The future is now

A trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas shows the day when your bazillion gadgets become one is drawing ever near.

Bill Gates describes to the CES audience how cellphones that download music, movies and games will soon be just another part of connecting all media.

Bill Gates describes to the CES audience how cellphones that download music, movies and games will soon be just another part of connecting all media.

Photo By Matt Hunter

Bill Gates stands before a giant screen on the wall and begins his traditional keynote address at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. “Let’s say we’re at home in the morning,” says the chairman of Microsoft and recent Time Magazine Person of the Year. “We’ve got a screen here that shows some of the information we care about.” He touches the screen, and it jumps to life with schedules, kids’ drawings, a map pinpointing the location of each family member and a video feed of the morning news.

“Now I’d like to continue to watch that video clip,” he says. “So as I head into work, that video has now been connected up to my cell phone, and I can watch that as I’m getting into my car heading to work.”

Gates walks a few paces down the stage of the Las Vegas Hilton Theater to a desk, which appears to have a large glass windshield sitting atop it.

“When I arrive there, I’ve got a nice desktop screen,” he says. He activates the screen with fingerprint authentication, and suddenly the once transparent glass expanse is lit up with impressive graphics and icons.

“This is a scenario that we think will be real by the end of the ‘digital decade,'” he says.

The audience of technophiles salivates like Pavlovian dogs, and it’s with good reason. The Star Trek Experience is on the other side of the building, and its futuristic designs look antiquated compared to the thousands of high-tech toys on display in the nearby Las Vegas Convention Center. The future is arriving fast, and it promises to bring an era of easily accessible digital information and entertainment.

Portable multimedia devices—indispensable to a populace that’s always on the go—are the biggest stars of CES. It’s rare to find a small electronic device with only one function.

A “slow point” at the Consumer Electronics Show

Photo By Matt Hunter

“Today, I leave home every morning with my keys, my wallet, my cell phone and my iPod,” says Denny Strigl, CEO of Verizon Wireless. “If I forget my keys, I go back in and get them, or else I’m not driving anywhere. If I forget my wallet, I can always borrow money. If I forget my music player, I can still substitute with the car radio. But if I forget my cell phone, that’s just too much to miss out on for an entire day. Our reliance on our wireless phones for convenience and for productivity has become significant.”

Verizon has now teamed with Microsoft to offer the V CAST Music service, which allows Verizon customers to purchase, download and play music with their cell phones.

“Now, on the one device that 200 million Americans won’t leave home without, you can have your music player,” says Strigl.

With more features integrating into portable devices, consumers will soon be faced with choosing either the mobile phone that also features music, movies and games, or the handheld game system that also features music, games and phone service, or the MP3 player that also … well, you get the idea.

“We’re able to consistently expand the capabilities of the PlayStation Portable [PSP] through our update system,” says John Scarcella, president of Sony broadcast and business solutions.

LocationFree TV is the latest feature to be added to the handheld game system, allowing users to connect to their home entertainment centers from a great distance.

“With the LocationFree icon on the PSP media bar, users are able to easily access and control their live or recorded TV content as well as DVD and video content from almost anywhere in the world via wi-fi hotspots,” says Scarcella. To demonstrate, he links with a TV in Tokyo and even changes the channel. That’s a 5,500-mile channel change.

Not all technology is meant to fit in your pocket. But nowadays, if it must be stationary, it must be high-def.

Bill Gates shows off his futuristic desktop during his keynote address at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Photo By Matt Hunter

“When Congress returns, we expect final approval of legislation setting a 2009 date for the end of analog broadcasting, so we can plan for the final shift to digital,” says Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro. “While analog sets will have many uses for years to come, the fact is, we also have an obligation to go fully digital.”

Sony, Toshiba and many other electronics companies are already embracing their duty to usher in the high-definition digital era by releasing a variety of High Definition (HD) TVs and HD-DVD players, many of which feature 1080p performance—that’s picture quality so crisp and so vibrant, it makes reality look fuzzy and pixilated by comparison.

“HDTV is only a portion of the high-definition show,” says Randy Waynick, senior VP of Sony electronics home product division. “We’re talking higher-definition.”

Unfortunately, higher-definition comes with a higher price, and retail prices of $500-$1,100 may keep HD-DVD from the mainstream for a while, as will the impending format war between Sony’s Blu-ray disc player and Toshiba’s HD-DVD.

“There is no question that a format war is not a good idea, but I don’t see what we can do about it,” says Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer.

It could be some time before we know which format is destined to be the standard and which is doomed to go the way of the dodo, the dinosaur and the Betamax. But it should also be noted that the Age of Discs is gradually giving way to the Age of Downloads.

One of CES’s most significant unveilings is the new Windows operating system, Vista, and the many features of its new Windows Media Center. Microsoft has entered into partnerships with MTV and DIRECTV to enable Windows Media Center to easily download music files and TV programs. These files can then be run on the PC, Xbox 360, or eventually, wireless peripherals such as mobile phones, as shown in Gates’ demonstration. Movie downloads will follow suit as soon as studios can insure copyright protection.

Hard drives, memory sticks and USB drives are the storage media of the future, eliminating the need for individually packaged CDs, DVDs and video games, as well as their lingering predecessors: tapes, videocassettes and cartridges. With the advent of devices like Sony’s lightweight, portable Reader, which can download from a database of 10,000 books, even literature is switching to the digital format. In time, books made of paper may only populate the shelves of those who consider the kitsch value of an old-fashioned book to be more important than the forests chopped down to produce them.

The digital age will mean no longer having to deal with stacks of cumbersome discs and other bulky storage media. Now consumers just need to figure out what to do with all that empty shelf space. Better start collecting knickknacks.