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Tech Industry

For small vendors, a bizarre bazaar

Some of the products were cool, others functional. And many were just plain bizarre. Welcome to the small vendor circuit.

ATLANTA--Giants such as Microsoft, Lotus, Toshiba, Kodak, and Oracle dominated this week's Spring Comdex show. But that didn't stop smaller businesses, even entrepreneurs, from showing their wares too.

Some of their products were cool, others functional. And many were just plain bizarre.

Take, for example, the laser flashlight that is shaped like a bullet. "You can shine it on your pet or your wife's forehead," the salesman suggests.

Or the rattan computer furniture that sells for about $450. And the digital recorder attached to a refrigerator magnet, so you can record family messages, rather than write them. (It costs more than $100.)

Other stuff was cool. Visionics was selling a $300 system that takes a photo of anyone who sits down to use your computer. It won't let you log on if it doesn't recognize you.

"It's like a password with your face," company engineer Alex Rothacker said.

The company 1-800-Batteries was selling a seven-hour lead acid battery for laptops that weighs three pounds and costs about $150.

Dragon Systems was peddling a voice-recognition system for PCs that lets you speak to your computer naturally--without pausing between words. The company claims 95 percent or higher accuracy.

Metatools offered a product called "Kai's photo soap" that lets users touch up, correct red-eye, and remove scratches in digital photos. It uses images such as a paint brush, eraser, and pencil to do the work.

"It's amazing," said Georgian Bob Wallace, who was watching a demo. "And it sells for $49: What's the catch?"

Even the regulators were there. The Federal Communications Commission set up a booth, offering information about the agency.

All week, many of the big companies tried to keep reporters from writing about their products until making a formal announcement. The rollout of the Custom News Web site by CNN and Oracle was one example.

No so with many of the smaller outfits. After this reporter picked up a brochure promoting the CyberStuff 3D visor for game-playing, a salesman beckoned: "Please, I really want you to come and try the product."

At another booth, a saleswoman coaxed the reporter to sit down for a personal demonstration of the $139 "Medi-Rub" body massager. After about a minute she said: "We're trying to get into the Fall Comdex show, and we need letters from people who like our product. Would you mind writing one?

As he left, she called out: "Anything you can do I'd appreciate!"

Some of the displays were decidedly low-tech too. One was dubbed the Expo Store, stocked with 300 items including glass cleaner, paper towels, paint, nails, tools, even acetone.

"This is the 7-Eleven for exhibitors--and at 7-Eleven prices," said a gentleman manning the booth.