Archive for January, 2010


We’ve all had the “fun” of getting a new phone that mandates a wireless carrier change. Whether it was the first Motorola “flip phone” or the newest Blackberry, all the wireless companies since the very beginning have made the process as time consuming and expensive as possible. Since we’ve all had our own bad experiences and probably have disparaging opinions of each of these companies, I thought I’d point out the best experience I’d ever had … at an Apple store, no less.

Due to issues with her existing carrier, my spouse wanted an iPhone in the worst way. I have never been an Apple fanboy, but when the new 3Gs arrived in June, I was there when the door opened with all the characters typical of what most people think Apple owners are like. But, I noticed that several of the people there were obviously not the run of the mill Apple folk, but more like me. After a little discussion, I found that most wouldn’t own an Apple computer, and for these people the iPhone doesn’t seem to be identified as an Apple product, which obviously it is, but more of just a cool phone. My check out process on the first day of it’s release was tedious due to the crushing crowds and ironically, computer problems. In contrast, last night was utterly painless. Stepping into the store close to closing, she selected her iPhone, chose her wireless plan, transferred her existing phone number and walked out with a working phone … total time from my front door and back, was less than thirty-nine minutes! Opening the box for the first time, light emitted like a halo around the phone and trumpets were heard in the distance … OK, maybe not, but it should have. Once a diehard Blackberry user, that has very probably come to a permanent end after only a day with her shiny new iPhone. After seeing what it could do in a much, much more simplified way, she was hooked. I have to admit that the Blackberry is looking more like an electronic anachronism, than ever before. Much like someone who insists on using a typewriter, time has passed RIM by. While at their booth at CES, you could tell how far they were behind the times simply by the apps they were hawking. The Blackberry mother company “RIM”, was touting the apps as the “newest things”, and they probably were for Blackberry users … but stale news for iPhone users as they’ve been available for quite a time at the iTunes store. A year is forever in the tech world.

The number one complaint among the iPhone aficionados is distaste for AT&T. Everyone loves the phones, but not the phone company … just like James Coburns’ character “Dr. Sidney Schaefer” in the “President’s Analyst” who pointed out that everyone hates the phone company. Even its stockholders! But in fairness, at least they waived the famously irritating “activation fee”.

In the very best tradition that all geeks can identify with, at 6:33am, the morning after she got her new iPhone, news broke of the next new iPhone. Possibly coming with dual cores, better camera, 4G capability, video chat, OLED screen and a removable battery ….. it promises that Steve Jobs can afford more black turtle neck shirts.

Last call

Last day of the show. The one tip you try to remember each year, is that the crowds are far thinner on the last day … so plan to visit the booths where the lines and crowds were simply too much to deal with on opening day. Despite the show being around a full 25% smaller than two years ago, it is still overwhelming to the newbie. And it’s very easy to get lost. There are actually four foldout maps, large enough to almost cover a king size bed and that’s just for the primary floors.

 

There were over 20,000 new times introduced at this show … mathematically, that’s trying to evaluate 5,000 new items a day. Needless to say, I may have missed a few. But I’m hoping I saw most of the ones who may influence our lives, and survive despite the economy, until next year.

 

 

I found my favorite affordable Chinese speaker company again. Far better sounding than you would imagine for the money, and simply amazing prices … provided your minimum order is a boxcar full. I’m always amazed what 250 bucks can buy, should you get lucky enough at the end of the show to get the samples. An equivalent at Best Buy would easily be $2000.00 or more.

In my rush to try to see the whole show, (which has never happened after trying for a decade) you occasionally miss the products that are probably not going to be seen again after the show. One that pops into mind right now is the iSmell … It’s your basic bedside clock/radio with a twist … when the alarm sounds, the clock begins emitting the smell of coffee. I wanted to ask more questions, but the person in the booth had the same look in his eyes as the zipper guy, so with blistered feet I escaped on sheer willpower alone.

In the extreme rear of one of the halls was an unexpected treat in one of the smallest booths at CES … a display that very literally appeared in the air in front of you. It was like something out of “Blade Runner”. Imagine watching a movie on your television … now take away the TV and you have the image “floating” off the ground. That’s exactly what it looked like. It was small and obviously a prototype … but this thing made the uber-expensive 3D TVs look ridiculous. No glasses or huge cabinets … It’s like the TV that “Area 51” would produce with alien technology. Should this thing ever get to mass production, it would instantly spell the end of the TV industry as we know it. I suspect the inventors will be bought out by some mega electronics company and the company closed, if not outright burned down with the inventors inside.

