Based on some of the things I've seen so far at the Consumer Electronics Show, 2009 might be remembered as the year of the gimmick. If gimmick is too strong a word, perhaps we can settle for "incredible technology in search of a practical purpose."
Take Casio's new EX-FS10 compact camera. The camera itself is marvelous, but the use case seems a little weird. Like a couple of larger SLR cameras Casio introduced at last year's show, this smaller consumer camera is capable of taking still pictures at up to 30 frames per second.
Now, that can be very practical, if you're using the camera to shoot a picture of your kid running across a soccer field, but that's not how Casio CEO and co-founder Kazuo Kashio positioned the new camera. Instead, he made a very big deal about Casio's clever "Dynamic Photography," which lets you superimpose a moving image over another image to put a subject into a different background.
Kashio demonstrated the feature by photographing a model handing him a gift. Then--totally within the camera--he added that moving image to an illustration of a birthday cake to produce a picture of the cake with a moving image of the model offering the gift. Another example had a little girl running up to Neil Armstrong as he planted a flag on the moon.
The camera does by itself what used to require post processing on a PC or a Mac. That's certainly a marvel of technology, but I'm not convinced whether people will actually want to use it.
3D TV may turn out to be a major theme of this year's show. Panasonic announced plans to have 3D sets on the market by next year. The company is reportedly also working with studios and Blu-ray Disc manufacturers to agree on standards for 3D programming. Graphics card maker Nvidia also announced its $200 GeForce 3D Vision card, which brings 3D graphics to PC gamers.
As I reported Wednesday, a British company, Promotions and Display Limited Technology, is showing off its $89 Minoru 3D Webcam, which can let people jump out at you during a video call. I hesitate using an old-fashioned 2D Webcam. I don't really want people to see me when I talk on the phone, so the last thing I need is the ability to lean in and scare the crap out of the person on the other end.
One stumbling block for 3D is that most products still require viewers to wear geeky-looking red-and-cyan glasses. Another problem is nausea. A lot of TV programming is nauseating enough without 3D, but with it, people may literally get sick to their stomach while watching. The big question is whether people will flock to 3D TV, given the rather limited uptake of 3D movies that have been around for decades.
My jury is still out on pico projectors--some as small as cell phones--that let you project video or still images from a handheld device to a screen or a wall. Samsung and WoWee were among the companies showing off devices like Samsung's 5.6-ounce MBP200, which can throw off a 50-inch image, or WoWee's candy bar-shape Swivel projector ($299), which can bend in the middle to project at different angles.
These mini projectors connect to PCs, iPods and other portable media players to enable users to share the experience of watching video on what would otherwise be a personal viewing device. Texas Instruments, whose DLP chips power many of these projectors, showed off a prototype of a Samsung cell phone that had the projector built in.
I can understand the usefulness of these projectors, especially as devices get really small, but I'm not sure that most people really want to spend extra money or carry around an extra device to share their media. Huddling around an iPod or a cell phone brings people together and is perhaps the closest thing that some geeks will get to cuddling. Do we actually need to project our personal video on a screen?
And the No. 1 gimmick is...
My nomination for the top gimmick of the show so far is the much-hyped LG GD910 wrist watch phone. Sure, it's a neat trick to get a 3G touch-screen speaker phone, camera, and media player into a wrist watch (yes, it also tells time) but is that something people really want?
I suppose that it's possible--there was a time when people carried pocket watches instead of wearing them on their wrists--but a watch is something you glance at, while a phone requires a fair bit of user interaction.
Despite the screen's relatively small size (1.43 inches diagonally), the touch screen does appear to be at least somewhat usable, but many people have enough trouble working iPhones and BlackBerrys that are considerably larger. Of course, you could always connect the wrist watch to a pico projector.