Electronic Design

Video Streams In Multiple Formats At CES, But Robots Steal The Show

I'm back from another CES, and as always, it was an exciting but overwhelming event. You readers tell us CES is the number-one exhibition on your show-attendance wishlist, so hopefully a good number of you were there too. This year's gala had more relevant programming for engineers, with a Storage Vision event prior to the show and an IEEE networking event right after.

Still, bless you if you survived CES and were ready to stay on in Vegas for a technical conference. Its sheer size and overcrowded conditions make it an exhausting experience. It's hard to stay focused when you're pulled by a million and one distractions—all the cool new toys plus the razzle dazzle of Vegas. For example, between meetings I caught Brian Wilson performing in the Gibson Tent in the parking lot.

It seemed like this year more people were questioning whether the hassles were really worth it. Also, I heard it said again and again that Apple stole CES's thunder with its iPhone announcement at Macworld. (The shows overlapped this year, where in the past, Macworld trailed CES by a week.) The iPhone is certainly a very cool new smart phone, but it's not so revolutionary that it completely upstaged the megawattage of CES.

Still, the CES "value equation" did seem hampered by the fact that there was no standout announcement representing a new product category or even a leap ahead in an existing category. Most of the announcements were about enhancements to existing technologies—better resolution for HD video, 802.11n for higher-speed wireless networking (including video), HD over powerline communications, and dual HD DVD and Blu-ray players.

Note that all of these improvements revolve around video distribution, which certainly was the main theme at CES. Variations included video in cars, mobile TV for cell phones, place-shifting video to ultramobile devices and laptops, and a bounty of networks for routing video to every room of the house.

For example, Control 4 suggested in its home networking demo that the LED-lit light switches throughout a home can change color from green to red when a movie is starting to signal to everyone in the home that it's showtime!

Embedding home networking into the DVR, Motorola introduced its "Follow Me" TV with the DCT6400 series of set-top boxes that have integrated network interface modules, including the MoCA cable interface, to deliver DVR content to set-top boxes in other rooms of the house.

Even terrestrial broadcast got a new twist as RCA showed a USB teleceiver, the MPC4000, that plugs into your laptop to capture terrestrial video broadcasts and turn it into a TV and personal video recorder.

With a keynote from FCC chairman Kevin Martin, there was discussion at the show as to whether the digital broadcast infrastructure can feasibly be in place by the federally mandated deadline of February 2009. There was debate as to whether enough work crews are even available to handle the amount of tower work required for trading out digital antennas and transmitters.

When other attendees said they hadn't seen anything they thought was "the next big thing," I asked if they'd caught Honda's ASIMO robot demo. Wow, was I impressed! ASIMO can run, climb stairs, and balance on one leg, and it has an amazing array of human-like sensing and cognition programming. It's still an R&D project, perhaps 10 years from commercialization, but I'm a big believer that assistance robots will be part of our future. You can catch our Engineering TV video report on ASIMO at EngineeringTV.com.

If you don't want to wait 10 years for your personal assistant, and if you want a robot that can do more than vacuum floors, iRobot introduced its iRobot Create. This open platform lets designers add off-the-shelf sensors, actuators, and third-party electronics to the Roomba platform. It includes 32 built-in sensors and an open cargo bay with a 25-pin expansion port that lets you add additional sensors, grippers, wireless connections, computers, or other hardware.

Supported under Windows XP via serial port, iRobot Create offers a fully documented serial protocol to provide full access to sensors, actuators, and on-board scripting functionality. If one of you can help me create a robot to follow me around the next CES carrying my backpack, that would be a great help!

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