The granddaddy of them all in the US, this is what the International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is all about.  With the exception of the video game industry (with their own show in May), as represented by Nintendo, Sega, Sony and others, along with the software and accessory hardware supporting them, just about everyone in the CE biz was in Las Vegas for the show held January 7-10.

This trade-only show is an annual event sponsored by the industry trade association, CEMA (Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association), itself a sector of the Electronics Industry Association.  CEMA represents the interests of its industry to our government and other governments (otherwise known as lobbies) to assist in setting standards and in acting as spokespersons on behalf of the industry.  It’s a really BIG deal, to be sure.  What’s at stake?  Well, only the estimated $80 billion in consumer electronics sales for this year, that’s all.

For more information about CES, visit here.  For more information about CEMA, visit here.  For more information about the EIA, visit here.

A mixture of high-level politicking and deal making, along with the showbiz glitz of a well-oiled trade show, this year’s CES was, in my estimation, a great success.  I found tons of products and technologies I will be following in the coming months, and that’s what makes a show like this a success for someone like me.  In this and succeeding articles I will clue you in to what I found worthy of note and follow up, in no particular order.

Digital Everything, Everywhere

The big news, really no surprise at all, was the predominance of digital everything.  Clearly, this will be the year when consumers will be exposed to a constant barrage of ads encouraging them to get a digital TV, or a High Definition TV (HDTV), or a digital video camcorder, or a digital still camera or any of the other, almost unending number of digital products.  In the digital realm were many of the company’s visions of digital convergence – products that, combined, perform helpful duties all around the home or office, bringing video, audio and computer information when and where we want it within our environment.  This is to be accomplished with their version of simple plug and play.  More on this later.

Most consumers will NOT be in the market this year for their HDTV.  Prices are just too high, at least for now.  Entry into this category will set you back many thousands of dollars, say, in the area of six big ones.  This is not to say that prices won’t be coming down by the end of the year, but I’m not going to devote much space at this time to pursuit of HDTV.  As developments warrant, I’ll get into it here.  But, it sure looks great!

Other digital developments are more relevant to today and to our consumer electronics spending this year, and those will be covered in the days and weeks ahead.  So, with a crack of the knuckles in my interlaced fingers, let’s get it on . . .

Digital books caught my eye and attention.

They come in two flavors – visual and audio.  On the visual side, there was the Rocket eBook from NuvoMedia, Inc.  One of three somewhat similar products in this category, it was the only one I saw at the show.  (The others are called the Millennium Reader and Softbook.  I read a good and simple article comparing all three products by Suzanne Kantra Kirschner in the Feb. ’99 issue of Popular Science.)  This handheld, a little larger than a videocassette and costing a hefty $499, sports an outstanding clear and bright display (with switchable backlighting) of unusual sharpness.  Targeted at professionals (due to the price, I’m sure), eBook is designed for reading Web-distributed content.

It comes with a docking cradle that plugs into the serial port of a PC.  One advantage to this digital format is that books can be searched and browsed, annotated and highlighted, linked and referenced as no paper-based book can.  Content providers are being signed up – from traditional books to news from The Wall Street Journal – and are currently available for purchase and download from Barnes and Noble.  (Click on the Electronic Books link on the bottom right of their home page.)  I had a look at their offerings and found prices nearly the same as for the printed book.  For information, visit NuvoMedia and Rocket eBooks or call them at 650-314-1200.  The reader is available now from Levenger’s catalog or by phone at 1-800-544-0880.

Look for Franklin-branded eBooks on retail shelves and content downloadable from their Website before summer as the two companies have entered into a marketing agreement.  (You know Franklin, the company that brought us all those wonderful hand-held products, including dictionaries, translators, the Franklin Bookman and the excellent Rolodex REX products.  Learn more at http://www.franklin.com.)  Electronics giant, Sharp Corporation, has also announced intentions to develop eBook compatible readers.  I think this is really going to take off once the price comes down on the hardware and the content list grows as prices for content fall.  (Note to all concerned: Make it compatible with the Macintosh, too!) I love the concept and the product.

On the audio side of this business was an intriguing product from a little company I found tucked away in a tiny near-corner booth along an outer wall at the Sands Convention Center. Audible, Inc. was showing their 3.5 ounce next-generation hand-held device (I hadn’t seen the first one!), the MobilePlayer-PLUS.  (Click HERE for photo.)  This little palm-size playback device, set to sell for $299, digitally stores about seven and one-half hours of spoken audio and allows listeners to download audio from the company’s Website for playback away from their PC.  (Note to Audible: Make it compatible with the Macintosh, too, and soon!)

Their original product, the $99 MobilePlayer, has a capacity of two hours (I was provided one of these at the Show and I’m trying it out until the PLUS is available to me.)  Here’s how it works.  Load the software via the supplied CD onto your PC.  You can also download the software from their Website.  Sign up on their Site to purchase and download content to your PC.  Choose from over 15,000 hours of content already available for your Audible listening pleasure. During the signup procedure you can complete a profile so Audible can suggest books and other products that may be of interest, and you also establish your account with a user name, password and credit card info for billing.  Then, have fun looking and selecting from all that’s available.  There are built-in safeguards against fraud.

Content consists of loads of popular and other audio books, the same as is available as traditional tape-based audio books, only for a lot less money.  Business subscriptions including The Wall Street Journal on Audible are also available. Already there is a long list of content providers, so you’re sure to find an unending supply of titles, with new content added regularly.  I even found classic comedy, radio shows and audio books for kids!

