The recession figures to tone down the flashiness of this week's International Consumer Electronics Show, but the lineup of innovative products likely will measure up to those of past years.
The CES product list still looks intriguing partly because startups haven't yet been hit as hard by this downturn as they were when the Internet boom collapsed in 2000. And bigger companies haven't yet had time to adjust to consumers' belt-tightening.
But most of all, competition in consumer electronics is still fierce, and innovation counts. Name-brand manufacturers still need to differentiate themselves by introducing features that keep them ahead of value-price brands.
For instance, Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. will introduce new flat-panel TV sets that provide smoother-looking action scenes, 3-D capabilities and Internet connections that can download movies, weather data and screen savers. With high-definition TVs now in many homes, Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD Group, also expects to see more high-definition camcorders and new players for high-def Blu-ray discs.
Other things to expect out of the show:
• Ever fantasize about moving things around with your mind? Mattel Inc. is going to make that fantasy come true with the Mind Flex. This toy comes with a brain-scanning head set. Concentrate, and a fan spins up to levitate a ball. Relax your thoughts, and the ball descends. For a challenge, guide the ball through an obstacle course of hoops. May the Force be with you when the Mind Flex hits stores in the fall for $80.
• Nvidia Corp., a leading maker of graphics chips for computers, will be touting $199 glasses that turn compatible monitors into three-dimensional displays, spicing up games like "Far Cry 2," "Spore" and "Left 4 Dead." The wireless glasses come with an adapter that plugs into a regular USB slot. Gaming in 3-D, with and without glasses, has been possible for years, yet has never caught on. The support of a big name like Nvidia might make a difference.
• Companies have promised for the better part of the decade to rid us of the cables snaking around the entertainment center. At last year's CES, there were a few TV sets, mostly prototypes, that could receive high-definition video signals wirelessly from a transmitter in the same room. There will be more this year, but this will be a feature only in the most expensive sets.
• An Australian startup made a splash in 2007 when it announced it had developed a technology called Memjet that would allow a home printer to spit out a color page every second. Nothing much has been heard of it since then, but the company will be at CES, showing printers that it says will be available this year.
• Stereo maker Blaupunkt will show what it says is "the first Internet car radio." It's a potential competitor to satellite radio, but needs to be connected to an Internet-enabled phone to receive audio streams.
• TV stations will be at the show to present details of their plans to broadcast signals for cell phones, in-car sets and other portable gadgets. Transmissions could start this year, but it's unclear whether there will be any compatible receiving products, particularly since the cellular carriers have their own solutions for mobile TV.
• Computer makers and their suppliers will be showing off ways to shorten boot times on computers, mostly by loading them with non-Windows software. Phoenix Technologies Inc., which makes the software that underlies many large laptop brands, will be demonstrating an operating system that boots up in 15 seconds and comes with a Web browser. Users who need other applications can switch over to Windows at the touch of a button.
• Small, cheap laptops known as "netbooks" are the hot new category in computers. Last year at CES, Asustek Computer Inc., the pioneer in the field, was nearly alone in showing netbooks, but this year it will have company from practically every other computer manufacturer.
• Intel Corp. will be showing a new version of its Classmate PC, a netbook for kids. It has a touch-sensitive screen that can be folded over the keyboard in a "tablet" configuration.
• Lenovo Group Ltd. will trot out a large laptop that looks as if it swallowed a netbook: it has a 17-inch main screen, from which a second, 10-inch, netbook-sized screen slides out. Price: around $5,000.
• Palm Inc., the maker of smart phones that has been overshadowed by BlackBerrys and iPhones, has promised a big announcement. It's widely expected to reveal a replacement for the dated software that drives Palm's Centros and most of its Treos.