I've been to a lot of political conventions. Last week was my first Consumer Electronics Show. They have more in common than I would have thought.
On the surface, both are about big, public performances designed to sell to a mass audience, whether it's presidential candidates or 3-D televisions.
The more interesting stuff at both venues often isn't what gets the full-court, prime-time exposure, but what happens on the margins: the networking and the discovery of potential stars.
As I roamed the vast Las Vegas Convention Center, some of the most arresting examples of attractive design came from Korean companies. Amid all the hoopla about 3-D TV, which will require more content and some cessation of various format wars before it takes off, I found myself impressed with new flat panel sets from LG Electronics Inc. These are so unbelievably thin -- barely a quarter of an inch -- they make the plasma screen in my den look as thick as an encyclopedia.
Also striking was a line of distinctive Windows netbooks, which I had begun to think was a contradiction in terms, and tablets from Yukyung Technologies Corp., under its Viliv brand. One model included a swiveling screen and touch screen; another was a palmtop with a solid-state disk drive that weighed less than a pound.
Finally, Insprit Inc. was showing its Inbrics MID M1, a slim smartphone based on Google Inc.'s Android operating system with a sliding physical keyboard and a distinctive black-and- white look.
Wandering through the South Hall -- or was it the North Hall? -- I stumbled upon the booth belonging to Eye-Fi Inc., a Mountain View, California-based company that makes Wi-Fi-enabled memory cards for cameras. It was demonstrating a new product, the Eye-Fi Pro X2, which effectively offers endless memory.
The Pro X2 is an 8-gigabyte SD card that allows you to wirelessly upload your pictures straight from your camera to more than 25 sharing Web sites, including Facebook, Yahoo! Inc.'s Flickr, Google's Picasa and Apple Inc.'s MobileMe. Even better, it will wirelessly transfer your video and image files to your laptop without need for a router. And once your files are safely off-loaded, the card automatically frees up space so you can start filling it again.
At $149.99 on Amazon.com, the card isn't cheap. But it's another step toward the trend of connectivity in devices that you might not expect to be "Internet-enabled." Hey, if you can get a (usually mediocre) camera into every smartphone, why not Wi-Fi in every decent camera?
Speaking of connectivity, another item that caught my eye was the $11,000 mPulse infrared sauna from Sunlighten in Overland Park, Kansas. My interest was piqued not for the obvious sybaritic reasons (well, OK, not only for the obvious sybaritic reasons) but for one of its options: a wristwatch monitor that measures heart rate, calories burned and other relevant information and automatically and wirelessly uploads it to a personal wellness Web site.
The technology for always-on personal-health monitoring will likely grow in importance as sensors become ever less obtrusive, online access becomes more ubiquitous and government pressures grow on the health-care system to focus on preventive efforts in order to hold down costs.
Meanwhile, you can always just sit back in the 7-foot-by-6- foot enclosure and enjoy the integrated stereo system, or watch a video on the built-in 7-inch color screen. Who says health- care reform can't be fun?
Speaking of video, Sezmi Corp., a Belmont, California-based startup, was demonstrating its cable- and satellite-alternative TV service, which it's currently testing in Los Angeles and plans to roll out to additional markets this year.
The service is essentially a mash-up of broadcast and Internet technologies. Sezmi has deals with a number of popular cable channels, including USA Network, Discovery, CNN and Comedy Central, to encrypt their feeds and broadcast them over the air to customers, who get them via an indoor antenna box. At the same time, the service provides a library of movies and TV shows for rent or purchase that are delivered over the Internet.
Sezmi's DVR-like set-top box, which can store up to one terabyte of content, ties everything together with a common interface. Each user can have his or her own profile on the box, which will also recommend programs based on individual preferences and viewing habits. What makes Sezmi attractive is that the consumer won't need to know or care how the content is delivered -- just that it's there.
Deals to Cut
The cost of the Sezmi hardware may depend on deals it cuts with telephone companies and other resellers; the service will charge $4.99 a month for broadcast, video-on-demand and some Web content, or $24.99 for Sezmi's full slate of cable channels.
Finally, although I sadly missed the actual event, the best marketing ploy had to belong to Marvell Technology Group Ltd., whose chips power e-readers and smartphones. To highlight its role in digital content, it brought in the most recognizable name associated with the "other" Marvel -- the one without the extra l, the comic-book company recently acquired by Walt Disney Co.
That would be Stan Lee, the legendary creator of Spider- Man, Iron Man and the X-Men, who was autographing posters. Seldom has a spelling error been so cleverly deployed.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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