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.


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