Data, Music, Video: Raising a Curtain on Future Gadgetry

(Last edited: Monday, 2 January 2006, 10:15 PM)

Data, Music, Video: Raising a Curtain on Future Gadgetry

Published: January 2, 2006, NYT

The flat-panel televisions will be getting bigger, the MP3 players and cellphones will be getting smaller. And almost everything will be getting cheaper.


A new control pad from Elan operates any number of items in the home, from the TV to the drapes.

But the biggest trend expected at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which begins this week in Las Vegas, is that these machines will be communicating with one another. The theme of this year's show might best be described as Convergence: This Time We Mean It.

For more than a decade, manufacturers of consumer electronics like televisions and audio gear have talked about blending their products with personal computers, so that consumers can enjoy a seamless stream of data, video and music anywhere. It has not happened, because the two industries do not have compatible technology standards and the requisite high-speed Internet connections have not been widespread enough.

This year all that changes, say executives who will be introducing new products at the show. They say that consumers will finally be able to sling images and sound wirelessly around a room or an entire house. The major electronics makers will be showing TV's with computer capabilities and phones that will play video and music, as well as the next generation of digital recording and storage devices.

While technological convergence may now be possible, some fear the industries have not yet made connecting all those devices simple enough for the average user.

"There is still a lot of confusion around the connected home," said Van L. Baker, a market analyst with Gartner, a technology research and consulting firm. "Reducing it will be the challenge to keeping the momentum going."

Getting consumers past the confusion of how to link, say, a PC to a TV will be the next big hurdle.

The show comes after a very good year for consumer electronics. Plasma and liquid-crystal display televisions, MP3 players and digital cameras with five or more megapixels of resolution have been big sellers.

"We don't see any reason that this will slow down anytime soon," Mr. Baker said. "The transition of entertainment from analog to digital, of time-shifting and place-shifting, is just getting under way."

Attendees of the electronics show, the biggest trade show in the country, will be scrambling to get a first glimpse at some of the products that will fuel the growth of the industry, which represents $126 billion in annual sales. The annual exhibition is off limits to the general public, but it is expected to attract 130,000 executives, dealers, journalists and investors.

More than 2,500 exhibitors, a record, spread across 1.6 million square feet, another record, will try to grab their attention. This year, 6 percent of the exhibitors will be from China, illustrating that nation's significance as a major player in the industry. Among foreign attendees, China will rank third, behind Canada and Taiwan.

The show is more than just a display of new technological toys. It is also a forum for industry executives to forge alliances and present new business strategies.

Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, will give his vision of the future in a speech Wednesday evening. Sir Howard Stringer, the chairman and chief executive of Sony, will take his turn Thursday morning. On Friday morning Terry Semel, the chairman and chief executive of Yahoo, will speak, followed later that day by Larry Page, a co-founder of Google.

Intel plans a major announcement about its new Viiv (rhymes with drive) multimedia platform, which will power PC's built to deliver digital entertainment. Intel hopes that Viiv will transform the home computer in the same way that its Centrino platform transformed the laptop into a mobile communications device. Paul S. Otellini, the chief executive of Intel, will give a speech Thursday evening outlining Intel's road map.

Manufacturers are expecting another record year in 2006, but with continuing declines in prices. Across a broad swath of categories like cameras and audio and DVD players, consumers will pay less and get more features. Even in the flat-panel TV industry, prices dropped as much as 40 percent in 2005. This trend will translate into slower revenue growth in 2006.

As for new areas of growth, analysts are predicting big sales of game consoles in 2006 as Sony introduces its PlayStation 3 and Nintendo brings out its Revolution console. Both devices, like the new Microsoft Xbox 360, can be used as the central node for a wirelessly networked home.

Electronics companies will also be introducing new home media servers and TV's that can receive digital content wirelessly from a PC or via an HDMI cable (for high-definition multimedia interface). Another hot topic at the show will be IPTV, or Internet protocol television, which sends programming over the Internet through a broadband connection.

Then there are the companies, like Elan Home Systems, that want to get right in the middle and sell devices to control all the networked appliances. Elan will be at the show introducing a control pad for everything in your house, from electronic devices to the drapes.

While major players in the electronics industry continue to squabble over the format of the next generation of DVD's - Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD - both factions will be showing products that consumers can buy this year. The new players will be expensive, some costing more than $1,000. Still, the industry expects to sell about a half-million of the new players in 2006, mostly as components in PC's rather than as stand-alone devices.

In the audio sector, companies are seeking ways to take advantage of the popularity and dominance of the Apple iPod. Several manufacturers are planning to announce products that will work with the iPod to move music to devices around the house.

Another big trend, said Steve Tirado, chief executive of Silicon Image, a semiconductor maker, is bigger storage devices. "People want a place to consolidate their digital media."

Ross Rubin, the director for industry analysis at NPD, a market research firm, said that apart from home networking systems, some new technologies would make their way to consumer markets this year.

Canon and Toshiba will both present televisions with surface-conduction electron-emitter displays. The technology produces crisper pictures than can be offered by existing flat-panel televisions, the manufacturers say. The sets will go on sale later this year.

Other Asian TV manufacturers will also demonstrate sets built with new organic light-emitting diodes that use less energy and could one day be cheaper to produce than liquid-crystal display panels.

Another notable product development to be seen at the show is the miniaturization of cathode-ray tube technology to fit into flat-panel televisions, allowing what could be the best-quality picture yet. "They will be very high end, very expensive," said Mr. Rubin. But like that of so many products at the show, the price will eventually go down.

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