Content is downloaded to your PC and then transferred in sized-to-fit chunks to the MobilePlayer or can be listened to on the PC only, without purchase of or transfer to a MobilePlayer.  It’s a great concept.

Controls on the MobilePlayer are simple and designed for one-hand operation while driving.  While the computer interface may not be simple for the blind to navigate, the Player operation itself should present no problems!  Audio prompts are built-in, too.  Listen with the supplied headphones plugged in, or, remove the headphones and the MobilePlayer automatically broadcasts the sound via its built-in tunable FM transmitter to any nearby FM radio in the car, at home or anywhere.

More good news – Audible-enabled Windows CE devices are on the way.  Windows CE products are those little palm-sized devices running the Windows CE operating system and compatible software.  In other words, the Audible software supports third party Windows CE devices in addition to both versions of the Audible MobilePlayer.  Examples include products from Casio out now (the new Cassiopeia) and the new and cool next-generation Philips Nino due in a couple of months.  An audible-equipped Windows CE palm-size PC can double as an Audible player.

This is VERY clever.  There’s so much more to this story.  I know I’ll be doing more in the near future.  In the meantime, please check it out for yourself.  I think you’ll like what you see, and hear.  What a great concept and product, and I think it’s priced reasonably.  I predict big things for this one!

Now, how about combining the two concepts?  Within one device, how about the ability to do it any way you want?  Read it on the display or listen to the audio version of the same title.  Could happen!

Side note – While at the NuvoMedia booth, I met one of their customers and supporters, an interesting man whose company provides digital content formatted in html.  His products can be viewed on any computer, including Macs, or other devices capable of displaying html (the format of content on the Internet).  He specializes in lesser-known short stories, science fiction and other interesting and different material.  It’s certainly worth a look.  I admired the passionate and committed way he described what he does.  Click here to visit and browse around at Alexandria Digital Literature.

Headphones Take Center Stage

I saw interesting headphones from the good and trusted folks at Koss Corporation http://www.koss.com as well as relative newcomers to the industry, EarHuggers.

Koss is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the world’s first stereophone, the Koss Pro4/AA, with a revival and reintroduction of the original. Ah, it brings back such fond memories. I wish I still had mine!  Koss is the quality brand of stereophones I buy and recommend to all my friends.  Famous for their uncompromising quality, attention to detail and No-Questions-Asked Lifetime Warranty, there were a couple of new and noteworthy introductions as well.  Cruise their site to see all the Home Pro and Studio Pro stereophones, as well as noise reduction stereophones.

The new SportaPro ($29.99) stereophone features a dynamic element for deep bass and treble sound.  I listened and they sounded great.  Of equal importance, they look and feel great on the head.  The headband design adapts from a conventional top-of-the-head style to one that can be rotated to the back of the head for comfort and convenience.  They are also collapsible into a small ball and store easily in a supplied leatherette carrying case.  They can also be folded and stored flat to fit in a briefcase or luggage.  There’s even a mute switch on the cord!

The KTX/PRO ($19.95) is their new lightweight portable in a more traditional design, though the headband features a comfortable sling and the adjustable headband.  It, too, sounded and felt great.  The volume control on the cord makes it simple to adjust the volume.

This next new Koss stereophone I REALLY like!  Don’t you hate those uncomfortable ear buds?  Come on, admit it.  Stick them in your ears and they’re gonna hurt.  Put up with the pain NO MORE with The Plug ($19.99) from Koss. The sound element is housed within a bud-like enclosure, but instead of inserting the entire assembly into the ear, there is a tubular port structure that is inserted on a soft, flexible and expandable foam cushion, tapered slightly for a comfortable, secure fit in the ear.  These special cushions are made from what Koss calls hydrophilic, formed urethane, for a custom fit every time it is inserted into the ear.  Each set of The Plug stereo earbuds ships with four extra cushions and a vinyl carrying case, and, there’s a mute switch on the cord.  The Plug stereophones are tiny, lightweight and sound just fine.  You WILL love these! This is a great idea.  Lose the buds and get The Plug!

Find the full line of fine Koss stereophones at retailers, on the Internet at http://www.koss.com, or call them at 1-800-USA-KOSS.

I first discovered EarHuggers three years ago at CES.  They were a new little company with one major product – a patented foam covered plastic “around the ear” design reminiscent of those old fashioned earphones that came with the original transistor radios of the fifties.  They all came with a plastic covered around the ear wire to hold the little earphone in place. Remember?  The EarHugger ear clip is similar but more comfortable, and the earphone component is a modern earbud.  Instead of sitting firmly inside the ear, though, this earbud is held up to the ear canal by the clip.  The original EarHuggers, still available, are inexpensive and do a decent job, and there are models with inline volume controls.

Now, the EarHugger line has expanded to offer a pretty full line of low to moderate cost stereophones and specialty earphone products in a variety of styles.  Most interesting was the new EH-910 “Around The Dome Headphones” with their unique design.  The thin, plastic headband goes, well, around the dome. That is, behind the head and not over the top.  Other notable products in their new line include cellular headsets with either boom microphone or an in-line “dangle” microphone, and lightweight computer and telephone headsets with boom microphone.

See the full line of EarHuggers or call them for more information at 1-801-377-0135.

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