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As One Show Winds Down, Another Starts Up

The walk down the long hallway from the Venetian Hotel to the Sands Expo Center was different today. In addition to the earnest khaki-and-polo-shirt CES attendees, there were young buxom women in halter tops, short skirts, and four-inch spiked heels. At the end of the hallway those spiked heels made a right-hand turn and negotiated a long staircase downstairs to the 2008 AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, which opens to the public tomorrow, the same day CES ends.

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No one knows how big the adult entertainment industry is. Iâ''ve heard estimates from $15 billion to $60 billion. But we do have some idea of the size of the AVN show. Sean Devlin, the showâ''s spokesperson, says it will be bigger than last yearâ''s, which had 30 000 attendees. Of them, 17 000 were fans, 12 000 were people â''from the trade,â'' and 1000 were journalists.

This journalist will be one of them this year. While itâ''s a tricky subject area for a general-interest magazine, itâ''s also one that canâ''t be ignored. The adult industry has driven technologies at least since the early days of photography in the 1850s, and technology has benefited ever since.

Consumers of adult content back up their interest with real dollars in ways that other consumers are less motivated to do. Some pay as much as $60/month to subscribe to individual websites. Modems, graphics cards, and webcams are a few product categories that came to enjoy low prices and broader usage because adult content consumers were high-paying early adopters. Today, mobile video is almost too new to be a hot category at CES, but itâ''s already a major topic at AVN.

When it comes to reporting on the leading edges of technology, we at Spectrum sometimes find ourselves in some pretty unusual places. Tomorrow itâ''ll be in the basement of the Sands, not the ground floor.

CES Video Highlights: First iPhone Dock

It seems like the last thing consumers need is a new a new docking station for an mp3 player—but try plugging your new iPhone into any iPod dock, and you'll be greeted with a rude error message: "This accessory is not made to work with iPhone." Well, those days are now over.

Altec Lansing unveiled the first "Works with iPhone" speaker system at Digital Experience!, Sunday night's event that coincided with CES. They call it the "T162," a name that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. In addition to shielding the speakers from GSM interference, the unit will pause the music when you get a call. It will sell for $199.

Ambitious Announcements Come Home to Roost for Nanotech Start-up

By announcing that they would have a product on the market out in 2 years going back to 2002 have landed Nantero in IEEE Spectrumâ''s annual â''Winners and Losersâ'' round upâ'¿and not in the winnersâ'' column.

But the nanotech start-up remains unbowed. They still contend that a commercial product is still just around the corner. It just may be, but the market that their product was set to revolutionize back in 2002 has moved on. While it hasnâ''t quite been revolutionary movement, it has evolved enough.

As Philip Ross, the author of the Spectrum article, notes â''That instant-on computer that Nantero sketched out more than six years ago? You can buy one right now for just $400; itâ''s called the iPhone.â'' Brutalâ'¿and true.

This humble blogger is quoted in the piece asking the question that has plagued him since Nantero made their early announcements: all the big flash memory players are just going to step aside and let a start-up eliminate a billion-dollar market?

Too Many Devices?

The average home in 1960 had a television set, probably black and white, and a radio. The number of electronic in the home today is, by comparison, absurd.

Hereâ''s a simple quiz, which we wonâ''t bother scoring.

How many outlets do you have in use today?

How many have extension cords?

Have you ever plugged an extension cord into an extension cord?

I quickly lost count of the number of products here at the Consumer Electronics Show that attempt to manage cable clutter and complexity.

Philips, which came out with its â''Squidâ'' extension cord a couple of years ago, now has a â''mini-Squid.â''

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But more interesting to me was its â''travel strip,â'' which folds into itself two different ways.

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Allsop has a nice little case for managing USB cords and the like.

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Belkin had at least five devices for plugging multiple things into one thing. Not all of them are extension cords.

A high-def multimedia device called â''Flywireâ'' that can throw a signal to a HDTV wirelessly, even if its 30 meters away. You can plug 6 devices into the Flywire transmitter, such as a Blu-Ray or DVD player, a set-top box, or a Playstation. The receiver is the only thing that has to be plugged into the television itself. The Flywire will come out this summer at about $500 list price.

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A KVM hub that lets you plug 4 computers into a single keyboard, video monitor, and mouse set, and switch between them with a press of a button. You can also plug a USB thumb drive into the hub to move files between the computers.

A Plug for USB devices that swivels.

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A bizarre starfish-shaped hub called the Rock Star that lets five people plug in their earbuds and headsets to listen to a single MP3 player. (Set up with five headsets on a round coffee table, it looked like a shared hookah.) Iâ''m not sure why five people would want to listen at once privatelyâ''just play it on a stereo!â''but I can picture three kids in the back seat of a minivan listening to the same iPod. You can even plug in a second music player and switch between them.