 

Sir, your credit card appears to be over your limit.

Today was fantasy day. With each new room at the more exclusive “high-end” show, an audiophile geeks dream was fulfilled. This is a place where some of the most extreme electronics available to “select” consumers are demonstrated. To give one shining example, we went into an amplifier manufacturers sound demo room. In front of us were two monaural tube block amps that obviously were verrrry pricy, judging from their appearance. It wasn’t until I had a look at the dealer price sheet, to learn just what the word “expensive” actually meant. Their signature “reference” amps were $350,000 … each.

To put this in perspective, most advanced Audio/Video systems are 7.1 capable … That means seven channels and a subwoofer. And of course, for the absolute best audio reproduction, the front speakers should bi/tri amped. (two to three amps per speaker) Here’s the math for the already too shell-shocked: (tri-amped version) 13 x $350,000.00 = $4,550,000.00 … without tax! This is with no preamp, no SACD/DVD player, no turntable or cartridge, no turntable tube preamp, no tuner, no digital music server, no digital time correction device, no speakers or subwoofer and no video projector, lens or screen. And for amps of this nature you would have to have an electrician install special wiring, because no house is capable of that much amperage draw. Not to mention some type of line conditioning to filter out noise and give some type of voltage over/under protection. The special wires (such as shielded oxygen-free, silver super fine multistrand, multibraid with “gold over silver” connectors) literally cost as much as a new BMW … with a lot of options! Speakers that go with this caliber of equipment easily run into the six figures per pair. An acceptable turntable and cartridge well over $30,000.00, and so on. The video projector and its anamorphic lens, far more than $100,000.00. And bear this in mind as well, we are talking about sound and video, for just one room.

And next year, it’s all obsolete.

In terms of sheer electronic high-end weirdness, this was a tame CES compared to some of the past “breakthrough” items. One of my favs was a speaker that required tanks of nitrogen to control a hot-as-the-sun carbon-arc to provide a pulsating, gaseous envelope to produce sound. I never got to hear it actually run and I’ve never personally known anyone who has either. But you can always find someone at the show that remembers it. Which is just as well … I figure if you weren’t blinded by the carbon-arc, you would be suffocated by the nitrogen. I don’t even think the extreme car audio crazies would be brave enough to use this thing at a volume contest. But I’d be glad to watch the results on YouTube! And I believe others would as well … Hollywood has always known that any good movie has lots of explosions.

Another “break-through” design I saw a couple of years ago, was an amplifier that ran so hot that it couldn’t be exposed to air … yes, you read that right … the core of the design had to be completely submerged in a high temperature, non-conductive synthetic oil solution. Sitting and watching the seething, churning red-hot solution in its pyrex-like container, trying to cool this ferocious amp from five feet away is still burned into my memory. You know how a blacktop country road during the Texas summer has that “wavy” look? Well, seeing that effect in a small room, in such quantity from that thing, demands respect. Should the container have fractured, releasing the oil and the main power tube been exposed to air, I suspect a Chernobyl-like effect wouldn’t be too far behind.

Incentivizing pain

I’m reading a non-fiction book that has me fascinated: Freakonomics. Basically, by using economics in an odd way, it details the way life changes in sometimes hugely unexpected ways, from seemingly unrelated events. One of the truisms in said book, is how people are unpredictable when incentives to do (or not to do) something are applied. It states that people, by nature, are motivated universally by incentives. It may not be of any concern as to whether or not others may consider that “incentive” trivial, so long as the “beneficiary” deems it worth the effort for the reward.

I saw that theory put to the acid test today. For a baseball cap with the company logo on its brow, the participant willingly allowed himself (only males applied) to be “tasered”. Now you’d think that after the first person permitted himself to be “electrically stimulated into rigidity”, in front of a live audience, that the pool of volunteers would pretty much instantly dry up. But in reality, there was a constant stream of folks who deemed that hat more important than possibly soiling their pants in front of a large crowd. And trust me on this, from the guttural noises emitted once a person is hit with an undulating dose of amperage that this thing can produce, smart money says this must be as much fun as a filling a cavity without anesthesia. For a Taser is nothing like a stun gun. A stun gun only produces localized pain. The Taser uses a “patented neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) technology” that varies the waveform of the pulses to prevent you from becoming too cozy with mild electrocution. …… And all of this, for a hat and a keychain.

