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At DigitalLife, cool toys but no clear direction

The consumer trade show can't decide whether it's for industry geeks or the general public. Video: DigitalLife 2007 wrap-up

NEW YORK--The DigitalLife convention here seems to be having an identity crisis over whether it's an industry trade show or a digital learning experience for the masses. As the latter, it works; as the former, not so much.

Maybe it's a symptom of the overload from gadget trade shows--a sort of numbness to HDTVs, wireless keyboards and iPod accessories that's built up over the course of the tech-obsessed age. The last time I checked, HD DVD isn't exactly fresh. Neither is the Nokia N95 handheld, Windows Vista or those Reactrix touch-sensitive displays found in every major shopping mall. But all those products were prominently featured on the show floor.

"I guess it's supposed to be a survey of consumer electronics in general," a gadget blogger told me when I asked him what he made of the whole event.

And that's the problem. We live in a world where even our toothbrushes plug into the wall, and the label "consumer electronics" consequently encompasses just about everything in our lives. Suffice it to say it's ambitious for any one conference to claim to cover the entire digital lifestyle, especially when so much of that lifestyle seems downright mundane these days.

The show appeared to be making up for the lack of innovation by appeasing us all with video games.

Then there's the fact that the show appeared to be making up for the lack of innovation by appeasing us all with video games.

"There's too much software," one disappointed gadget blogger told me as we stood by the Nickelodeon-hued couches that framed discount tech retailer 's DigitalLife setup. "It's all, like, games." Console and PC gaming took up a massive chunk of the spotlight and crowd attention at the fourth annual trade show hosted by Ziff Davis Media.

Most of the games weren't even new to anyone who follows digital entertainment: the new, but not totally new, title BioShock, which Hewlett-Packard let attendees test out on its Blackbird gaming PCs; classic Pac-Man arcade games set up by Namco; and a Dance Dance Revolution stage courtesy of Konami.

Call it the "incredible shrinking DigitalLife," both figuratively and literally.

Last year's confab took up the entire main hall of the Jacob Javits Convention Center, but at this year's event, which started Thursday morning and runs through Sunday, a chunk of the show floor was sectioned off and unused. When you counted the voids of couch and carpeting masked as "lounges," and the extensive amount of square footage devoted to video game stations, there was even less floor space for the products that are supposedly changing the way we live our lives.

The big companies, especially if they had games to play, grabbed most of the crowd's attention even when they weren't actually announcing anything new (to the frustration of start-ups that had smaller and less glitzy setups). "It's easy to get swallowed up," said a representative from one smaller exhibitor, who spoke under the condition of anonymity. "There's a lot of gaming. The big companies have all their laptops out...but we're doing what we can."

CNET's Rich DeMuro walks around the show floor at New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Sure, there were product announcements. But most were anticlimactic: the Gateway One, Gateway's answer to the iMac, had already leaked to the Web. Friendster's announcement of "Fan Profiles," for many, served only to remind the press that the social-networking has-been still exists.

The media received Palm's Centro consumer-oriented smart phone with enough grains of salt to line the rim of a much-needed post-trade-show margarita. (Overheard numerous times at Palm's complimentary smoothie bar during press hour: "Yeah, this company has issues.")

Glimpses of the unexpected were few and far between. The best-received product announcement was the unveiling of two new home robots from Roomba manufacturer iRobot. Most of the trade press, it seemed, would take a gutter-cleaning bot over an all-in-one PC any day. That's because the bot was, along with toy veteran Erector's "Spykee the Wi-Fi Robot," WowWee's bizarro-world toys, and an oddball R2D2-shaped movie projector, new to both the press and the general public.

But from a media or analyst perspective, the show was a disappointment not only because of the lack of freshness in the product offerings, but because it was tough to connect the fragmented array of exhibitors into a coherent picture of digital trends or even a target audience. Dell's candy-colored laptops were just a stone's throw from the Lord of the Rings Online massive multiplayer game, for example, and an eBay learning center for beginners was placed next to M-Audio's demonstration of its highly specialized tools for electronic musicians.

The events schedule was disjointed, too. Attendance at keynote presentations, many of which had an industry focus, was woefully low on Thursday and Friday, unless one of many high school groups showed up to fill the seating. But a presentation about the lucrative future of casual online gaming by Steve Youngwood, MTV Networks' executive vice president of kids' and family digital media, was a big yawn for the small audience of under-18s, some of whom left the speech early to play games rather than hear about them.

But all was not lost. For general attendees, many of whom may not have known that many electronics geeks swear by NewEgg or that HD DVD really does look a lot better onscreen than traditional DVD, the show was probably a productive experience.

The convention would do better for itself if it focused on the consumer and didn't try to imitate that other gadget show, the Consumer Electronics Show that's held in Las Vegas every January. And when DigitalLife stuck to digital-world education, it shone. A student-oriented talk hosted by Trend Micro executives provided an entertaining and informative take on how to keep your identity safe online--something you just don't learn in school.

Students visiting the convention on field trips were also drawn into Qualcomm Senior Vice President Jeffrey Belk's talk about how technology has changed the travel experience as he contrasted a 1983 post-college excursion around Europe with a recent 110-day trek around the world.

On the earlier trip, his only communication back home was with phone cards and spare cash at payphones. But on the recent trip, his family was equipped with two laptops, two 3G cell phones, a BlackBerry and an HDSPA card.

If I learned anything from DigitalLife, it's that digital life is real life. And you can't confine real life to a cavern of carpeted square footage at the Javits Center.