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A new â''greeen-friendlyâ'' (my term, not Belkinâ''s) extension cord. Two outlets are always on, the other six (!) are controlled separately. You can optionally control them, by the way, with a wall-mounted wireless switch. The idea is that you can turn your offâ''really off, so not drawing standby powerâ''your television, set-top box, and DVD player, without turning off your broadband modem and your Wi-Fi router. Of course, if youâ''re using a Flywire, those might not even be in the same room, much less on the same extension cord.

The Flywire is an interesting device, by the way, in that it illustrates another, more disturbing trend in consumer electronics. It cannot send an HD signal to two receivers on two televisions because the company believes it would violate copyright law. You can, of course, do that in the wired world with a simple coax splitter. Belkin thinks, however, that â''Hollywoodâ'' would object to â''broadcastingâ'' the signal to more than one television.

An Intimate Gathering For 140,000 Friends

Itâ''s hard to describe the size of this yearâ''s Consumer Electronics Show. There are of course the usual stats, including its 140 000 or so attendees, the largest of any convention in the world. The number of exhibitors is said to rival the number of athletes at the Olympics.

MSNBC reports that "CES could be leaving Las Vegas" because hotel and food prices have gotten out of control. Spectrum's editors compared notes last night, and sure enough, if our experience is any guide, the $5 Vegas breakfast is a thing of the past. And forget about eating at the convention site, for the time it costs as well as the money.

CES fills all three halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and the Sands Expo Center, itself large enough to hold a mid-sized conference. As well, there are meetings at the Venetian Hotel, adjacent to the Sands, and the Hilton, next to the convention center.

There are maps for each venue that, when folded up, look like ones youâ''d buy at a truck stop. The main show directory is about the size of the Cincinnati phone book. All told, the free backpack handed out to the press weighs in at about 2 kilos.

You need those maps.

When I first got to the convention centerâ''after a 20-minute shuttle bus ride for a trip that would take about 20 minutes to walkâ''I got out at the stop for Registration, at South Hall. Press registration was, however, upstairs at the Press Room, room 229 in the South Hall. I was advised to get back on a shuttle bus. â''Isnâ''t it just upstairs?â'' I asked. Not exactly, they said.

Later that morning I walked from the front of South Hall to the back of Central Hall. It took about 12 minutes, at a fast pace even by New York standards. (Folks from Cincinnati would probably have to double my time or more.)

Still later in the day, I had to go from the Press Room (South Hall 229, remember?) to a panel session in South Hall 104. Youâ''d think that involved going downstairs and down a corridor, right? Better consult the map. The trip traverses the entirety of South Hall, and took 11 minutes at that New York pace. Oh, by the way, it turned out to be exactly the walk that the people who told me to take the shuttle bus from Registration to press registration were advising me to avoid.

Intelligence DARPA Names First Director

Back in September I wrote about the conception of the Energy Department's new advanced research projects agency (ARPA-E). That agency hasn't actually been born yet (NREL's John Dickerson told me that they're still configuring it).

 

However, its slightly older intelligence sector cousin, IARPA, just announced the appointment of its first director, Lisa Porter. Porter's intimidating resume includes a Stanford physics Ph.D., NASA, and a stint as a senior scientist at DARPA's Advanced Technology Office (which seems to have become the Strategic Technology Office since her departure. Deduced via my primitive detective skills, i.e. noticing an automatic redirect from darpa.mil/ato/ to darpa.mil/sto/. )

 

According to Signal magazine, IARPA is the consolidation of the NSA's Disruptive Technology office; the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency's National Technology Alliance; and the CIA's Intelligence Technology Innovation Center. IARPA will work with 16 intelligence agencies to develop new technologies, "such as high-speed code cracking machines and cloaking devices."

 

We have 16 intelligence agencies?

 

Ford in Sync, But Out of Step

The Ford Motor Company had an impressive demonstration of its Sync system last night at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. Impressive, but in the long run, Sync has some serious limitations.

Sync, which is written by Microsoft, manages your phone calls, optionally with voice recognition, by a Bluetooth connection to your cellphone. It can also download your phoneâ''s address book, and even manage multiple family cellphones (and address books). Ford cars with Sync come with hard disks for music, which Sync can also play, with voice recognitionâ''a particularly impressive feature that can even handle hard-to-parse artist names like Sade, U2, and AC/DC. The system can even recommend songs, though it does so only by an internal database of genres and subgenres.

Sync also provides navigation, traffic, weather information, and sports scores through an eight-inch screen on the dashboard. In addition, you can query Sync about things like nearby movie theatres and where the gas station with the cheapest gas is. Sync even does emergency 911â''when an airbag is deployed, the car uses your cellphone to dial 911 after giving you a chance to cancel the call.

