The living room, once the most technologically simple part of the average home, is a high-tech battleground today as the consumer electronics industry seeks to digitize home entertainment and make it available anywhere, anytime.
The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) starting on Thursday in Las Vegas, Nev., will set the agenda of what's in store in 2005 for the digital home-owner--from ultra-high-definition television screens to music and video recorders and other networked appliances.
The four-day conference, the high-tech industry's largest annual gathering in the United States, will draw 120,000 technologists and retailers for a vast display of devices, from 102-inch-wide flat-panel TVs--the world's biggest--to postage-stamp-size hard-disks for music players or phones.
"The big trends are home improvement, in-your-pocket-entertainment and personal video choice," said Richard Dougherty of Envisioneering Group in Seaford, N.Y.
Home improvement refers to the increasingly affordable home-theater systems that combine flat-panel displays, surround-sound audio and personal video recorders.
"Home theaters have gone from luxury status to, 'Hey, I can afford this in my apartment!' status," Dougherty said.
In recent years, the Consumer Electronics Show has seen an explosion of innovation from computerized wristwatches to satellite radios and Internet-enabled ovens to digital frying pans.
Not everything that makes a splash at CES actually makes it to store shelves, though. One notable example: Intel's much-hyped announcement last year that it would enter the television display business, only to cancel the project a few months later.
But for every failure there are many successes, and fueling demand for all these nifty gadgets, even once-costly flat-panel television screens, has been a steady decline in prices.
Flat-panel TVs with 32-inch screens are selling for under $1,500, putting pressure on name-brand TV makers who still sell similar models for $3,000 or more, said industry analyst Ross Young.
At CES, Samsung, Toshiba and RCA will be among those showing the first true, 1086-pixel high-definition flat-panel TV screens, he said. These crunch more picture elements closer together to create sharper resolution images.
At stake here is a chunk of the flat-panel television market, which is expected to grow to $15 billion in 2005 from $10 billion, according to DisplaySearch estimates.
VHS vs. Betamax, round two?
Stephen Baker, of research firm NPD in Port Washington, N.Y., said rival camps of manufacturers will square off at the show over the next-generation DVD video standard--a replay of the Betamax vs. VHS videocassette wars of the 1970s. At stake is the future of the home video industry, increasingly crucial to Hollywood's bottom line.
Young, president of industry forecaster DisplaySearch of Austin, Tex., said that with major Hollywood studios taking sides, consumers face having to choose between one of two incompatible next-generation DVD formats.
Consumers also face potential confusion as new home entertainment appliances incorporate features that once were sold as separate devices.
Flat-panel displays may include a personal video recorder, or come with an insertable access card for cable television, instead of a cable converter set-top box, reducing living room clutter.
While the focus remains in the living room, also on display will be hot mobile gadgets aimed at the car, air travel and pretty much anywhere a plug is not readily available.
Absent from the event, however, will be the creators of the electronics industry's biggest hit product--the iPod music player and Apple Computer, which holds its own annual conference in San Francisco, Calif., the following week.
Scores of companies at CES will seek to chip away at the franchise Apple has created with its sleek hard drives, which can store photos and act as a voice recorder, in addition to being a music player.