On my fourth day in Las Vegas, attending the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, I’ve spent most of my time looking for trends in technology, interfaces, and products. But as I walk the miles of aisles of the Las Vegas Convention Center, and traverse the ballrooms of the evening company showcases, I can’t resist stopping to check out a few (OK, more than a few) gadgets. This hasn’t been an organized or comprehensive exploration of the gadget world, but it has been interesting. In no particular order, here’s what caught my eye.
The Atari Arcade. Definitely my favorite “never knew I needed it but I want it” gadget at CES to date. This $60 gizmo turns an iPad into an arcade game machine, playing classic Atari titles, like Centipede and Super Breakout. It doesn’t look like much, but the gameplay felt impressively like the original (though it struggled a bit with trackball-dominant games like Pong) and I quickly tapped into my long-dormant Centipede skills.
The SanDisk Memory Vault. For folks who aren’tquite confident that “the cloud” will preserve their treasured photos for generations, and definitely aren’t confident that they’ll live safely on their computers, SanDisk created the Memory Vault. Company reps envision people dropping their photo files onto this USB peripheral ($50 for 8 GB, $80 for $16 GB) and sticking it in a safe deposit box, where the photos will survive a “guaranteed” 100 years. I’m not sure exactly how SanDisk can make that guarantee, though apparently it’s done all sorts of simulations of extreme aging. For a little gizmo it weighs a lot, making it at least seem durable. (I’m sure that feeling of heft was carefully planned).
PowerTrekk fuel cell system. This $200 compact fuel cell system is designed for backpackers (and will be sold this spring at REI). It uses SiGNa Chemistry’s sodium silicide technology, with the chemical packed in $4 pods, combined with any available liquid—water, soda, or, the company says, even urine (insert pee power joke here) to generate electricity—enough to fully charge an iPhone twice, the company says.
Griffin’s Helo TC Assault. At first glance, it's just another $60 iPhone controlled helicopter. But have you seen one of these shoot missiles?
And also from Griffin, the “20”. Griffin thinks you want an excuse not to throw out your giant, old, but much-loved stereo speakers, and came up with this $200, 20-watts-per-channel amp to let you hook them into your wireless home network.
Giant multitouch displays. Seems like giant walls and tables for collaboration and communication are coming into their own this year. Prices I saw ranged from $7750 for the Sharp Aquos smart board to about $100,000 for Perceptive Pixel’s gorgeous wall display—and in this case, in terms of responsiveness and clarity, you definitely get what you pay for.
Sensics’ VR Goggles. What’s a CES without a head-mounted display? This year, Sensics has built the computer into the display, so it can run apps in the cloud as well as act as a monitor for an external computer or game machine. Sensics is looking for a manufacturing partner, so has no pricing information yet.
SimpleTV. I got excited about this $149 device that enables your TV to act as a DVR as well as a Slingbox for over-the-air TV broadcasts. Excited, at least, until I found out that it’s not actually all that simple. To actually use the SimpleTV box you need an Ethernet connection near your TV; some kind of Internet TV adaptor, like Roku’s or Boxee’s; external storage on a computer or stand-alone hard drive; and an antenna. Oh, and there’s a $5 a month fee.
Roku Streaming Stick. Meanwhile, Roku introduced a gadget that turns a Plain Old TV System (I’m repurposing the acronym POTS) into a smart TV Only works with new TVs peripheral, at least if you have the latest model of television with an MHL HDMI port. Roku expects manufacturers, starting with Best Buy, will package it with products; independently, the price will be somewhere between $50 and $100.
Swivl. It’s a just a camera stand, albeit a $170 one, designed for smartphone videography. But it looks like a friendly little robot and pans and tilts to follow anyone wearing its little tag, so you can dance around the room and still stay on camera. The Swivl folks say, besides people recording themself on video, they envision it used by someone having a Facetime conversation who can't sit still.
Tagg. When every person on the planet has a cell phone, is the industry mature? A company called Pet Tracker thinks not; it introduced a cell phone for dogs (and large cats), that clips onto a collar. Its built-in GPS tracks the dog’s location, and when the dog leaves a pre-set zone, the collar automatically contacts the owner and tells him where to come get the dog. IEEE Spectrum featured a DIY cat tracker in 2009, this gizmo should prove equally entertaining.
PixelOptics Empower glasses. OK, we covered this last year, but I went back for an update; last year I just got to check out prototypes. This year, PixelOptics has 13 styles of frames in North America (more in Europe) for these electronically-progressive lenses, and is selling them in 1500 places at $1250 each. The frames aren’t bad looking, and are surprisingly light and comfortable. The top, or distance, portion of the lens stays stable, while a touch of the right side of the frame switches the bottom half from mid to near range vision. That’ll work well for someone using a laptop on his lap, looking slightly down; put your computer screen at eye level as is ergonomically optimal, and I’m not so sure the distance will hit the sweet spot, and given the glasses weren’t exactly tuned to my prescription, I wasn’t able to test that out. Still, I think I’ll be owning a pair of these one day, when prices come down.
Panasonic’s Miniature Effect. I’m usually not that interested in weird modes on point and shoot cameras, I just want to point and shoot. But I found Panasonic’s “Miniature Effect,” available in selected models, oddly compelling (or perhaps it was just a long day). In this mode, the camera shoots videos at a low frame rate, and changes the perspective to make it appear as if the photographer is looking down into the scene, making ordinary cityscapes look like episodes of “Thomas the Tank Engine.”
BabyPlus. This one, for me, falls into the category of “what are they thinking?” This $150 gizmo straps onto the front of a pregnant woman’s stomach and taps out simulated heartbeats in a variety of rhythms to, company reps say, give babies a head start on learning. It’s intended to be worn an hour a day. Apparently just listening to mom’s heartbeat all day long is just too boring.
The Powerbag. I stumbled into this mobile charging station with my computer, camera, video camera, and cell phone around CES, tucked into a backpack and could immediately see how cool it would be to be charging them without having to stop. The company says it can charge four different devices at a time (while keeping them neat instead of a jumble of cords), automatically adjusting to feed the most power to the device with the emptiest battery. At less than 2 pounds, it seemed light, though I think I’d prefer a rollaway version. Priced at $139 to $249, depending on styling.
The Kodak Photo Kiosk. OK, this isn’t really a consumer product; it’s meant to go into drugstores and the like, not individual homes. But this updated model prints directly from Facebook—that seems to be where so many photos live these days, it makes sense to have a way to get decent prints of them. (BTW, the Kodak employees staffing the display maintained their smiles and insisted that they were optimistic about the company’s future.)
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.