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The Falcon game controller from Novint Technologies. Novint provides feedback so that a game player knows, for instance, that she is touching something solid. However, the game has to be properly modified to provide this kind of information.
Credit: Novint Technologies

Attendees from all over the world crowded around the table: jet-lagged Asians, tanned Australians, bemused Europeans, et cetera. They craned their necks to look at the latest marvel amid displays of advanced telecommunications and computing technology.

They were trying to get a glimpse of a robotic singing bust of a model 1968 (i.e., pre-jowls) Elvis Presley. It was a rather lame display, really–one step up from the mechanical singing trout.

Yes, scenes like this were doubtless repeated over and over today, as the 40th annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) opened in Las Vegas. More than 2,700 exhibitors were spread across three exhibition halls, totaling about 40 acres, with about 60 miles of carpeted aisles. (The first CES, in 1967, had 110 exhibitors.) This year, about 140,000 people are expected to attend, many of them presumably looking for “the next big thing.”

So why are people staring at an automated bust of Elvis?

Sean Wargo, statistician for the Consumer Electronics Association, sponsor of CES, noted that the U.S. electronics industry is at a crossroads. It has experienced phenomenal growth recently but has no new technology on the horizon that would keep it fired up.

In a presentation to the press, Wargo noted that the U.S. consumer-electronics industry grew 10 percent in 2005 and 13 percent in 2006, with total wholesale shipments last year reaching $155 billion. Over the past five years, the industry has grown 50 percent.

“That’s unprecedented, amazing,” he told the press, noting that Americans are now spending more than $1,500 a year on consumer electronics. He pointed out that this is more than they spend on new cars, and that the average American household now contains 25 consumer-electronics products, up from 1.3 in 1975.

But he expects the growth rate to slow to 7 percent in 2007 as consumers digest the current crop of innovations and await the next. (He also expects a modest slowdown in the economy.) But 7 percent is still higher than the 5 percent average growth for overall retail sales, he noted, and it’s about double the average growth of the gross national product.

“But what is the next big thing?” he asked. “Last year it was flat-panel displays, and the year before that it was MP3 players. But the constant factors in this industry are price deflation and innovation, and we need something to push the market to $200 billion in 2010.”

The robot Elvis probably won’t by itself generate enough excitement to do that, although not from any lack of effort by its creator, WowWee Ltd., of Hong Kong. Called “WowWee Alive Elvis,” it performs eight of the King’s greatest hits and can be yours for $349. If you’re still lonesome tonight, the firm also introduced the autonomous $119 Roboquod, which looks and acts like a four-legged spider the size of a Chihuahua. Much like other toy robots, it can detect movement, navigate doorways, and respond to sounds.

Of course, there were also plenty of exhibitors, large and small, actually pushing the envelope. Near the robot Elvis, Novint Technologies, of Albuquerque, NM, was showing the Falcon, a 3-D “force feedback” game controller that lets you feel the outlines of whatever your game persona is touching within a video game. It looks like a small silver traffic cone with ice tongs attached. However, the game has to include tactile information as part of its object descriptions, and adding the descriptions would take a person about a week to programming the information into a game, a spokesman explained.

In a slightly quieter corner of the room, TDVision Systems was showing off software that added 3-D effects to digital images, letting you walk through a CAD drawing, for instance.

“We use a visual-to-real scale, emulating the way our eyes would work in that grid,” says chairman Manuel Gutierrez. It’s best if the drawing includes 3-D data, but the software could be used on any 2-D digital image, he admits. “But that really just means putting something in the foreground and everything else behind it–and that’s not very interesting,” he says, shrugging.

If, as Wargo stated, innovation is an industry tradition, so is nonstop competition to the point of upmanship. Panasonic came out with a 103-inch flat-panel plasma TV at last year’s show, so this year Sharp announced that it had a prototype 108-inch LCD unit. Panasonic countered that it had sold one of its 103-inch units to billionaire Mark Cuban.

Speaking of billionaires, another tradition at the show has been an opening keynote address by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. As is also traditional, the faithful were lining up hours in advance for free tickets to see a presentation that, as usual, amounted to an elaborate Microsoft commercial. However, Gates did provide glimpses of future Microsoft products, including a combination IPTV set-top box and Xbox 360 console in a round enclosure resembling a hatbox. He also promised a server for the home market intended to store a family’s digital memorabilia, although it could also be accessed from the Web.

The show continues through Thursday. Part of one of the CES exhibit halls is also being occupied by the Adult Entertainment Expo, whose skin-heavy banners stand side by side with the CES banners. This being Las Vegas, no one even blinks.

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