Jeff Gelles: Consumer Electronics group's 'Best of Innovations' award focuses on 'viable products'

An industry affiliate looking over the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 LTE at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 11 in Las Vegas. It can be hard for new devices to stand out in a crowd.
An industry affiliate looking over the Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 LTE at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 11 in Las Vegas. It can be hard for new devices to stand out in a crowd. (Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)
Posted: January 12, 2012

LAS VEGAS - Browse for consumer electronics on the Web or stroll through a large retailer like Best Buy or Microcenter, and you can see how tough it is to grab attention in today's crowded marketplace.

That's one of the key challenges facing thousands of innovators and entrepreneurs flooding the casino capital this week at the gigantic Consumer Electronics Show. It's not enough to develop the most amazing new tablet, laptop, smartphone, camera, or whatever device you've dreamt up. You also have to vie to be noticed, or trust that cream will eventually rise.

Even some of the biggest players have fallen on their faces - as Microsoft, the giant of Redmond, Wash., has repeatedly demonstrated. The newest Windows phones and the promised Windows 8 operating system - whose "Metro" user interface will superimpose the Windows 7 Phone "Live Tile" innovation onto an entire range of digital platforms - may mark a turn in those fortunes.

Microsoft has connected in the past, as it did just a year ago with Kinect for Xbox 360, the body-as-game-controller interface that enjoyed a record-breaking product launch. (It's probably no surprise that Microsoft plans to introduce Kinect for Windows on Feb. 1, or that it touts a future where shows such as Sesame Street will be available in interactive form. Your kid, too, can throw a coconut to Elmo without a mouse or joystick.)

One early clue to Kinect's success came at last year's show, where it won a "Best of Innovations" award from the event's sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association.

The group tries to screen out products that really aren't ready for prime time, says research director Shawn Dubravac. Among its rules: A product should have been released since last April 1 or due to hit the market before this coming April 1.

Dubravac says it also weighs practical considerations: "We try to focus on viable products rather than products that are hopes and dreams five years away."

That hurt some of the year's most awe-inspiring products, such as the Samsung 55-inch OLED television - the acronym stands for "organic light-emitting diode" - one of the best-of-CES finalists for the tech-obsessed website CNET.com.

"It's very thin, it has fabulous colors, great viewing angles," Dubravac says. "But it's cost-prohibitive. Even if that product hits the market this year, it'll be $8,000 or $10,000." He expects OLED's time will come, but projects that even by 2015 the screens will still represent just 3 percent of the market.

So with those standards in mind, what captured the eye of this year's CES judges? You can find the whole list at http://go.philly.com/cesbest2012, but here are several examples:

A smartphone-tablet twofer. The judges call the Asus Padfone "a breakthrough product," and I have to agree. If this hybrid works as planned - and if wireless carriers cooperate - its Android smartphone will dock inside a 10-inch Android tablet, so the two can share a single 3G connection.

The Padfone has been rumored for months, and is expected to arrive in February with Google's latest mobile software, Android 4.0, also known as "Ice Cream Sandwich." No word yet on price.

Wrist-band health monitor. Mobile monitoring of vital signs is a focus of many technology innovators at CES 2012. But the Best of Innovations award chose only one such device, the Basis band, which monitors your heart rate without a chest strap while tracking other health factors such as how mobile or sedentary you are.

Dubravac says one tester used a Basis to chart his stress levels on his calendar, enabling him to see which meetings were most problematic. I probably wouldn't want one as deadline nears.

A "learning thermostat." CES says the Nest learns your preferences, programs itself to keep you comfortable, and guides you to energy savings. As spokeswoman Kate Brinks explains it, the device will notice, say, that you get up every morning at 6:30 and immediately raise the setting.

A potential drawback: Brinks says the Nest doesn't recognize that you'd probably want the furnace or boiler to fire up a few minutes earlier, so your house is toasty before you rise - an easy task with a conventional programmable. Maybe that will come with version 2.0?

Custom-fit earphones. Sonomax Technologies' eers, 14 years in development, adjust to your ears' shape in four minutes, CES says. Poorly fitting earphones are a problem for runners and others who listen on the go. Sonomax isn't the only company claiming a solution, and this isn't its first attempt. But CES, finding "incomparable sound isolation, fidelity and comfort," was listening.


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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