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Electronic Design

Looking For The True Innovations Behind CES's Tech For The Masses

It's a given that a trip to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will be a safari—the shoulder-to-shoulder convention center halls, the snaking lines for cabs, the amped-up cacophony aiming to outshine even the lights of Las Vegas.

My odyssey this year began before I'd even left the Newark airport, thanks to weather delays. One thought for a new " consumer electronic service" came to me while canvassing the waiting area and competing to plug in to one of the "free" wall outlets. Somebody needs to design airport chairs with integrated outlets (and credit card readers). If airport vendors can make a living selling coffees at $4 a pop or getting $22 for 10-minute "massage bar" sessions, then "Rent an Outlet" should be a no-brainer.

What did I see at the show itself? Editor-at-Large Dave Bursky and I posted CES highlights during and after the show. In a word, it was the year of HD video. But you'll have go online to, Drill Deeper 11879, to read our observations and see our photos.

CES retains the title of the biggest trade show in America. According to our polls, it's also the number one show you'd like to attend. If you were there this year, I'd like to hear your impressions. Spectacle that it is, the show doesn't strike me as the sort of event that inventors and engineers would always enjoy.

It's so big, loud, and crowded, the marketing glitz overrides the engineering. Still, Dave tracked down the tech behind the glam in his visits to many "behind the scenes" suites at CES. For example, he shares the advances driving digital cameras and other imaging systems in "Smaller Sensors Usher In New Year's Resolution," p. 36.

Like its host city, CES does things on a massive scale. But it seems to me that electronics designers on the whole are more interested in quality over quantity, in invention over consumption, and in understanding the best way to build something, not the cheapest or flashiest way to go.

Many of you are more interested in specializing technology for the individual. Or, you're working in fault-intolerant fields like medical and aerospace electronics. In your home electronics setups, many of you are audiophiles in the original sense of the word. You're more tuned in to the subtleties of the full range of analog recording and playback, aware that the while MP3 may be the format of the day, it lacks fidelity.

And as in the arts, the most innovative products aren't necessarily geared to the mass market. Driving that point home, I had a chance to hear Neil Gershenfeld at last month's IEDM show in Washington, D.C. As the director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, Gershenfeld tapped into the core of this passion when he launched a course at MIT on "How To Make (Almost) Anything."

His students came up with products that crossed the line between art and technology. For example, the personal scream buffer and recorder can be worn on the chest to baffle screams while digitally recording them for playback at an appropriate "release" time. Other projects included a Web browser for parrots, a dress with sensors to enhance personal space, and an alarm clock you have to wrestle to shut off. These products really would have livened up CES!

Gershenfeld believes that the killer app of the future is " personalized fabrication." It takes manufacturing out of the mass market and gives creative people the tools and the means to manufacture products that suit them. The focus on mass manufacturing, he says, has damaged the societal understanding that "making things" is the most creative of pursuits.

He has taken his theory, a belief in the future of "digitizing fabrication," out of the Ivory Tower by establishing FabLabs. This outreach project takes personalized fabrication to the hinterlands. Successes include herders in the Alps creating high-gain antennas to track their sheep via radio and villagers in India using specialized sensors to test milk for contamination.

For more on Gershenfeld's theories and FabLabs, check out his book, Fab, reviewed by Tech Editor David Maliniak at the Electronic Design Bookstore, at ED Online 11245.

See Figure

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