Being the level-headed geek that I am, I decided than rather than to be on the business end of this compliance enhancer, I wanted to actually fire it. So I went into the specially constructed Lexan booth on the second floor of the display for that very purpose. It was then I realized that my accompanying friend, possibly concerned that I may without permission, decide to involve him in this learning exercise, had deferred to another booth posthaste. He needn’t haven’t worried as cocktail time was still hours away. The rep explained how it worked and fired, which took less than a minute. I also discovered how excitable some reps become after being locked in a small enclosed space, with a complete stranger waving about a fully charged, loaded and “un-safetied” Taser with seeming casual abandon. I can only guess my sense of humor was lost on him.

A light touch of the electric firing button, BANG!!, and two stainless steel barbed probes (manufactured by the Eagle Claw fishhook company , no less) shot out at over a hundred miles an hour propelled by compressed nitrogen to the fifteen foot range limit of the civilian model, into the chest of my paper assailant. Unfortunately, so did the replaceable cartridge that contained the wires that connected the Taser to its electrical probes. So, if this was a life or death situation and your Taser just misfired, I’d have to imagine your attacker now has absolutely no sense of irony. I also bet that since no special license/training is required for a Taser, the money you saved by not going to concealed handgun carry classes isn’t quite the bargain it once was.

To be completely serious here … as serious a two geeks discussing who was the best captain of the Enterprise. (it was Shatner, of course) I can absolutely appreciate the notion of a non-lethal deterrent, but only if it’s 99.9999% dependable and effective. (Many high quality pistols have the ability to fire thousands of rounds without a single misfire.) And in many police actions you have other officers to “back you up” with firepower should this method fail at the last second. If this was a (no pun intended) one-shot affair, you would finish in second place … which in a violent attack, second place is the same as last place.

Virtual whipping boy

Gaming has become such a huge market that CES has established a separate area for it. I don’t know if the segregation was for the benefit of the gaming industry or for CES itself. As I’m betting CES didn’t know what kind of crowd it might attract, and saw the parking lot as a safe out-of-the-way place to stash it and see what transpired. Regardless, it appears gaming and the billion dollar industry it feeds is here to stay.

While at the Creative booth I met the world’s premier gamer, Johnathan Wendel, who goes by the screen name of “Fatal1ty“.  He’s won about a half a million dollars in prize money and millions more from business partnerships with Universal Abit, Creative Labs, OC Labs and XFX who produce motherboards, video cards, mice, headphones and other computer devices, and even has a clothing line … all under his gaming handle. He’s the only person to have won world championships in five different games. So you’d think that either he’d be the stereotyped gaming freak (over-weight, introverted and pale) or have such an over-the-top ego as to be an insufferable bore. If those would be your first guesses, you couldn’t be more wrong. I found him to be outgoing, extremely polite and patient. The NBA, NFL and MLB should use him as an example of how a top athlete should behave. I use the term “athlete” as he believes you must be be physically fit to compete at the highest levels and succeed. Who would have guessed? After watching how he dealt with all types of fans, both in groups and in between his skill demonstrations, he was a representative any company would love.  A proverbial gaming “Tiger Woods” in his prime, without all the personal baggage and typical pro athlete attitude.

For his personal appearances, Creative set up a stage with matching computers and huge screens for anyone to test their skills against him. Before attempt that feat, you spun a wheel to determine how he would play you (full tilt – no handicap, using a cardboard sheet with only a two inch square cut out in the center covering the monitor, or a bizarre contraption that looked like a board with a keyboard and mouse pad nailed to it, a-la-guitar style).

Since I play well enough to speak of myself in the third person, using my gaming moniker … enough to really disturb my wife … I raised my hand. I spun the wheel and got lucky … he had to put the cardboard in front of his monitor and could only look through a two inch square hole. If I were to “kill” him just once (I didn’t have to win, just a single “kill”) there were very substantial prizes.  The game was an old fav of mine … Quake. I felt that there was a real possibility of me going home with the prize of an expensive new video card … despite the fact he was the current world champ. The bell rings and it takes him almost two minutes to get me twice … I came sooooo close at one point, and it was at that point I felt as though a different person had just gotten into his seat. He got down to business … I couldn’t stay alive for more than three seconds (sometimes much, much less). He had been toying with me the whole time … I was shocked at just how good he really was. If this had occurred while playing online, I’d just “know” that the guy was cheating. There could have been five of me playing and it wouldn’t have made the tiniest difference. As I walked off stage after being crushed, I was handed a “Fatality” dog tag … I didn’t even read what it said as I assumed it probably stated in print that I was a “noob” (a terrible insult in the gaming world).

