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Tablets, smart gadgets, balls, blocks and cars rule at CES

Slick touchscreen tablet computers and smarter devices for the home and the car took centre stage as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) wrapped up on Sunday.

The “always-connected” lifestyle was on full display at the annual gadget extravaganza as Internet technology ruled at a show traditionally dominated by eye-popping new television sets.

Tablet computers to rival Apple’s iPad were the hot new products on display along with powerful new smartphones, ultra-thin laptops and Web-connected and 3-D TV sets during the four-day event.

“The tablet wars are now launched, with everybody under the sun producing tablets,” said Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay.

“A lot of companies, particularly Asian companies, are offering to create tablets for you on the fly if you want a tablet with your brand on it.”

Emphasis on mobile gizmos and making traditionally dumb devices smart with Internet connections made CES celebrities out of chip makers Intel, AMD, and Nvidia as well as US telecom carriers Verizon and AT&T.

Rival chip makers showed off fast new processors combining graphics and traditional computing power.

“What that means is a lot more connected stuff,” analyst Rob Enderle of Enderle Group in Silicon Valley said of the chip announcements at CES. “Everything thinner, lighter, more powerful and more intelligent.”

Technology titans Apple and Google were absent but their influences weighed heavy at CES. Scores of tablets based on Google’s Android software were launched in bids to challenge Apple’s hot-selling iPads.

Motorola Mobility’s Xoom tablet computer powered by a coming “Honeycomb” version of Android tailored for such devices was crowned the best gadget at CES in what could be a sign of renewed glory for a faded technology star.

“Of the hundreds of tablets at the show, I didn’t see any that were better than the iPad,” Enderle said, with a caveat that he didn’t see the Xoom.

“I think the Honeycomb ones have a chance, but they are going to roll against an iPad 2 by the time they come out.”

Apple is expected to introduce a second-generation of its iPad later this year as Honeycomb becomes available to tablet makers.

“The 800-pound gorilla not in the room was Apple, of course,” Kay said of the focus here on competing with or making accessories for iPads, iPods, iPhones or MacBook laptop computers.

The show floor featured smart home appliances such as ovens which can download recipes and vehicles which give drivers hands-free voice control access to their smartphone applications.

Korea-based LG and first-time CES attendee General Electric were among major electronics makers that showed off washing machines, dish washers or other appliances made smart with computer chips and the Internet.

Televisions continued to dazzle, with high-definition or 3D screens boasting Internet connectivity for getting digital content from the Web.

Another important theme at the show was car technology, with Ford unveiling an electric Focus sedan and Internet services tailored for all models.

“Everybody and their brother are making the car into a living room,” Enderle said. “I’m starting to worry about what people are going to be doing in their cars other than driving.”

Audi’s self-driving cars were not seen zipping around CES but a concept car developed by General Motors was — the two-wheel EN-V, or Electric Networked Vehicle, which can park itself or be summoned using a smartphone.

“It’s not just computers in control of the car, but computers that people use in the car and location-based services that go with that,” said Kay.

With 2,700 exhibitors at CES, offerings ranged from the practical to the frivolous.

“People were running around pretty excited about a lot of products they were seeing and it felt like a lot of buyers were there to buy,” Enderle said.

More than 140,000 people attended the show, compared with 126,000 at the annual event last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) trade group behind CES.

“CES was a phenomenal worldwide event that spanned global industries including technology, automotive and entertainment markets,” said CEA president Gary Shapiro.

“This global technology gathering featured more innovation, more news, more social media buzz and more international attendance than any other show in CES history.”

Balls, blocks and cars a hit too
Balls, blocks and miniature cars with a high-tech twist were also among the toys to capture the imagination at CES.

Among the playthings which attracted attention during the show which ended on Sunday were Mattel’s classic Hot Wheels cars, the zippy little metal racers which fly down an orange plastic track at high speeds.

These Hot Wheels, however, are equipped with a video camera on the front of the car which records their stunts.

The underside of the car features a tiny video screen and the videos can be downloaded to a computer using a USB connection for viewing.

Children who are too old to play on the floor with toy cars anymore can mount them on a helmet or a skateboard and record their exploits for their Facebook friends.

The camera-equipped Hot Wheels will be available in time for Christmas next year and cost 60 dollars.

Another toy — a finalist for a “Best of CES” award — is even more high-tech than the new Hot Wheels cars — a glowing robotic ball that is controlled by an Apple iPhone or an Android smartphone.

Sphero, as the ball is called, rolls around the floor on command, stopping, starting, turning and navigating around objects.

“The gaming options are endless,” said Jim Booth, vice president of business development for Orbotix, the Boulder, Colorado-based firm behind Sphero, which has a light inside and is about the same size as a tennis ball.

“You can get simple driving apps to more complex multi-player games,” Booth said. “Office golf — we’ve had hundreds of ideas.”

Sphero will go on sale in the United States in late 2011 and will cost under 100 dollars — smartphone not included. Orbotix also plans to open up the Sphero platform to other developers so they can make their own games.

Building blocks have also been reinvented for the digital age by a pair of former students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prestigious engineering school located in Boston.

Sifteo cubes feature a color screen and can be combined like dominoes in various ways to play games or solve puzzles and equations.

In one game, for example, the tiles rapidly flash commands to a player who earns points by responding correctly.

The tiles each have an accelerometer inside and are linked wirelessly to each other and to a computer which houses the game software.

A basic set of the matchbook-sized Sifteo cubes is three blocks. The game goes on sale later this year and will cost 149 dollars.

Mattel has also taken an Internet sensation and made it low-tech — the addicting Angry Birds videogame from Finland’s Rovio which involves catapulting birds at pigs which have stolen their eggs.

A plastic and metal version of Angry Birds, recommended for children over the age of five, will go on sale this year and cost just 15 dollars. – AFP


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