All in all, Sync was pretty impressive, and Spectrum will have a more complete video report on it soon. But I couldnâ''t help but think of some of its limitations when I went to a panel briefing on Sprintâ''s mobile broadband network, Xohm, which will be rolling out in a number of cities through 2008.

Spectrum picked Xohm as one of itâ''s â''Winnersâ'' for 2008, and more information is available in a feature article in our January issue. Briefly, though, Xohm uses IEEE 802.16e, known commercially as WiMax, to create a 2-4 Mb/s broadband connection that will work in mobile devices, even a moving car. (I'll have more about the panel discussion in an upcoming post.)

Sync, on the other hand, uses a one-way satellite connection provided by Sirius to deliver its information. Some, such as traffic, comes directly from Sirius, but the gas station price information comes from another company's database, while the music recommendations come from a third. Each relationship has to be worked out in detail by Ford and Sirius. If some other company comes along with, say, better music recommendations, maybe using an Amazon-like â''people who liked X also like Yâ'' system, too bad.

Sync, in other words, is a closed system, just like Verizonâ''s or, for that matter, the iPhoneâ''s. Services get added slowly, when, and only when, Ford and Sirius choose to. A Xohm-based service, on the other hand, would offer a bigger data pipe and it would work in both directions, letting you send video to the grandparents or update your blog directly from the car. You could subscribe to a better music system or a traffic information service you find to be more accurate. E911 would probably also be more reliable coming directly from the car than a phone that for many people would fly into the air from the center console in an accident.

I asked a Ford spokesperson whether he wished Xohm had been available at the time it developed the system. â''Weâ''re very happy with Sirius,â'' I was told. It didnâ''t really answer the question. But perhaps Ford really is happy with a closed system it can control and draw service revenue from, just like a traditional cellular phone company. Ford needs to watch out, though. Thereâ''s this thing called the Internet, and itâ''s going to take over the wireless world, just as it did the wired one.

2008 fashions in consumer electronics

The theme of the 2008 International Consumer Electronics show, going on now in Las Vegas, is â''Experience the Art of Technology,â'' overtly acknowledging that this not just a tech business, it is a fashion business. Electronics purchases, these days, are as much about style as technology, a lesson Apple taught the industry with the first Macintosh computers. (Although Philips may have gone a little far this year with its bejeweled gizmos.)

So hereâ''s Spectrumâ''s report on 2008 fashion trends in consumer electronics.

Wires are out. Wireless is all the rage, all sorts of wireless, from wireless USB, to Wimedia, to Wimax, to wireless HDMI, to new extreme proximity wireless like Sonyâ''s new â''transfer jetâ'' technology that is intended for devices actually sitting on top of other devices.

All the cool gizmos use flash. The love affair consumers have with tiny hard disk drives may be coming to an end; the next generation of, well, everything, is wearing flash. And why not? High definition camcorders that can store five or more hours of video on a 32 gigabyte memory card are likely to make disk and tape cameras seem as dated as a poodle skirt. (But those cards will, for a while anyway, carry designer price tags, think $250 or more when they hit store shelves.)

And red is the new black. Or white. Or tangerine. glassesetcd.JPGOr pick your favorite color trend; red is in.

For once, this was a fashion trend I jumped on early. Last year I fairly randomly bought a pair of glasses in a red metal case. Then a Krzr cell phone. Then an ipod nano. (See photo, right.) And then I got to CES and am suddenly seeing red everywhere.

Hereâ''s a sampling (photo below, clockwise from top left): The Ladybug iPod speakers from Vestalife, a 160 GB portable hard drive from Iomega, a Sharp Aquos HDTV LCD TV, the SW20 waterproof and shockproof flash-based camcorder from Panasonic, an Everio HDD camcorder from JVC, and Rolly, the audio robot from Sony.

The red accent on a television (Sharp wasnâ''t the only manufacturer doing it) is the one touch of red that didnâ''t work for me. Hard to imagine lipstick red will coordinate with many living rooms.

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Also hard to imagine TV as a fashion item; the last time I bought a television was nearly 20 years ago. But it would only be good news for the TV industry if consumers replaced televisions as often as they do computersâ''for one, they might stop asking nasty questions about fading colors in displays.

Home, Sweet Home Automation

When you put more than 100 000 professionals and marketers together for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, the convergence of telecommunications and consumer electronics can show itself in unusual ways. Home automation turns out to be one example.

Home automation is already an unusual topics of discussion here. Televisions, cellphones, even automobiles, yes. Home entertainment, most definitely yes. But thermostat controllers, Zigbee, and home alarm systems... well, most people will go the whole show without hearing about them.

