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Gadgetfest brings divine technologies to Earth

Special to TV Technology

LAS VEGAS

At an event where FCC Chairman Michael Powell characterized TiVo as "God's machine," where RealNetworks showcased its HDTV capability, where troops of cable TV executives glided between deals and where DTV chip-maker Linx Electronics demonstrated results from its rugged Chicago field trials on over-the-air DTV, it was clear that this wasn't merely a wholesale hardware rite anymore.

The annual circuits circus known as the Consumer Electronics Show has transcended heady and over-hyped hardware introductions-which were actually somewhat sparse this year-and become a cultural and social melting pot. HDTV, touted for so many years, was relegated to the "commonplace" at the January event, contributing to the widespread agreement that HDTV "has arrived at last." Home hardware prices are coming down, with the growing expectation that programming is going up, as evidenced by the debut of Discovery Channel's HD Theater on the CES floor.

Of course, the excitement about larger LED screens and cheaper plasma displays was blended with the frenzy about the availability of huge Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) displays, such as Toshiba's 57-inch projection unit, and advances in Organic Light Emitting Diode technology. Texas Instruments demonstrated its latest DLP upgrades-but as was the case throughout the show floor, improvements represented small increments to existing products. Vendors offered few announcements about big sales.

Among the most promising developments at CES was the enthusiasm of cable TV operators, who got their first collective glimpse of HDTV at last year's event and went home to formulate their high-definition strategies. Those rollouts have begun, and the delegation of CEOs from all of the largest cable MSOs came to Las Vegas with a plan this year. They unveiled an HDTV component for the industry's "Go2Broadband" initiative, which will allow consumers to identify which systems are carrying HD programming.

At a briefing announcing the HD promotion plan, the CEOs-accompanied by the presidents of CableLabs and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association-also reconfirmed their hopes for implementing the recently completed compatibility compromise with consumer electronics makers.

Among DTV chip-makers at the show, Linx Electronics selectively showed its integrated circuit to TV makers, hoping to recruit additional set manufacturers to embed the processor in new TV sets. Thomson Consumer Electronics is already developing a chip based on Linx's technology. Linx President Robert Rast confirmed that a field test with the Association of Maximum Service Television (MSTV) will begin in March. Rast expects that larger venture to reconfirm results from its recent Chicago field trial, in which its DTV signals were picked up-in interior building locations-at a 90 percent rate.

OVERLOAD GALORE

While HDTV seemed to penetrate CES' massive display halls as well as it got through the Chicago test site, the overall digital arena continues to become more confusing.

Recordable DVDs, ReplayTV's latest unit (with a 320-hour recording capacity), Panasonic and Zenith sets with built-in card-scanners (for cable TV Point-of-Deployment [POD] compatibility) and rows-upon-rows of digital home networking facilities further contributed to the sensory overload. Hence Powell's comment that his Christmas gift TiVo has changed his TV viewing patterns served as an exclamation point to the deluge of PVR and network products. They ranged from Toshiba's HDTV enhancement to the newest TiVo boxes to RealNetwork's debut of an HDTV module for its RealVideo streaming software-fueling aisle-cruisers' dreams that they could get one of everything.

Despite its size-nearly 117,000 attendees-CES 2003 was also, more than ever, an array of sub rosa presentations. Service operators and support organizations-from copy protection to product maintenance-were visible more than ever at specially themed pavilions and private hideaway suites. Semiconductor companies quietly negotiated the next developments for their video convergence devices. There were pitches by hopeful start-ups (off-the-record, of course) presenting their visions to derail the MPEG-4 juggernaut and Microsoft's Media Player 9-next-generation technologies that are themselves now feuding.

For its part, Microsoft and its Silicon Valley brethren (conceptually albeit not geographically) were out stronger than ever, contributing to the show's continuing and over-arching question: Will the full promise of digital media be delivered to homes via products that can trace their roots to the TV or the PC?

Keynoter Kunitake Ando, president and CEO of Sony Corp., firmly asserted that the "seamless environment" of consumer electronics, communications, music, movies and video games would become part of a "ubiquitous value network" driven by "the energy of television." Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, in a keynote address the previous night, put the emphasis on computer- and Internet-based systems, and his company's vast exhibit booth bolstered that view.

MOVING PICTURES

As usual, every corner of the CES prairie opened new prospects as well as new challenges. Panasonic and Zenith showed flat-screen monitors with built-in DVD players.

Magis Networks, a San Diego chip-maker, showed off its system to move HDTV video from a set-top box to various receivers around the house through wireless networking. Samsung and Sanyo are among the latest equipment makers who have teamed up with Magis for the rollout; both took part in the booth-to-booth transmission demo at CES.

Moving video streams between boxes raises the question that continues as the hottest debate at CES: digital copy protection. At least three panels dealt with the topic, including a SuperSession at which computer wiz Steve Wozniak, singer/songwriter Janis Ian and a gaggle of lobbyists and Washington policy wonks argued the issue. Wozniak pleaded for education in morality, to encourage viewers and listeners not to misappropriate copyrighted material.

More striking, however, was the melee at the Home Recording Rights Coalition's early morning press conference, where Ian joined the two Congressmen-Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who have just reintroduced their "Digital Media Consumers Rights Act." It is similar to last year's bill, calling for revisions in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which restricts personal viewing and listening-and transport-of digital content.

CABLE COMPATIBILITY

Predictably, much of CES' policy discussions were built around December's landmark agreement between CE makers and the cable industry to manufacture and sell retail plug-and-play DTV sets that can pick up HDTV channels from a cable system. CEOs from nearly a dozen major cable firms trooped through CES's corridors, even holding a briefing session to explain their enthusiasm for HDTV ventures.

At a collaborative briefing session, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts singled out Sony's new "Passage" system, unveiled at December's Western Cable Show, as a product that could speed up the manufacturer/retail side of the equation. Cox Cable President James Robbins insisted, "You'll see more retailing and more points of presence. We want to make it happen, change the TV experience, help people enjoy their cable even more." NCTA President Robert Sachs extolled "the commitment of the [cable] industry to high-speed data and high-definition TV," while CableLabs' President Richard Green described the "growth of what's in the pipeline."

The presence of a gaggle of Congressmen and a horde of cable executives underscored the transcendent nature of CES. Digital media is the new reality-but now the policy makers and service marketers are moving in as consumer electronics becomes a business beyond hardware sales.

Gary Arlen, a contributor to Broadcasting & Cable, NextTV and TV Tech, is known for his visionary insights into the convergence of media + telecom + content + technology. His perspectives on public/tech policy, marketing and audience measurement have added to the value of his research and analyses of emerging interactive and broadband services. Gary was founder/editor/publisher of Interactivity Report, TeleServices Report and other influential newsletters; he was the long-time “curmudgeon” columnist for Multichannel News as well as a regular contributor to AdMap, Washington Technology and Telecommunications Reports; Gary writes regularly about trends and media/marketing for the Consumer Technology Association's i3 magazine plus several blogs.