What will they think of next?: Steve Homer finds himself in techno-nerd heaven amid the latest gadgets on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas
Monday 18 January 1993
It is easy to dismiss some exhibits as American wackiness, but many of the things that seem so odd today will become the things we could never do without tomorrow. Telephones, for example, are undergoing strange changes. There were video phones, cordless phones you can use one mile from your home (useful when you go down to the pub). There were phones that show information on a small display so you can use them for home banking or home shopping, and a cordless phone that will keep on working even if you drop it in the bath.
But, as ever, the biggest attractions were the televisions. America is in love with television, but Americans are ambivalent about its role. A device called TV Allowance was one of the stars of the show. It enables parents to control how much television their children watch by giving each child its own access code. When their allotted time is used up, the television switches itself off and the child cannot watch again until the following week.
The televisions these kids will be watching are getting bigger and bigger. Americans love their home theatres - rooms dedicated to entertainment with big-screen televisions and Dolby Surround Sound systems. Mitsubishi unveiled a massive 40-inch conventional glass screen television, while many others displayed back- projection televisions far larger than this.
Given America's enthusiasm for both television and movies, it is surprising that wide-screen televisions in the new 16:9 format, one-third wider than today's sets, have not yet been launched in the United States. In Europe, they have been on sale for more than a year. The French company Thomson looks likely to be the first with a set due in the shops in the United States this March, but a host of others are waiting to enter the market.
Two tiny televisions also generated a great deal of interest. Casio showed a delightful miniature TV ideal for watching a Test match under the desk at work (the picture is tiny, but extremely clear). The other miniature was a disappointment. Called Virtual Vision Sport, the set is placed within a shaded visor. Using tricks learnt from military head-up-display technology, you can watch television while you do something else. I found the image a bit fuzzy, but it pulled in the crowds.
Multimedia technology is converting domestic television into an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment and information centre. Video images, high-quality stills, text, animation, graphics and sound all mix together under the viewer's control. Games, encyclopaedias and interactive movies, where you decide where the story goes, are all part of the package. The market has already been started by Philips (surprisingly not exhibiting at the show) with its CD-I, Commodore with its CDTV and others. But many more companies are entering the sector.
Pioneer unveiled an interactive Laserdisc format that provides excellent picture quality. The new discs can store 550 megabytes of data that can be interactively interleaved with the analogue video. The system will also play games designed for the Sega CD games machine that has yet to be launched in the UK.
A new company, 3DO, has an impressive pedigree. Set up by Trip Hawkins, founder of Electronic Arts, the world's largest games company, it is funded by Matsushita, Electronic Arts, Time Warner and others. The company has reinvented a CD-I-type machine with more up-to-date technology. Like CD-I, 3DO players will also play Photo CD discs. The demo players at the show were horrendously slow with Photo CD but fast for interactive titles. While this may be an improvement over CD-I, Philips' technology is already in several thousand stores. It is also unlikely that 3DO will meet its launch date later this year. The Las Vegas exhibition also provided a showcase for computer companies. There was much emphasis on the home office, but more innovative equipment rose above the massed ranks of PCs, printers and modems.
IBM presented products from its Florida research headquarters in an unprecedented attempt to convince dealers that it really is investing in the future. Drawing the biggest crowds was a cellular phone that incorporated a modem, a PC XT on a single chip and a six-inch by two-inch touch- sensitive LCD screen, which was used to control all its phone, modem and computing features.
Situated almost between IBM and the Apple stand was a company called 50/50. While there are several products that allow an Apple Macintosh computer to mimic an IBM-compatible PC, the reverse is not true. But 50/50 has come up with a system called Dual Desktop, which will convert your PC into a Mac and back again with just a couple of keystrokes.
Apple featured the much- hyped 'Newton', its computer- cum-communicator-cum-organiser but hid it away under glass with the promise that it would be available in the middle of the year. But with Sharp and several other companies introducing handwriting recognition organisers, and AT & T introducing a pen-based computer/communicator at the show, there is a danger that Newton could get lost in a sea of similar-looking products.
One of the clear trends was the rapid growth of the home fax. Sharp, one of the most enthusiastic backers of this technology, showed party invites pouring out of its fax and suggested you could use it to send messages to 'the kids'. Does this presage the advent of the two-home family, in which parents only communicate with their offspring by fax? If so, I know many parents who would welcome this arrangement.
But the home fax is the height of common sense compared with some of the other exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show. There were the loudspeakers in a Chinese urn, the remote control turntable to swivel your television so you do not have to force yourself up off the couch, radios built into lights, footballs and much else. There were speaking weighing machines and a solar-powered battery rechargers. For your CDs you could buy a cover to protect the label, which, I was told, caused CDs to jump if scratched. (If this is too late, there was also a scratch repair kit and even a CD washer.)
There were telephones that will change your voice from female to male and vice versa, calculators that will control your bank accounts and print your cheques, and even a voice-activated video remote control (though quite why it is easier to tell the remote control to play a video rather than push a button is beyond me).
Phones also came in the shape of footballs, helicopters and flowers and, in case all these wacky phones ended up with wacky phone callers, there were screening systems to stop nuisance calls or calls from your bank manager.
But for me the gold Techno- Nerd Prize has to go to the Lotto Personal Computer. This looks like a conventional pocket calculator but has only one big red button. Push this and up pops a random number on its LCD screen for you to use on your lottery ticket.
As the sales blurb helpfully explains: 'The Lotto Personal Computer realistically addresses the 'Picking the Numbers' problem and solves it by making it 'High Tech', personal and more fun'.
How will I ever manage without one? Ah well, the summer Consumer Electronics Show starts in July and I expect I can get one there.
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