A Winner and a Loser at CES

This week Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry will be logging reports from the

Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Today, she follows through on the theme of this month's issue of Spectrum: "Winners and Losers."



Tekla S. Perry

I'm in Las Vegas at the 40th anniversary of the international Consumer Electronics Show. Due to the fact that I've been attending for more than half of those 40 years, I've seen most of the products before, unfortunately. It's rare that an entire new technology (e.g., CD audio, DVD video, plasma television) debuts here, because the consumer electronics industry more often takes incremental steps. Still, as I write this 36 hours before CES officially begins, but five hours after the beginning of the press previews, I still have hope that some product to be introduced over the next few days is going to astound me, amaze me, or at least make me lust for it.

Tonight's opening event, CES Unveiled, was an easy warm-up for the press corps—representatives of some 80 companies standing behind small tables ringing a hotel ballroom. With Spectrum's January issue theme of winners and losers playing in my head, I set out to find one of each.

Saturday's CES winner:

The Novint Falcon. This 3-D joystick from Novint Technologies, Inc., of Albuquerque, N.M., is a haptic interface. That is, it gives tactile feedback, using three motors that update 1000 times a second. I have seen it before, in prototype form at last year's Demo conference, but this time the Novint Falcon is much closer to reality. It will sell for US $189 starting in June, including software for 24 simple games and a credit for a free game download. A Novint spokesman said the company is adapting the game Half Life for the controller and talking with game companies about enabling other popular games for the new controller. Tonight, I tried four simple pieces of software—one that let me swing virtual balls around by elastic bands; one that let me catch a virtual ball in a virtual mitt, the impact of the ball hitting the glove knocking me back a bit; one that let me pull back on a bowstring and shoot arrows; and, the last, my favorite, that let me feel different textures. This one best showed off the sensory feedback as I felt around spheres of virtual ice, sandpaper, sticky molasses, and bumps. While the company is selling the controller as a game device, developers and tinkerers will likely develop other types of applications.

Saturday's CES loser:

Ubot. This $1000 vacuuming and floor-washing robot from Microrobot Co. Ltd., of Seoul, South Korea, hopes to challenge the popular Roomba home robots if it can find a U.S. distributor; it's already available in Korea. Why is it better than the $130 to $650 Roomba? Roomba covers a room by moving randomly around; Ubot representatives told me that this randomness wastes time and misses spots. The Ubot instead navigates a planned path by reading barcodes imprinted on floorboards, visible only in ultraviolet light, and is therefore more efficient. Microrobot has convinced a manufacturer to make flooring preprinted with the barcodes, which they hope consumers will buy for installation in their homes. Users can also retrofit their floors by carefully stamping the barcodes at regular intervals. I hated to tell the Ubot representatives, who genuinely believe they have made a huge improvement in cleaning robot technology, but it ain't gonna happen.

More tomorrow.

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