Over the next three days probably hundreds of people, including some gaming pros, went up onto that stage and left as empty handed as I did. Imagine sparring with Ali, pitching to the “Babe” or chalking it up with “Fats” … I played the best gamer on the planet and found that some people are just gifted beyond what anyone could comprehend until experienced.

Yes, I still talk about myself in the third person around wife, after slapping down all my opponents in “Halo”, who after losing, accuse me of cheating. But it’s tongue-in-cheek now.

Only if they had any idea of what a truly exceptional player could do … they’d probably stop playing all together.

A few years ago I had the unique and somewhat terrifying experience of a full blown cattle stampede at my parents’ farm. I learned quickly that I actually could balance my six-foot plus frame on the top strand of a barbed wire fence to avoid become a footnote in the “Darwin Awards”. The first day rush to enter CES at opening time can be just as pleasurable. Definitely not for the faint or squeamish. My nephew tells me about “crowd surfing” at concerts, and therefore, I must conclude this qualifies as “crowd undertow”.

Wandering into the huge Panasonic booth I find the world’s largest (and certainly the most energy hungry) TV on the planet. Using a “to be released at some point in the future” technology, and offering more than double the resolution of even the very best plasma set, the now defunct Pioneer Kuro Elite. This Godzilla of TV’s offered an image that reminded me of something straight out of the movie “V”. All it needed was a close-up of a screaming, spitting John Hurt to frighten the bejeebers out of you.

Truly a huge picture, absolutely flawless image quality and weight something north of a Volvo station wagon. I walked (pushed through) away from the huge, very much unyielding crowd and wondered if radiation badges were in order.

On to the first of the much hyped 3D sets for an extended viewing session. The glasses you must wear aren’t anything like the cardboard red/blue lensed versions you probably remember. These new shutter glasses cost over a hundred bucks, and have batteries that must be recharged or replaced to power them as they are actually using the same basic technology as a LCD TV. Each of your eyes are independently blacked out for a fraction of a second by a syncing signal sent by the TV. This trick of nature fakes the 3D effect to various degrees of success. Watching a video of the Grand Canyon, the image ranged from impressive to distracting. At times it too closely mimicked a 1950’s Vincent Price 3D horror flick with the image moving from the background, to seemingly into my lap, in about a millisecond. Other times the image looked flat. Other times fantastic … a little balance would have been appreciated.

I can see the possible advantages of these cutting edge sets, but in my opinion, they’re more like bleeding edge sets. The technology clearly isn’t ready for prime time. After using the shutter glasses for more than a few minutes, my eyes began to be in distress. This effect is more or less pronounced on everyone who uses them, but there nonetheless. I’d give Panasonic an “A-“ for effort and a “D” for execution. Glasses just to watch TV? I hate having to wear my prescription glasses, why would I put on a heavy/hot pair for fun? My spouse complains now about the double-digit number of remote controls in the family media room. And now we have to keep up with one more item to be lost. What were they thinking? Had the engineers asked their wives about this viewing penalty and demonstrated it to them, we wouldn’t even be looking at prototypes of this inferior system … back to the drawing board.

Ok, now after changing hotels, I believe I’ve found the hotel that Borat would have loved. Only in America could you find a hotel with a sandwich vending machine on each floor. Never let it be said that Vegas doesn’t have classy hotels … why go out to Emeril’s, when a tuna fish sandwich is only quarters away.

You’d think that the zipper booth was the oddest thing I’ve seen today … and you’d be wrong. From guys with 5 o’clock shadows in a dress and high heels, to probably the most bizzare thing I may have ever have seen at CES, Vegas never fails to impress. Imagine a baseball cap with a bill four times longer than you have ever seen on the MTV video awards, with a sheet of black cloth four inches long hanging from the entire perimeter of the bill. Then add a clip at the end of that bill, for a iPhone. And in between you eyes and the Apple moneymaker is a fresnel lens, for that “big screen” effect. I had to keep looking around for a camera to see if this was a joke. All your for only $19.95! Only these folks were dead serious about this “revolutionary device”. Never let it be said that entrepreneurship is dead in the USA.

Zipper Hell, part 2

Once at the Chinese zipper booth there was a great deal of very loud and animated conversation in their native tongue amongst the guys and quite a bit of gesturing. The lone woman there didn’t look particularly happy about something.

