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Newscasters show off election-night gadgetry

Among the devices used was a futuristic plasma monitor designed by three technology companies specifically for CBS. Screen shots: Election night gadgets

The TV networks may have played it safe when calling election results on Tuesday night, but many were on the cutting edge when it came to outfitting newscasters with high-tech gadgetry.

Among the most notable displays of electronic wizardry was on CBS Nightly News. Correspondent John Roberts seemed to mimic Tom Cruise in the movie "Minority Report," using his fingertips to control a 50-inch touch-screen monitor displaying maps of the country and various states. With a wave of his hand, Roberts magnified and dragged the maps around--each one spliced with detailed demographic, polling and election-returns data.

On NBC, Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert upgraded from an old-fashioned whiteboard and marker to a top-of-the-line tablet PC, a fancy laptop with a highly advanced, liquid crystal display that recognizes handwriting. Russert used the machine, made by Fujitsu, to illustrate the electoral votes garnered by each candidate as he chatted with anchorman Tom Brokaw. A larger monitor behind the newsman also displayed Russert's notes from the tablet.

Fujitsu was eager to promote the product's network TV appearance, issuing a press release Wednesday that detailed its features and its price tag--a cool $2,049. Russert used the high-end Stylistic ST5020 model, which features a nine-hour battery and wide viewing angle, said Paul Moore, director of product marketing at Fujitsu Computer Systems.

Fujitsu has been selling tablets to medical and insurance workers for years, but the machines have yet to catch on more widely, Moore said. The company hopes the national exposure will help whet people's appetites for the pricey item.

"I think people will be impressed by what Russert was able to do," Moore said. "To actually see it working is going to pique their curiosity."

CBS's futuristic plasma monitor was particularly mesmerizing. It was the creation of three technology suppliers, which spent eight months designing and building the system for CBS News just for election night. Panasonic supplied the hardware, while a small South Korean company called Innotive designed the drag-and-zoom interface. ESRI, in Redlands, Calif., furnished the mapping software.

CBS News producer and technologist Dan Dubno said that the tool was a great asset to the evening's broadcast and that it may soon appear in other CBS broadcasts. The only drawback is that viewers may have been slightly distracted by the technology, he said.

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"I think there is a public learning curve with these things," Dubno said. "But within a short period of time you transcend the technological drama and focus on the content that only technology like this can deliver."

The reviews from some print journalists were less stellar. One Newsday reporter felt inundated and expressed nostalgia for simpler tools of the trade, noting in a story Wednesday that "the most distinctive prop of the night turned out to be the simple yellow pencil that CBS' (Dan) Rather used for a pointer."

A report from the Chicago Sun-Times lamented Russert's use of the tablet PC, remarking that it "had none of his old board's charm."

Apparently, Russert wasn't willing to totally part ways with the old board. According to a USA Today report, he kept it stashed under his desk, "just in case NBC's high-tech wizardry failed."