Win or lose, tech expo showcases latest gadgets

By Rory Carroll  /  The Guardian, Las Vegas

Sun, Jan 13, 2013 - Page 14

The world’s biggest gadget show ended in Las Vegas on Friday and, like a prophet in the desert, revealed the future: bigger televisions, smarter watches, thinner humans and bendy phones.

That, at least, was the vision peddled by technology companies that unveiled 20,000 products over five frenzied days of networking and promotion at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). About 150,000 industry professionals sifted through gadgets sublime and ridiculous, pointless and ingenious, seeking the next big innovation that will change the way we work, live and play.

Some ideas that provoked guffaws and headlines — the vibrating fork which chastises you to eat slower, the i-potty training system to keep your toddler on the bowl — may not endure, but others seemed certain to have a future.

Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and other television manufactures unveiled bigger screens — ranging from 50 to 110 inches — with “ultra-high-definition” four times sharper than traditional HD. Prices range from US$20,000 upwards.

2D prototypes marked the quiet death of 3D television, a much-hyped innovation at last year’s CES that flopped in stores. The technology may resurrect if the likes of StreamTV Networks convince consumers to buy 3D TVs, due out later this year, which do not require glasses.

Pebble, a kickstarter darling, won instant acclaim by unveiling a much-ballyhooed smart watch with e-paper display that connects to a smartphone and can receive e-mails, control music and track your movement. Priced US$150, there are 85,000 pre-orders.

“We had to get it right, it’s on your wrist,” Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky said. “People won’t tolerate something bad being attached to their body.”

The show signaled an accelerating drive by tech firms to sell the idea that technology is key to mental and physical well-being, with a quarter of displays devoted to gadgets for losing weight, getting fitter and improving health.

They harnessed smartphones and tablets to “wearable” fitness devices that monitor your exertions and store them in the cloud. Diabetics were offered apps to monitor their condition.

“It’s an inherently data-driven activity,” Joseph Martorano of iHealth said.

Samsung unveiled a prototype phone — super-thin plastic replaces traditional glass — which lets you fold it almost like paper. The technology, called Youm, will spread to other devices.

However, all the gadgetry did not dispel doubts that the expo is losing relevance. The event focused on hardware in a software-obsessed world and contained no major surprises. Some tech gurus declared CES a dying giant. True or not, the hordes leaving Las Vegas with their bags of freebie “swag” were happy.