TOKYO--In the exhibition halls of a gadget trade show, the things that normally jump out are the wacky outfits the female booth attendants are forced to wear, the mammoth wall installations of TVs, and long lines for booth swag.
For better or worse, the enduring image of Ceatec 2009 has been the sight of suit-clad men waiting in twisting queues for the chance to don a pair of plastic 3D glasses for a five-minute TV demonstration. There are two reasons for that: because the major TV makers here couldn't miss out on the chance to show their prototype models of this trendy technology, and because there wasn't really much else going on this year.
There isn't yet a final, official count, but this year's show, which started Tuesday and runs through the weekend, so far seems far less crowded than in years past. Attendees could have been kept away by the sluggish economy, or the inclement weather, including a tropical storm that hit Tokyo midweek. Either way, the general vibe at the Makuhari Messe has been much more subdued.
In the past Ceatec has been known as the event where gadgets destined for store shelves showed up en masse, the last stop on the trade show circuit before they're packaged and ready for consumers during the yearly holiday sales period. However, the 2009 edition was shorter on practical products and very low on new stuff.
As at IFA in Berlin last month and at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, 3D was the dominant theme. Panasonic showed its very-close-to-being-ready 3D plasma TV here this week--this time, though, on a 50-inch set, a size that's far more practical than the 103-inch behemoth used at expos earlier this year. The 50-inch model, plus some sizes larger than that, will be unveiled along with pricing and shipping information at CES in January 2010. Sony is also readying its first 3D TV for the home, which is set to ship sometime next year, though the company wasn't specific about exactly when.
Fellow Japanese TV manufacturers Hitachi, Sharp, and Toshiba also hauled in their own 3D TV demos to the floor of Makuhari Messe, and attendees dutifully lined up to see them, but none of those electronics makers are committing to shipping 3D TVs yet, which is very telling.
Panasonic acknowledged that the standards for releasing 3D movies on Blu-ray are not yet complete, but said they will be soon, and that the company is committed to the standards. But some of Panasonic's competitors are not completely convinced 3D at home is a sure bet. A Toshiba representative here said the company is "still waiting to see if there is demand" for 3D in the home. And with good reason--it's still not clear that consumers are going to go for 3D at home just yet, both because it would mean likely buying yet another new TV and because watching those TVs requires wearing very silly-looking plastic glasses with active-shutter lenses.
3D and the floating mirror
Besides TVs, Ceatec also featured other cool applications using 3D outside of the home and movie theater.
The Japanese government's National Institute of Information and Communication Technology, or NICT, was running a demonstration called Multisensory Interaction System (MSens), which had a line almost as long as many of the TV demos. In this, 3D was used to enhance reality for specific tasks. It worked like this: An image of an ancient mirror with an ornate design on one side was displayed in a monitor. The image was reflected onto a piece of glass in front of a user standing at the monitor so that the mirror appeared to float in front of him. But the user could then take a stylus that would allow him to "feel" the surface of the mirror. As the tip moved across the bumpy surface (which in reality is being held in midair and not touching a solid surface), the stylus would rise and fall with the peaks and valleys on the mirror's surface.
The idea would be to use MSens for product testing, design, and possibly even learning things like surgery. NICT also brought a separate demonstration that showed surgery in 3D, making observers feel as if they were right in the middle of an operation. It was fascinating, but also something you'd need a medical degree to use--and probably a strong stomach too.
While those have practical purposes outside of pure entertainment, it's still 3D TVs that are getting all the attention here. Sometimes, as at Sony's booth, that attention is even coming at the expense of other products. When asked why there were no organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs at its booth this year as in years past, a Sony representative said simply, "because we're focusing on 3D."