Tom Hanks was not sticking to the script. Called up to the stage by Sony boss Sir Howard Stringer during the keynote speech on the opening day of the Consumer Electronics Show Thursday morning, Hanks exsanguinated the hand that fed him. It was fun!
The movie star began by saying he was not in Las Vegas to promote Angels and Demons, the Sony film in which he stars and that is slated for a spring release. No. "I'm here simply because of Betamax regret," he said, referring to the losing video format that Sony infamously backed in the 1970s. "I went VHS what a fool I was! What a different world this would have been if I had been one of the 600 people who bought Betamax!" (See TIME's Best Inventions of 2008.)
For Sony, it got worse from there. For the audience, it was a brief oasis of amusement in an otherwise relentless morning of corporate infomercials. "They write the lies; I tell the truth," Hanks said.
Stringer, who as usual gave as good as he got, and who had to know what he was doing when he asked Hanks to speak at CES, pronounced the actor's antics "generally speaking, a plus, I think." Then he added, "I took a risk. It failed. But we'll still be friends. At least until after the movie."
The Consumer Electronics Show is an annual mecca for gadget hounds. Though attendance was down about 10% from 2008, 130,000 people showed up to walk the aisles and check out the latest gizmos. Among the highlights:
1. HDTVs are getting thinner and bigger. While that's not exactly news, it was hard not to be impressed by the gleaming, wafer-thin lineups from Sony, Samsung, Sharp and LG, which have managed to shrink their screens down to half an inch in depth while offering screen sizes in the 100-in.-plus range. OLED TVs, using an amazing new display technology that draws little power but offers a huge array of colors, are now hovering around 21 in., which means that competitive sizes at competitive prices with plasma and LCDs ought to be available in another year or so.
2. This is the year of 3-D, with all the same TV manufacturers showing off a variety of displays that either work with glasses or create a 3-D-like effect automatically on screen. Dozens of movies and video games are in the works that take advantage of improvements in 3-D-display technology. Indeed, Jeffrey Katzenberg, whom Stringer introduced as the "John the Baptist of 3-D," was in full proselytizing mode, working the convention-center floor and giving interviews. Katzenberg has staked his DreamWorks Animation's future on the technology; it's the first studio to be creating all its movies in 3-D from here on in, with Monsters vs. Aliens, due out in March, DreamWorks' first native 3-D movie. To promote it, DreamWorks, in conjunction with Pepsi and Intel, this week began giving out free 3-D glasses at grocery and convenience stores nationwide. Katzenberg said that more than 120 million pairs will be on store shelves in time for Super Bowl XLIII. You'll be able to use the glasses to watch a 3-D commercial at halftime, as well as an episode of the NBC comedy Chuck on Feb. 1. (The anaglyph glasses look like the old red/green 3-D movie glasses of yore but are much improved; 3-D movies use an even better technology, with hard-plastic polarized lenses that theaters will hand out.)
3. Palm gave the public a first look at the Pre, its entry in the smartphone race. (Neither price nor release date was disclosed.) Palm's cell-phone operating system was in dire need of an upgrade; the Treo, which once ruled the category, is now a distant fourth behind the Apple iPhone, the RIM BlackBerry and phones running Microsoft's OS. The stylish Pre was a hit with attendees it has a touchscreen like the iPhone that slides away to reveal a keyboard, and it can run many applications at once, rather than one at a time, which is the iPhone's limitation. It'll be sold exclusively by Sprint, which needs a hit as badly as Palm does. Palm also anticipates building other devices that use its new OS.
4. Microsoft announced it was releasing a beta version of Windows 7, effective immediately. This is something that can't happen soon enough for Windows users who have been alienated by Vista, the current OS. The beta is being billed as faster, more reliable and easier to use. Perhaps Microsoft could get Tom Hanks to do the commercials.