CES 2012: Gadgets and Gizmos Galore

Cool, weird, frivolous, useful, wonderful, and what-were-they-thinking: gadgets experience a population explosion at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show

5 min read
CES 2012: Gadgets and Gizmos Galore

For more news from CES, check out our complete coverage.

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’t

quite 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.)

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry.


Updated 1/12/12

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.