Entertainment, Optimism Dominate CES 2004

Optimism about the tech sector abounded at this year’s CES event in Las Vegas, as more than 110,000 attendees gathered to gape at computers embedded in refrigerators, hear about new offerings from Microsoft and watch rhinestone-studded singers belt out selections from the musical “Chicago” at the Samsung booth.

Although glitzy production value has never been lacking at CES, this year the trade show has a sense of traction that has been somewhat fleeting during its last few years. With a more robust high-tech economy possibly on the horizon, the mood is upbeat, and the crowded aisles and booths are undoubtedly a welcome sight to computer electronics enthusiasts.

As Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which produces CES, told the E-Commerce Times: “The consumer electronics sector was growing [even] during the downturn. You’re seeing a new resurgence reflected on the show floor, especially with the strides forward in digital entertainment.”

Digital Living Room

Indeed, digital entertainment options are plentiful, as they always are at the conference. This year, the most abundant products on the show floor are flat-screen plasma TVs. So many of these devices are on display that some are hung in hallways and inside the sports bar kiosk in the conference hall.

Ashley Twigg, a spokesperson for LG Electronics, told the E-Commerce Times that she has seen enormous interest in all of her company’s models during the show, but the real draw is the 76-inch plasma TV, the first one of that size to become available.

“Everyone wants that one,” she said. “It makes the 60-inch TV look small.”

Twigg added that plasma TVs like those that proliferate in the LG booth are plentiful at other companies’ booths as well. “It’s the future, these TVs,” she noted. “I think this will really be the year that they become common in households.”

That’s Entertainment

Other consumer gadgets also are abundant, and most of them are focused on entertainment rather than business.

“Since 9/11, people have been geared toward staying home more, and that has translated to the demand for home entertainment systems,” Shapiro said, “which, in turn, has led to manufacturers trying to meet the need.”

Some of the most notable gadgets at the show are computers designed to fit in kitchens and cars. The Microsoft booth even features a tricked-out Hummer with DVD players and screens in the back of each headrest. Portable DVD players and other small mobile devices are widely displayed, too, and MP3 players are nearly overflowing into the aisles.

Conventional technology also has been spruced up. For example, Sony announced that a double-layer DVD drive and discs will ship this quarter. Double-layer DVDs have nearly twice the capacity of standard discs and soon should become the standard for entertainment media.

In the digital camera arena, competition is so fierce that consumers likely will find lower prices as the year progresses. Some new entrants into the market are BenQ’s new 3-megapixel SC30 and, on the higher end, its 5-megapixel C50. The stalwarts of the digital camera scene are well represented at the show, with Kodak, Nikon and Samsung all displaying a range of products that will replace previous models. For example, Nikon’s Coolpix 2200 and 3200 bump the company’s 2100 and 3100. Each has a panorama assist mode and is thinner and lighter than its predecessors.

Deal Makers

Beyond the wealth of plasma screens playing Harry Potter and X-Men movies, many of the announcements made during the keynotes of Bill Gates and Carly Fiorina conformed to the show’s overall entertainment focus.

In his keynote address, when Gates touted the concept of seamless computing, he also discussed seamless entertainment, which he said allows an individual to connect various entertainment devices like DVD players, audio players and digital imaging technology.

Chris Norby, a spokesperson for Microsoft who monitors newsgroups and other customer forums, told the E-Commerce Times that this is what people have been clamoring for.

“It makes perfect sense to put the focus on entertainment,” he said. “That’s what we see people wanting — being able to digitize their entertainment experience.”

Get Real

Microsoft is not the only company working toward this goal, of course. In one of the more significant announcements of the show, IBM and RealNetworks said they will forge a partnership to build, market and sell a digital media management system. That product, which is slated to become available in the second quarter of 2004, will allow the companies to digitize, manage and secure their content assets as well as distribute and sell those assets.

The partnership also pits the companies against Microsoft, because it gives consumers a way to use digital media while sidestepping Windows.

IBM spokesperson Leslia Figueira told the E-Commerce Times that the deal is important because it integrates the framework for the largest consumer subscription service, RealNetworks’ RealOne, with IBM’s middleware expertise in content management and Web commerce.

She said the result will be useful to media companies as well as businesses that sell and distribute rich media, such as film, audio, video and images.

Though CES will close soon, the evolution of digital entertainment still will be felt strongly in the technology sector. As computing and entertainment merge, expect plenty of plasma screens, funky gadgets and media management systems to migrate from the show’s aisles to the marketplace.

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