Las Vegas The world's premier consumer electronics show wouldn't be complete without the fanciful and outlandish: A smart oven preserved and cooked meals based on remote commands, while a 102-inch plasma TV -- taller than the 8-foot walls in many homes -- inspired ooohs and aaahs from couch potatoes.
But manufacturers at this year's gadgetfest generally took a more modest approach: They eschewed the flamboyant and futuristic in favor of relatively affordable devices set to debut within weeks or months, not years.
Many of the 2,400 exhibitors at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week hawked simple, elegant, sub-$1,000 items meant to enhance consumers' "digital lifestyles."
Universal remote controls, hand-held computers, digital camcorders, MP3 players and TVs that can be programmed from cell phones help users stay plugged into a world of digital music, video, games, television and Internet.
"We're encouraged by the real-world products at affordable price points this year," said Mike George, chief marketing officer at Dell Inc. "We're finally moving from hype to reality."
Although the 2005 show has proved light on breathless enthusiasm, the realism has thrilled skeptics who had been hearing technologists gush about the "wired home" since the mid-1980s.
"It always remained something that was likely to happen tomorrow," said Michael Greeson, founder of The Diffusion Group, a consumer electronics think tank based in Plano, Texas. "The problem was that tomorrow never arrived, and the digital home was becoming a vacuous concept, somewhat of a pipe-dream. But this is no longer the case."
Coming in 2005
Among the interesting gizmos on display at the show, which runs through Sunday:
- The NevoSL universal remote control from Universal Electronics Inc. Even Microsoft Corp.'s chairman, Bill Gates, complained this week that consumers have been bogged down with too many remotes for TVs, DVDs, VCRs and stereos.
UE's device, expected to debut in the second quarter for about $800, can control all home theater and stereo equipment. It features a 3.5-inch diagonal LCD color display, 17 programmable keys and a scroll wheel. It has infrared and wireless interfaces to talk to other devices and computers.
- Gizmondo, a gaming/video/music console by Tiger Telematics Inc. Gizmondo fits in your pocket and can play games, send text messages, snap photos and perform other digital feats, but doesn't act as a cell phone.
Launched in the United Kingdom in October for $420, Gizmondo will be available in the United States within three months, but U.S. pricing hasn't been finalized. It comes with built-in Global Positioning System technology.
- Ojo, a personal video phone from Motorola Inc. Ojo will begin shipping in early spring for about $700 and features video at 30 frames per second and virtually no latency. The phone can make calls over the Internet and will require a broadband connection.
Unlimited domestic and international video calls will cost about $14.95 per month, making it ideal for far-flung grandparents and owners of small businesses who can't afford to travel. Ojo acts as a traditional cordless phone -- without video or unlimited long-distance -- if the person called doesn't have an Ojo.
- Everio, a camcorder and digital still camera from JVC. Although it debuted in November starting at $1,100, the Everio still triggered buzz this week because it's the first to use a removable, 4-gigabyte Hitachi microdrive -- similar to the iPod's, though it pops out.
The fits-in-your-palm Everio can capture an hour of video at mini-DV quality, similar to a prerecorded DVD. Users can edit video on the fly.
- A surround-sound gaming chair and audio system from HotSeat Inc. Inventor Jay LeBoff, an amateur race-car driver, got the idea for his HotSeat Solo when he first played his children's Xbox games but yearned for the feel of a real car seat.
The grippy leather chair fits all body sizes and is similar to those in professional race cars, only with an added cup holder and subwoofer. LeBoff will begin filling online orders for the $399 contraption in April, and, if all goes well, it may be in stores by August.
- Z800 3D Visor by eMagin Corp. The 10-year-old company built the organic light-emitting diode microdisplay for military and medical use, and this spring will begin selling the goggles and headset to consumers -- particularly gamers -- for about $900.
Pop a game or movie into your PC, strap on the glasses and get flooded with 2.8 million pixels, the equivalent of a 105-inch television screen viewed from 12 feet. High-speed head tracking enables a 360-degree view.
Traveling executives can use the goggles to look at sensitive business plans without worrying that an airplane seatmate is spying. The only drawback: The goggles are heavy and may pinch your nose.
- An embedded microdrive from Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. The 1-inch, half-ounce innovation is 20 percent smaller than the smallest microdrive now on the market, but it holds double the data -- between 8 and 10 gigabytes.
Dubbed "Mikey" for its diminutive size, the drive will debut in the second half of 2005. Consumers can't buy the drive directly; Hitachi is in discussions with cell phone and MP3 manufacturers.
Over the top
Although realism was the theme of the 2005 show, the event wouldn't be complete without fanciful gizmos, such as the 30-inch "intelligent oven" that can defrost, dehydrate, refrigerate, bake, broil or warm food based on prompts from any Internet-enabled computer or cell phone. TMIO Inc. is taking pre-orders online, but hasn't set prices.
The manufacturer with the show's largest display was South Korea's Samsung Electronics Co., whose executives sought feedback on its crowd-pleasing 102-inch plasma TV. Retailers' enthusiasm will determine whether Samsung will mass-produce its single prototype on display.
Samsung displayed an 80-inch plasma TV during last year's show, and the company will begin shipping those monsters in May.
But the 102-inch prototype may never see the light of Best Buy: Like many of the more outrageous products at the show, it was built, in part, for bragging rights.
"It's a technology statement," spokeswoman Tara O'Donnell said. "The message is that Samsung has the ability beyond any other company to produce plasma panels of this size."