Home networking buzzing at CES

In the digital home of the future, you'll be able to use the television to order pizza and set the thermostat, record movies without a tape, make popcorn and even buy new shoes. What's more, the toilet will talk.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

That is the vision to be presented this week at the massive Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

All in all, more than 1,800 makers of everything from stereos and television sets, still and video cameras, phones, computers and Internet products, auto dashboard computers, palm-sized PCs and even talking toilets will parade their wares in front of an expected 100,000 attendees.

But the burning questions being addressed at the show, according to industry observers, are less about the gear itself and more about how to link it all together, turn it on and get people to buy it.

Will those who aren't really sure what all those buttons on the TV remote control are for be willing to move to more complicated devices?

"We're really a transitional generation," said Ron Goldberg, executive editor of E/Town, an Internet home electronics guide. "We see a generation of young people who have grown up on video games and PCs who will easily adapt ... and a generation that's out of the technological loop."

The concern is that all the new gadgets may face resistance from consumers who are not ready to ditch their existing analog televisions and telephones for digital models even though newer, smaller, faster, clearer technologies are available.

So manufacturers are trying to figure how to link the old with the new. For example, some of the most prominent items coming out of the show this year are so-called "firewires," or single digital cables linking various components throughout the house such as the microwave, telephone, television and computer.

Wireless technologies linking components without cords also will be shown along with various types of new personal satellite dishes and antennas designed to send and receive digital signals.

For those who still need the security of physically holding a "clicker" to turn the television on and off, one popular technology will be a programmable remote control device that would let a single button handle several functions.

"In terms of turning on the machines, your grandmother will still be able to use her remote control, but with one button she'll watch her favorite soap opera and have the lighting just right. And if she wants to record it on her video cassette recorder, she could push another button and do that too," said Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.

There also will be devices that respond to vocal commands, Joseph said. And "smart cards," or wallet cards embedded with computer chips, will figure prominently, allowing consumers to use one card for anything from buying groceries to storing medical histories to unlocking doors.

Many of the new technologies that will be shown, such as digital TV, which costs as much as $4,000, are still too expensive for the average consumer.

At least one new product -- the Digital Versatile Disk player, or DVD, which plays movies on a disc similar to a compact disc -- has recently come down in price, and it is expected to take the country by storm in 1999, analysts said. Prices have been slashed to around $400 from around $1,000 when they made their debut 18 months ago.

In addition to mainstream items, the show will feature such must-have products as tiny computers with child-sized keyboards, portable golf score shredders, talking cars that will not only navigate but will -- through invisible speaker phones and computers -- ask would-be thieves to identify themselves and call the police if they are unable to do so.

"The (talking) toilet will be most interesting and most helpful," Joseph said. "There's a voice to tell you to keep the seat down and other messages. It's recordable and you can record whatever message you want. I'll keep it away from my wife."

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