Electronic Design

If You Build It, Will They Come (And Buy It)?

Forget what other barometers you may have seen regarding a return to happy days in the electronics marketplace. With last month's announcement of nearly 150 new products on the same day, one company, Hewlett-Packard, is working to boost the economy practically all by itself.

HP ranks second (to IBM) in the global electronics sales arena and as the world's largest consumer of electronic components (spending more than $10 billion on semiconductors in 1992, according to a recent market report from iSuppli). Last month, the company held a New York press conference to roll out "Big Bang II," its largest-ever launch of consumer electronics. With a theme of radical simplification to help people "enjoy more," the company says this mega-suite of new products is designed to "easily bring digital photos, music, and video to life in new and enriching ways."

But if you build it, will they buy? HP certainly thinks so, and so do I. Here are my top picks from this mother lode of innovations:

  • The first consumer eight-ink photo printer with studio-grade photo paper: HP claims it surpasses traditional photo printing in image quality and fade resistance.
  • The HP Scanjet 4670 see-through vertical scanner: An ultra-thin design lets users see what they're scanning through clear glass to capture hard-to-scan items such as newspapers, maps, or books.
  • Best bet for big sales: HP DVD Movie Writer dc3000. The DVD writer's built-in analog video capture lets users transfer home video directly from tape to digital format for easily storing on a PC or disk.

HP's engineering resources are tremendous, but stakes are high with this unprecedented launch. To spur consumer spending, HP has a budget of $300 million for consumer advertising.

Still, if a tsunami of new technology from an industry bellwether doesn't convince you that good times are returning to the consumer electronics marketplace, I've got another barometer from the opposite end of the market-cap scale—the number of cool new tech toys in the Skymall catalog I perused during my last flight.

With the ever-lower cost of wireless integration, sensors, and other components, you can design affordable, new creature comforts that are hard for consumers to resist. While none of these come from big-name electronics manufacturers, they all represent innovative engineering and a belief that consumers are ready to open their wallets and spend on fun, personal electronics.

  • A ballpoint pen that contains a digital camera/Web cam.
  • A wireless security camera with a portable handheld monitor and infrared night-vision technology. The 2.4-GHz signal transmits color video and audio.
  • A binocular/camera unit that lets users capture a digital picture of what they're viewing for easy, long-range snapshots.
  • A portable handheld fish finder: A floating sonar transducer transmits information on fish size, fish, and water depth to a small handheld unit.
  • A sonic insect trap that combines low-frequency vibration to mimic a human heartbeat, radiant heat, a "subtle human-like octenol scent," and lighted green lures "appealing to an insect's every sense."
  • A portable solar cell-phone charging system.
  • Software that enables you to use your cell phone as a wireless modem for your laptop.
  • The remote barbecue check is a wireless cooking thermometer that transmits to a remote beeper when the proper meat temperature is reached.
  • An electromagnetic pet door: Your cat wears an inductive tag on its collar, and the door automatically unlocks.
  • A clock radio with a built-in wireless camera to "inconspicuously monitor a babysitter or maid."
  • A remote garage door monitor senses and confirms when your garage door is shut. "It's time for bed. You're fairly sure the garage door is closed, isn't it? Wouldn't it be comforting to glance over and see a confirming green light on your Garage Sentry receiver?"
  • The Micro Audio/Video Bug Detector is a "tiny but powerful RF vibrating detector. It can be used as a covert body-worn detector with an included arm band... because you never know if someone is listening or watching you... until now."

To readers at both HP and the little companies cranking out these cool ideas, I give my thanks for your help in turning things around. Now I'll do my part and pick up a couple of these new toys. (Say, where is that tax refund check?)

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