Back to the Future

At the Consumer Electronics Show, gadgets try hard to be fun and useful

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So you think the tech economy is in recession? Don't try telling that to the 100,000 folks who packed the casinos and taxis of Las Vegas to capacity last week. The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) never looked so sure of itself, even if it was the only place in America trying to put a glitzy, Tomorrowland sheen on 2003. Some of the gadgets may never fly (Bill Gates' unveiling of a "smart" watch that delivers traffic and weather reports met with a frosty audience reception). But it won't be for want of an industry trying everything it can think of.

Take Ribbit by Haier ($259, coming in February), a TV with an ingenious twist on parental controls. Kids have to answer an onscreen math question before they get to watch any channels; the video-game port can also be locked up.

Want a more positive (and pricey) teaching tool? Try the ER2 from Evolution Robotics (available this fall for roughly $2,000). This Jetsonsesque servant can read books placed in front of it, even upside down. It can also be programmed to play a CD just by looking at its cover or patrol the house, taking security snapshots. ER2 is the first consumer robot to move autonomously on the basis of its vision, so the cat can't trip it up. Stairs, alas, are still a problem.

In-car satellite radio systems, which pick up hundreds of better-than-FM-quality stations, wowed the crowds last year. This year satellite radio has stepped out of the car. XM released a "Sky-Fi" boom box with a tiny receiving dish for $229. The receiver is detachable, so you can swap it in and out of your car. Rival Sirius has gone for the home hi-fi approach; $299 satellite-radio components should be available this July.

Also on the move is TiVo-style technology. Intel, SonicBlue and Microsoft all brought prototypes of personal video players (PVPs). No larger than a Walkman, these PVPs will store more than 70 hours of TV programs on internal hard discs and display them on 4-in. screens. The shows can be beamed to the players over a wireless Internet network. There's no price tag or release date yet, but Hollywood execs--already in a tizzy over TiVo--might want to lay in extra supplies of Tylenol.

The biggest buzz at the Sony booth arose over three camcorders that record directly onto DVDs (due out this summer, starting at $1,000). The discs can be edited as you go (Don't like the lighting in that last scene? Erase it at the touch of a button and start over) and will work in any DVD player or PC.

Special mention must be given to There, a 3-D online world designed primarily for and by women. An enormous, fun-filled virtual chat room (rather than a game) with realistic environments and cool-looking characters controlled by real people, There (at costs $10 a month and can be addictive. Unfortunately, you need a fairly high-powered PC to join in. But as with most everything unveiled at CES, you have to award it an A for effort.

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