And there are reasons for that. For the homeowner, automation is expensive, hard to install, and too hard to use. For system manufacturers, thereâ''s no killer application driving the market. Thatâ''s not just my opinion, itâ''s that of industry leaders, as offered during an unusual technical panel session held in a far corner of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Yet, thereâ''s a big market out there, and thereâ''s room for it to grow considerably. According to Paul Dawes, CEO of iControl Networks Inc., 23 percent of all North American homes have a monitored security system. That is, homes that pay a monthly fee to a company like ADT or Brinks or, increasingly, to their telephone or cable provider. Those fees add up to $7 billion in recurring annual revenue, Dawes says. And naturally, he and the rest of the industry look hungrily upon the other 77 percent of homes.

Dawes agrees thereâ''s no killer app, but he and his fellow panelists see two other areas along with security that will drive the home automation market. The first is energy savings. In an automated home, windows will report themselves open, saving heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. Lights will shut themselves off when motion detectors report that no one is home.

The other point to automating a home is entertainment. When every appliance and device can communicate with every other one, a single remote can control all of them.

iControlâ''s corner of the markets consists of software that gives home systems the ability to communicate with PDAs, laptops, and cellphones. So when your kid comes home from school and unlocks the front door, a text message is sent. A camera can be set to take a picture if a car drives up to the house, and the picture, or again a text message, is sent.

iControlâ''s software costs less than $100 and comes in the form of a device that attaches to a home network. The software is compatible with both GEâ''s and Honeywellâ''s security systems, which together currently hold more than 80 percent of the North American market. That duopoly may not hold much longer, though.

â''Weâ''re seeing huge demand right now from broadband operators to get into this space,â'' says Dawes. â''Security market is growing at 6 or 7 percent a year. Itâ''s more profitable than telephony. Either by partnering with someone like ADT in offering a bundled service or by doing it themselves. Time-Warner, for example, is doing it themselves. Theyâ''ve got for divisions launched doing security.

That brings to mind some ways for products like iControlâ''s to move beyond securityâ''for example, to controlling the home entertainment systems that are already connected to a set-top box or DVR. Dawes says heâ''s already working on it, as well as communicating with thermostats. Today, you can set your air conditioning to kick on at 6:00pm every weekday, but what if you often work late? Just send it a text message.

Out of Africa: White Man's Burden?

The latest flap between Intel and Nicholas Negroponte over how best to deliver computers to the world's poorest children strikes me as an honest disagreement between two parties with very different conceptions of technological change. Negroponte's "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC) initiative is a striking marriage of innovation with altruism, leavened with a healthy layer of technocratic zeal.

Negroponte's wizards have created a fascinating little machine, loaded with novelty, and built for a eye-catchingly low cost. The only trouble I see is that Negroponte and friends never asked either poor youth or the governors of the countries they live in about what they want. In short, OLPC is an example of fire coming from the gods, and the gods in this case are rich white men from North America.

Intel's approach is very different. The company's leaders think that, at least when it comes to personal computers, rich and poor people aren't very different. The kinds of laptops that kids use in America are probably the kinds that kids will use in Nigeria, Libya or Peru. Call Intel's way of thinking (which I gathered from a long interview with Sean Maloney, Intel's no.2 last year) "techno-universalism," or one-size fits all.

Universalist approaches to innovation have great strengths, especially because they solve the equity problem out of the gate. Negroponte's challenge is to prove to skeptical Nigerians, about 5 percent of whom have incomes approaching those of Norwegians, why they should settle for a half-baked laptop that seems tailored for street urchins, not the bulging middle-class of the developing world.

The weakness of Intel's approach is of course cost and appropriateness. Conditions in Africa really are different. Heat and power shutoffs are only two of the stresses on computers in the region. Why can't a standard laptop possess regional variations: a flavor for Africa, a different one for Peru, a third variant for Laos and Cambodia?

In principle, the debate is highly interesting. Techno-universalism is easily viewed by some in the developing world as a new kind of imperialism. Negroponte's approach, however, carries the burden of good intentions gone awry. Because he aims to put his laptops into the hands of the poorest children, only governments or aid donors can buy them. Governments tend to be corrupt in poor countries, and aid donors are stupid -- or at least they are stupid when it comes to choosing computers.

I don't think that either Intel nor Negroponte has the right idea. A few years back, I wrote a profile for Spectrum magazine about a creative code writer from Ghana, Herman Chinery-Hesse. He talked a lot about "Africanizing" information technology. He saw ways in which "tropical" conditions could give rise to new forms of computing and telephony. He imagined himself and other "African hackers" as creating these forms. In China and India, many of the best brightest also dream of creating new tools for the world's poor, reasoning that since they are poor they are better positioned than rich engineers in the West to conceive of useful innovations.

Who is best at delivering innovations for the poor is an open question. The good news is that for the first time in a century the focus of many great innovators is on the needs of the have-nots. That may lead to some strife, but inevitably will deliver fresh ideas, products and services.

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