, chief executive of the car maker Ford, which is fighting for market share with General Motors.

Cars are laced with gadgets and gizmos, and around 400 of the exhibitors at the CES this year make in-car technology. Mr Mulally is expected to announce upgrades to Sync, its voice-activated entertainment and safety system, with which drivers can make hands-free phone calls, control their stereo and get accident assistance. GM, meanwhile, has already taken the wraps off a smartphone app that will allow drivers of its forthcoming electric car, the Volt, to unlock the vehicle or even start charging its batteries online.

These are times of strange convergences. Fly that drone over to Cupertino next year, and maybe we'll find Apple working secretly on the iCar.