Having traveled in the far east, I understand native formalities that may accompany visitors to our shores. So, as that veteran of Asian travel I knew that I might be given a gift of an experimental zipper and would have to present a gift of equal or better value to the folks at the zipper booth. So with a well prepared bow I presented my host with the brochures and the phone condom I had just received from the blonde Swedish bikini-clad girl splashing around in the hot tub directly across the aisle from the zipper booth. They were well as well received as I’d hoped.

Well, I couldn’t identify my guy (insert joke here at your own peril) from last year at the Chinese zipper booth. I’m fairly certain his closest associates killed him in mid-sentence about the benefits of solid brass teeth versus plastic in cold weather, high-stress repeat usage. But, the remote controlled zipper has made its debut. You should have seen the look on the faces of booth folks when I asked what radio frequency the remote operated on. Why, they asked … Then I explained I was a remote control hacker. Suddenly, I wasn’t welcome. I bet they have to go back to the drawing board and build in digital encryption to safeguard the worlds’ trousers.

As a geek, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t imagine a use for the zipper that had built-in headphones … and no, this isn’t a joke. I stood there for a while trying to imagine the reason for this invention. And even after a few drinks to loosen my thoughts this evening … I still can’t.      But you can’t stop progress.

Zipper Hell

Fully tagged and ID’d by the folks at CES, I wear the much coveted “geek badge of honor” … a CES show pass that hangs around my neck like a lucky talisman. So do about another 200,000 people, but mine is special … it’s mine. It’s mine to swipe through the new handheld machines at almost every booth, guaranteeing me a year of full inbox garbage.

Last year I was inundated by a Chinese zipper company. It’s not that I have any great penchant for zippers; it’s rather that I made the mistake of eye contact with one their folks in their booth. Rushing to greet me and place an armful of brochures in my already overstuffed backpack, he was just too polite and gracious to say “no” to.

At first, my conversation with the rep was very normal. Then the reality hit that this guy is obsessed with zippers. Now, you want a doctor to be absorbed into his work. You want your plumber to be fully versed in pipes and valves. But this was creepy … He’s not going onto my Christmas party list.              I looked directly at him and thought “what does his wife say to him to get him to shut up?”. It was at that moment that another reality hit me. I do exactly the same thing, blabbing on about electronics and cars at home to my wife. In an act of love, she listens to my rambling. She may not have a clue about what I’m talking about, but she listens. I doubt the wife of the guy from China finds zippers nearly as much fun to discuss.

Tomorrow when I see the zipper booth, I’m actually going to stop and see what breakthrough (no pun intended) has occurred in the world of zippers. This is CES after all …

 

Gordon Biersch’s finest brings in the 2010 CES a day before the big show. I’m going typically geeky, with a live broadcast for the show using nothing more than an iPhone and AT&T’s creaky 3G system. I expect the viewing crowd to be dutifully bored at the prospect of me droning on about some gizmo that absolutely no one has any idea of what it does, beyond myself and the inventor. That of course doesn’t mean it won’t be significant somewhere down the road.

3D is supposed to be the next big thing … that is of course, if wearing giant shutter glasses has any appeal to the masses. I just can’t see having to wear a another pair of glasses over my existing glasses just to gawk at the news. Oh yeah, I can can see the prospect such as it is with sports and movies … but it also brings to mind cooking dinner and the latest blurb on the news about the “dog lost on the ice flow” and rushing to put on your shutter glasses. There is a divide there that will never be overcome unless the glasses don’t become part of the equation. But in fairness, I will ignore the same old groans you hear that are typical with any radically new tech item: “too expensive, too bulky, not enough to watch, etc.”  and try to have an open mind tomorrow.  I heard the same thing when DVD made its’ first introduction seemingly a century ago. Going into the VHS rental store           I would point out to my very patient, but bored wife, that this was all changing. Well, change is upon us again, albeit a different form.

The first 3D sets I saw a few years ago ranged from spectacular (even from today’s perspective) to simply nothing more than a headache producing mess. I can only hope that someone at Sony (and other manufacturers) understand this as well. Tomorrow, in conversations that will certainly occur, we’ll find out.

CES has always been nothing less than a road map for the future of everyone. I’m always amazed that beyond the geeky crowd, no one seems to pay too much attention. But a year or three down the road, your fellow cubicle prisoner will tell you about a new must-have tech item that surprises you … but we saw it first, here in Vegas … at CES. A lot has changed since the first CES in June of 67′.

But one thing remains constant, this is the only place on the planet where you can see tomorrow.