Click here for a full list of our coverage of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show.
LAS VEGAS—Even the hectic pace and cramped quarters of the first day and a half of the Consumer Electronics Show (which technically were not even part of the actual conference) could not have prepared the SciAm team for the sheer magnitude and mayhem that was to go down on the official Day One.
At a loss as to how exactly to organize the day, the intrepid reporters stalked much-ballyhooed wares (mostly high-definition TVs), hunted down emerging technologies (we found at least one) and happened upon a few simple, but elegant new ideas (for one, a product to increase the fuel efficiency of your car).
Prototype Televisions Duke It Out
The TV-set wars broke down across two major fronts: form (thinness) and contrast ratio (the blackest blacks). In one corner was Pioneer, which deployed a prototype of its KURO plasma TV, a 50-inch flat-panel display that is only 0.35 inch (nine millimeters) thick—even thinner than an iPhone. According to a company press release on the concept TV, which will not be released in 2008, the contrast (brightest and darkest displays) ratio of the screen is "literally beyond measurement." (For reference, plasma displays are typically believed to have a contrast ratio of 20,000 to 1, whereas liquid crystal displays, or LCDs, which require a backlight that dilutes the darkness of their black tone, fall between 10,000 and 15,000 to 1.)
In direct competition with Pioneer's audacious claims was Sony. The company unveiled the first organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TV, which went on sale Sunday night. (Did we mention it's only 0.12 inch (three millimeters) thick? Oh, we should also note that the set, called the XZL1, is only 11-inches, or 28 centimeters, wide and retails for $2,500.) Sony had a 27-inch (68.6 centimeter) prototype version of the TV—and to be frank, the color on the display literally jumped off the screen. (Click here to watch a related video.) OLEDs create a picture when electric current excites organic compounds that emit light in several colors. Because they do not require a backlight, said Ernie Block, a senior product trainer, "when it's not receiving electricity the OLED is truly black, and that allows us to get this great contrast ratio." (Sony makes a slightly less exceptional claim, at least relative to Pioneer's unmeasurable one, of having achieved a contrast ratio of 1,000,000 to 1.)
A Brand New, Blazingly Fast Wireless Technology
A discussion session entitled "The Top 10 Technologies You've Never Heard of" yielded little of interest, save this chestnut: John LeMoncheck, president and CEO of wireless innovation company SiBEAM, in Sunnyvale, Calif., let slip (on purpose) a project the outfit is working on with Panasonic involving a technology called "millimeter-wave wireless HD," which broadcasts uncompressed video through the air. LeMoncheck claimed it was 10 times faster than standard wireless and that "it is really going to turn wireless on its ear."
Thus a trip to the Panasonic booth was in order. The SciAm team, bypassing the 150-inch (3.8-meter) plasma TV, found a demo in a corner slightly less traveled than the rest of the overrun techno-playland and requested confirmation. (Click here to watch a related video.) Tsuyoshi Okada, a chief engineer at Panasonic, explained that the new technology exploited the 60-gigahertz radio frequency, a rich spectrum that allows the HD DVD player to transmit video at four gigabytes per second to a TV from up to 30 feet (10 meters) away. Although the 60-gigahertz band allows for wide transmission of data, and even multiple simultaneous streams, it is pointed like a laser; so if there's an obstacle, connection between any two devices is terminated. To circumvent this, Okada says, a "beam-steering technology" is used, allowing the signal to bounce off a floor or ceiling to maintain a clear path.
Intel Unveils New 45-Nanometer Processors
Among the technologies that this wireless HD would beat in speed is the much-ballyhooed WiMax standard that Intel has been planning to spring on the world for quite some time. Even though WiMax has yet to be officially rolled out, the computer chip giant did recently release a fleet of 45-nanometer microprocessors (or rather, nanoprocessors) that supplanted its previous 65-nanometer set, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. (Click here to watch a related video.) According to one of the booth attendants, "it's the biggest change in 40 years for this type of technology." (For reference, a nanometer is the size of a few atoms.) The transistors on the processors, which are already in all new Intel-powered mobile and desktop products, are also coated with the transition metal hafnium, an element with electrical properties that makes the nanoprocessors more energy-efficient than the previous lines. These chips suffer only one tenth the energy leakage that bedeviled their predecessors, which gives them longer battery life.
Automotive Energy Alternatives
Although new power sources for gadgets usually steal the show at CES, this year's show afforded attendees something new and, in our carbon-obsessed world, topical: auto fuel supplements and fuel replacements. MTECH offered up the Moletech Fuel Saver technology that can improve fuel efficiency by 15 percent. (Click here to watch a related video.) By placing sensors in the gas tank and on the air filter and radiator hose, "our technology breaks what we call the van der Waals forces that keep [fuel molecules] in clusters, says George Souris, MTECH's international sales director, allowing the car to use more of the gas in its tank. There are fuel-saver kits for everything from lawn mowers to boats to tractor-trailers (using gasoline, diesel or propane); the cost for an automobile is about $300, with a lifetime of 10 years.
Meanwhile, for those waiting for a gasoline replacement, General Motors unveiled the guts of a fuel cell car, similar to the Chevy Equinox models they are testing in New York City, California and Washington, D.C. (Click here to see a related video.) The vehicle actually has two power sources (a lithium ion battery and a hydrogen fuel cell stack) and three motors (a 94-horsepower primary in front and one over each rear wheel at 33 and a half horsepower apiece). For the first 40 miles (65 kilometers) of driving, the car draws its juice from the battery. Once that is drained, the car feeds the hydrogen stored in two barrels in the rear of the vehicle to the fuel cells under the hood. This second power source can take the car for well over 300 miles (500 kilometers), according to the product specialist on hand. The car is refueled with hydrogen and by plugging it in for at least six hours to recharge the batteries.
The experts assembled at the "Top Ten Technologies" forum did not discuss getting past oil, but they ruminated on other alternative energy sources. Among those discussed were solar and vibrational. One panel member even raised the prospect of turning body fat into electrical energy. "I dream of the day I can plug myself into the wall, run the meter back and wake up hungry," joked Gene Frantz, a fellow at Texas Instruments.
Be careful what you wish for, though. If there's any lesson the first (official) day of CES offered, it is: if you can dream it, someone might build it.