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Bigger crowds, but where's the 'wow'?

January 08, 2011|David Sarno and Nathan Olivarez-Giles

LAS VEGAS — Choked roadways, taxi shortages and convention floors so mobbed that tempers were tested: These are welcome signs at the Consumer Electronics Show.

"The last couple of years, CES has been morose," said Richard Barnes, who was visiting from France, where he publishes a magazine that tracks technology trade shows. But this year, he said, "it's much more positive, much more hopeful."

Attendance is up, convention organizers said, and may surpass last year's crowd of 126,000 by as much as 10%. The number of exhibitors also rose to 2,700, from 2,500 last year.

The crowds were a good reflection of a recovery in the industry, show officials said. Total sales of consumer electronics are expected to hit $964 billion this year, up more than 10% from the lull in 2009, according to Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis for the Consumer Electronics Assn., which puts on the show.

What wasn't quite as plentiful this year, observers and analysts said, was eye-popping new technology.

"I haven't seen much that's like, 'Wow,' said Carolina Milanesi, a technology research analyst with Gartner Inc. "It's incremental innovation -- stuff that's improving on things instead of some kind of revolution."

There were plenty of tablet computers, smart phones, and 3-D and Internet-connected televisions, but many of them looked familiar, diverging only slightly from well-known products like Apple Inc.'s iPad or Motorola's Droid smart phone.

"There are a lot of 'me-too' companies out there this year," said Michael Wolf, vice president of research for tech tracking website "I think it's a lack of courage on the part of manufacturers."

Shaw Wu, an analyst for Kaufman Bros., singled out the giant selection of new tablet computers as particularly unimpressive. "We are not convinced that tablets outside of the iPad will see high-volume success," he wrote in a note to investors Friday. "To us, the iPad appears similar to the iPod business where one vendor (that being Apple) is likely to end up dominating the space."

Even larger companies offered little in the way of groundbreaking new products.

In his annual keynote address, Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer focused on a few new features of his company's X-Box video game console, including a sensor camera's improved ability to pick up on users' facial movements like eyebrow raising and open-mouthed laughter.

Though Ballmer and his executive team brought several new tablet computers on stage, they spent little time highlighting them, skipping quickly to a demonstration of Microsoft's Surface product, a table-size, high-resolution video surface that can sense and react to many touches at once.

Cellular carriers Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA Inc. plugged the faster networks they are building and announced a smattering of new tablet and smart phone devices that would work with upcoming 4G technology. But neither company's executives actually demonstrated any of the new gadgets, preferring to hold them up on stage and let audience members use their imaginations.

The show featured the usual potpourri of odd gadgetry, like a meat thermometer that sends digital readings to users' phones during the cooking process, a hard disk drive that manufacturers shot with a gun to demonstrate its ruggedness, and a set of sunglasses that have a built-in video camera that records what you see.

Greg Swisher of Los Gatos, Calif., was visiting the show with his 12-year-old son, Max, who runs his own technology blog. Max, a gadget aficionado, said his interest had been piqued by a set of robotic pets made by a company called PleoWorld.

"What about that 3-D projector we saw?" his dad interjected.

"Yeah, it's cool," Max replied. "But that's not new."

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