CES Notebook: Tales from the show floor

Three hours of show floor wandering covers only a fraction of the trade show's booth space, but yields a few insights, a few laughs, and a decent massage.

LAS VEGAS--Every year, I schedule too many meetings at the Consumer Electronics Show and don't get enough time to just roam the show floor in search of gadgets that are either ultra-cool, absurd, or preferably both.

This year, I made a commitment to wander the show floor and absorb as much as possible. It should be said, in three hours on the show floor, I covered a very small portion of the south hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

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So the seventh wonder of the tech world could have been in the north hall, central hall, or the far-flung Sands expo hall, but I couldn't tell you.

What did I learn? First of all, there was not one product that everyone was talking about. If there was a universal hit, it was the huge flat-screen displays that many companies were showing off. I spent a few minutes watching video on a 100-inch screen. It's by no means the biggest on display here at CES, but it was three times the diameter of anything in my house.

From there, I decided I needed a rest, stopping at what might be the best massage chair I've sat in--a $4,000 model from Anaheim, Calif.-based Omega Massage. I make it a point to always try these out, whether at trade shows or the airport Sharper Image. It's all part of my sacrifice for you, my loyal blog readers (or you, the random clicker on this post).

From there I made my way to the folks who needed the massage chair far more than I did--the HD DVD booth. There, association members and technology partners put on a brave face, despite the major blow delivered by Warner Bros. last week, announcing that they would exclusively support rival Blu-ray.

I'd heard about some wireless earbuds from Sennheiser, so I went by the booth to check them out. They were behind glass, but I could see enough to know they weren't for me. They look kind of like a pair of those Bluetooth earpieces I already find annoying, plus they require your iPod or other device to wear a somewhat bulky transmitter. I think there's probably a market for these. It's just probably not for the average iPod owner.

Continuing on the headphone theme, I went to the booth of Skullcandy, a company whose hipness factor is hurt only by the fact that I own a pair of its earbuds. There were DJs and hip-hop musicians performing and an artist doing a skull drawing as the company showed off a variety of products, including a set of iPhone earbuds and a DJ-style headset that also includes a built-in SD card slot for playing music without a separate MP3 player. Both products sell will sell for $89, with the wireless SD headphones due out around March. I also stopped by Shure, which was showing off an attachment that turns its line of in-ear headphones into an iPhone headset by adding an in-line microphone.

Having heard enough, I moved on to other areas of the hall. Among the places I stopped was a Dell environmental booth that consisted of some eco-furniture and two glass whiteboards where people could scribble their ideas on how to improve our ecological impact. The booth rep told me the ideas would be taken to an executive meeting back at Dell headquarters. Not sure what they will do with the posts, which included "Take public transit," "No more products, no more people," and "Killjoy."

My favorite moment was when a woman from Baton Rouge asked if she could get a brochure.

The booth rep tried to handle it politely. Well, no, see, the whole point is...

I decided to let Dell save the planet without me and continued on in search of more tech fare. I stopped by several random booths that caught my eye, including a company peddling a mini-photo studio perfect for snapping shots of your eBay trinkets without casting a shadow. I stopped by HP and Kodak to check out the latest in photo-printing kiosks. I'd been pretty impressed with the HP model I tried out at a drugstore this holiday season, and found Kodak's models even more versatile. Both make choosing prints easy, but I liked the quick photo books that it was capable of cranking out, as well as a new Photo DVD maker that lets you set your photos to one of about 20 songs, ranging from a Hootie and the Blowfish track to the theme from St. Elmo's Fire.

I found myself drawn to the Brother booth, where it was showing software, apparently not new, that turns your digital photos into something stitch-able with one of its embroidery machines. The software sells for around $1,000 and the machines range from a $600 model to one that sells for $13,000.

I was also drawn to a small booth in the corner, with a sign "We buy closeouts" and showing a smattering of non-tech and low-tech items such as whiteboards and fax machines. Carolina Wholesale owner Larry Huneycutt said the Charlotte-based company has been coming to CES for 20 years and finding customers and sources for his far-from-state-of-the-art gear.

His catalog includes label makers, digital projectors, and calculators. "We even sell typewriters," Huneycutt said.

But some of the latest gadgets were also low-tech, including the oft-maligned Quik Pod , a camera attachment that holds a camera at a distance allowing for better pictures of oneself. It's a gadget that I reckon plenty of people would like, but few would want to admit to needing, much less buying.

The latest model is an even tougher challenge. It's an SLR model for larger cameras. My colleague points out that this only increases its dorkiness factor .

I don't disagree, but also think that there is a market, even for pros who want to snap their own picture as well as the legions of wannabes. I just think that the pros (and wannabes, myself included) are less likely to want to admit it. That's why it's nice that the SLR model can also be used as a monopod.

 

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