Report from CES: A Future Studded with Rhinestones

Mark Sabbatini By

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I have traveled into tomorrow. It looks a like lot today, with decorative rhinestones.

No radical leaps in the digital music world appear to be coming soon if the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is any indication. Increasing numbers of companies hoping to cash in on the iPod's success are offering their varieties of players, accessories and services, but people set on something today probably don't have to worry about it becoming immediately obsolete.

A few developments such as portable satellite radio and discs allowing listeners to adjust instrument levels to their taste look interesting, but most of the focus seems to be making existing technology better, faster and (mostly) smaller. Microsoft is trying another content "partnership," endless companies are hoping their audio/video player will knock the iPod off its throne and everybody is still lining up on predictable sides of the copyright protection verses consumers' rights debate.

Hallview: More than 120,000 vendors, buyers, industry analyists and others with connections to the world of technology attended the 2005 CES show, featuring literally miles of displays of everything from stereos to computers to gadgets.

There's also an increasing effort to expand beyond traditional gearheads with unusual niche products such as a wired parka for snowboarders mentioned in a previous column. Then there's a woman's MP3 watch being designed for Saks Fifth Avenue that is deliberately large, macho and studded with rhinestones.

"We actually have a special design - we're making it bigger at their request," said James Lloyd of International Business Development, a Texas company selling similar watches without the stones for $300 in other department stores.

It's worth noting a watch with the same 256MB storage capacity and similar features - minus the stones - was advertised the same weekend for $79 at a local electronics superstore. The ad also offered portable MP3/CD players - a personal favorite for real-world budgets - for $19.

Musicwatch: James Lloyd of International Business Development shows off a $299 MP3 watch being marketed to upscale department stores. A custom version with rhinestones is in development.

To a large extent, a similar question of why surrounds many other products and technologies. Take Microsoft - for all their hype, the best recent news is the latest version of their near-universal Windows Media Player recognizes age-old MP3s instead of forcing customers into a copy-protected proprietary format. An announced content partnership with TiVo and MTV during an opening night keynote speech by Bill Gates (accompanied by various glitches and crashes in his presentation that got most of the attention) might or might not be the company's first profitable venture into such content, but nobody was predicting the death of Apple afterward.

One of their most-hyped non-music products is a great example of the need to go beyond "gee-whiz" and actually be practical. I was one of a lucky few thousand (out of 120,000 show attendees) to win a pricey multimedia watch offering news, weather, games and other content provided by FM signals. Two problems: The wristband is too large for anybody with less than giant-size wrists and it needs to be plugged in every few days to recharge the battery. Not to complain about a freebie, but that makes it a rather useless novelty.

Good use of existing technology came during the second night keynote speech by Intel CEO Craig Barrett, who got upstaged by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler's demonstration of software on a multitrack DVD by the group allowing users to adjust vocal, instrument and effect levels. A moment Barrett probably didn't want captured for the ages came when Tyler coerced Barrett into singing a few less-than-perfect bars of "Walk This Way."

Accessories for the iPod were among the hottest items, but nothing that would be as welcome as Apple adding an FM tuner or car stereo makers making line-in jacks standard. You can buy a pricey add-on turning it into a laser pointer, for example, or pay $5 for a handheld laser at any number of locations. And various wireless remotes might be handy for an iPod hooked to a living room stereo, but it's hard to buy the arguments of vendors who say their tiny-button gadgets are a safer alternative for drivers than the familiar controls of an iPod stuck to a dashboard with Velcro.

It seems safe to say satellite radio will catch on. There's something to be said for CD-quality ad-free broadcasts not just of jazz, but of playlists aimed at specific tastes such as fusion, traditional and Dixie. A pretty good crowd lined up to buy portable receivers by XM (the industry leader with 2 million subscribers) for $199 instead of the $350 stores are charging. But they are still stuck paying the same monthly fees of $10 a month or so. A competing player from Xact Communication using Sirius (800,000 subscribers) got its share of attention as well, but questions about both such as inconsistent reception and battery packs that make them far from ideally portable indicate there are wrinkles to iron out.

There's also questions about competing content (XM has exclusive rights to pro baseball and Sirius to pro football, for example) and how many consumers are willing to essentially "rent" music. Xact touts the ability to download and store music on its player, for example, but the files can't be transferred to a computer or other player for permanent playback.

"I think that's a personal choice," said Mark Alford, vice president of Xact, when asked if consumers are likely to accept such restrictions. As for differing content offered by each company, "hopefully we'll have the majority of what they want."

Media centers combining computer, video and audio functions are also gaining momentum, with some companies like HP focusing on products with a more convention component feel instead of a computer-centered one. But the idea of keeping entire audio and/or video collections on a hard drive instead of stacks of discs is nothing new, just part of an evolving technology that still looks to be a step or two from being ready for widespread acceptance.

Among the issues to be resolved are playback quality and copyright protections. The inferior quality of compressed audio like MP3s isn't necessary a huge issue on car stereos, portables and basic home systems, but becomes much more noticeable on high-end home systems. Bill Neighbors, acting CEO of the newly formed Music Engineering And Technology Alliance, said one of the coalition's goals is educating consumers about what requirements are necessary to achieve what industry officials consider quality digital audio.

But even though a coalition statement says its focus is "implementation of optimum standards and practices for the highest quality recording and delivery possible," they don't appear ready to tackle the issue in the online music arena yet.

Cook: Although some fundamental aspects of CES went awry - wireless access for the media was spotty throughout the week, for instance - organizers and sponsors went out of their way to make sure the press was well-fed. Here a chef cooks pasta to order during a vendor preview show before the official opening of the expo.

"I don't think it's appropriate for any of us to talk about a favorite anything," said George Massenburg, chief technical officer and standards committee chair for the group, when asked what he considers a format high enough in quality to meet standards.

It's also pretty clear copyright issues won't be solved anytime soon. The Home Recording Rights Coalition collected several hundred signatures on a petition essentially asking Congress not to pass a law that could eliminate copying of digital music files for personal use, but organizers acknowledged the issues are complex and most signees were most likely agreeing to the general concept than the specifics.

Among the signers was Rodney Stansfield, a Garden Grove, Calif., resident and marketing director for the nonprofit artists' support group songsalive.org . He said he hadn't seen enough of the show to decide if the future trend is encouraging or discouraging, but believes there is considerable possible potential - such as making every recording ever available digitally - that will be realized and needs to be emphasized.

"The technology is always promising," he said. "The holdback is the human mindset to let the technology do what it can do."

So after stampeding with the hoards through what I'd guess is at least 10 miles of exhibit space, I head home with no plans to adjust my multimedia setup in any significant way. Maybe I'm just getting immune to hype, but nothing in all the flash and splash was as exciting as when I first discovered the limitless free collection of public domain concerts and albums at the Internet Archive .



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