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Ceatec: Gadget hounds, get ready

The show, which runs from Tuesday to Friday in Chiba, Japan, just outside Tokyo, is a good bellwether of what is likely to be found sitting on electronics store shelves--sooner or later.

If there's a place that's more of a sensory overload than Las Vegas, it's Tokyo, which makes it a perfect place to host what many say is the best consumer electronics show in the world: the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, or Ceatec, for short.

It's that time of year again, after IFA in Berlin and before the madness of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, when Ceatec gets its turn on the world's technology stage.

It's a huge show: just less than 206,000 people showed up to see the 895 companies show off their wares last year. The 2008 confab, which runs from Tuesday to Friday in Chiba, Japan, just outside Tokyo, promises to be even bigger.

While Ceatec offers a glimpse into the future of gadgetry, it's also a parade of practical products. Some tech exhibits can be merely a glance at what a company's R&D department is toying around with in a basement laboratory, with no practical application in sight. However, it's very likely that Asian and European consumers will see them in stores sooner than those in the United States.

From the standpoint of a manufacturer or marketer, this show can be kind of dramatic. It's often the last tryout before products get cut from a company's portfolio. Although many products shown are made especially for the Asian or European markets, it's also a final test in another way.

"The reception these products get at Ceatec will help decide if they will enter the U.S. market," according to Richard Doherty, a consumer electronics market researcher at The Envisioneering Group. Doherty hunts the halls every year at Ceatec looking for the best upcoming technology.

But just like at CES, not everything is designed to become an actual product. Both big and small names in electronics come to Ceatec to display a large portfolio of products so that investors, journalists, potential partners, and retailers can take a look.

While some of the products will already be in development, others are just strategic deterrents, designed to throw competitors offtrack from where a company's real product road map is going.

But Ceatec is probably a better show for consumers and gadget hounds, since much of what will be in a company's booth isn't so far from sitting on a store shelf. For example, according to Doherty, 60 percent of the products shown by electronics giant Samsung at CES this past January will become actual products by year's end.

"At the Japan show, more like 9 out of 10 products will make it to market within the year," he said.

And for the stuff that does make the cut, it will sometimes take two to five years before it appears on this side of the Pacific.

Murata's unicycle-riding robot. Murata

TVs, cell phones, and robots, oh my
Last year at Ceatec, we saw TVs from JVC that responded to gestures and sounds (think The Clapper), and a concept PC from Toshiba controlled by gestures. Products like this will come to the States--thanks to the popularity of motion-sensing hits like the Nintendo Wii--but not for a few years.

CNET will be at Ceatec again this year to bring you news of the coolest and weirdest gadgets that consumer electronics makers have dreamed up. We already know a little bit about what kinds of products to expect this year, as news has slowly dribbled out.

Nissan, Sharp, and mobile provider NTT DoCoMo will be showing off a smart cell phone that can start a car, and another phone provider plans to debut a "wellness phone," a handset that monitors your heart rate and can tell if you have bad breath.

Panasonic is promising a high-definition plasma home theater system in 3D--plastic glasses included--which it is calling "the world's first." But it won't be the only one showing off a 3D-screen TV. We can expect to see 3D products from Sanyo, Sony, Fujitsu, and Mitsubishi, and they won't just be wall-size TVs. There could be small 3D screens that fit on a cell phone or portable media player for toying around with at Ceatec that don't even require 3D glasses, according to Doherty.

Oh, and then there are robots. Murata is debuting a female automaton that rides a unicycle.

On the flipside, there's also a host of practical, if slightly less stylish, stuff planned for the event.

Green machines
This year, one big change will be the focus on green, or clean, technologies. In fact, there's a whole pavilion dedicated to it for the first time. Part of that is a new emphasis on not just recyclable, but sustainable, products that cost less to use over their lifetime. That means that we'll see products that can be reused wholesale, or be taken apart and used again in different products, such as refrigerators or a plasma TVs, said Doherty.

We'll also see companies looking at problems many of them have been trying to tackle for some time, like reducing energy use and electronic waste.

"Expect to see an emphasis on flash memory replacing drives, energy efficiency in cars, and using IT to reduce travel and traffic congestion," said green-technology analyst Michael Kanellos of Greentech Media (and formerly of CNET News). "Panasonic may also talk about its program to install hydrogen generators in homes. These units produce hydrogen from natural gas. The hydrogen then powers the home. Trials have gone on for years, but now these units are going to roll out in larger numbers."

However amazing the other attractions may be, some major highlights of Ceatec will be seeing what Samsung, Hitachi, Panasonic, and Sony do with TVs, LED backlighting, what kinds of cool cell phones NTT DoCoMo will feature, and, in the land where cell phones are king, what the future of mobile computing will hold.

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