Before attending this year’s Macworld Expo in San Francisco I visited the vast Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – a simple hour and a half’s flight away in Las Vegas. The scale of the Vegas show was colossal. I didn’t really visit it as much as it engulfed me. You could easily fit ten Macworld Expos into half of CES – and so it should be, as the event’s wide-ranging remit takes in an amazing array of computing equipment, gadgets, giant TVs and entertainment systems, discs and disks, audio equipment, digital cameras, home-automation solutions, wireless, mobile telephony, GPS and security devices, smart cars, advanced sewing machines, and everything from Internet kitchens to high-tech vibrators.

There was the motion-simulating D-Box armchair, and something called the ButtKicker that pumped your TV’s booming bass through your arse. Another company very proudly showed off its motorized home-theatre drapes. There’s so much to see at CES that even the geeks didn’t have time to check-out even one of the 65,000 square feet of the Hilton’s $70 million Star Trek Experience theme-park. Despite the fact that the show isn’t open to the general public, over 140,000 attendees and more than 2,550 exhibitors crammed into CES – all competing to secure some of the consumer electronics industry’s US$101 billion in expected revenue.

With the transition to digital and High Definition TV rushing ever closer, a legion of giant LCD and plasma TVs was unveiled at CES. Of course, the sets are ever larger, and prices are tumbling. Just as I gaped at LG’s huge 55-inch high-def screen, I was floored by Sharp’s 65-inch LC HDTV. The company is billing it as the largest high-definition LCD TV in the world – until next year’s CES, that is. There were also examples of the forthcoming Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED) screens that use low-temperature polysilicon technology. Intended for future TVs, this technology improves on the response time, viewing angle, colour saturation, and power consumption of today’s screens. OLED screens are also typically 15 per cent to 20 per cent thinner than equivalent sized LCDs, as they don’t require backlights.

There’s good news for battery fiends, and how many of us don’t recharge some gadget at least once a week? Sakar International touted its new 8.5-Minute Supersonic Charger as the world’s fastest battery charger. The company says its patent-pending RD4 technology speeds charging by allowing batteries to withstand high current levels.

Some of the most advanced wireless network technologies were on display at CES, including MIMO (multiple input multiple output) and UWB (ultrawideband). MIMO is the basis of the next IEEE WLAN standard, 802.11n, which will have a minimum throughput of more than 100Mbs – twice the theoretical speed of Apple’s AirPort Extreme (802.11g).

UWB is a sort of next-generation Bluetooth – transmitting data at very low power and at an optimal range of about
12 feet, with throughput of 400Mbps. It could thus become a wireless version of FireWire, defining a method for high-speed streaming video applications.

Start-up Video54 Technologies unveiled a wireless beam-steering technology, dubbed BeamFlex, that uses software and multiple antenna arrays to direct standard wireless signals around radio interference and physical barriers.

All the big names you’d expect were at CES – with news-making keynote speeches from Microsoft, Intel and HP. In a mock episode of US TV show Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Microsoft’s Bill Gates talked again about his vision of the digital lifestyle. Unlike Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo, Bill didn’t actually have any new products to announce, as the company’s next big introduction is expected to be Longhorn – the successor to Windows XP that’s due sometime in the next couple of years.

HP’s CEO Carly Fiorina showed a video of work going on in Hewlett-Packard’s labs, including development of a coffee table with a screen built into the top. Users will run their fingers over map areas to move from street to street and likewise will skim their digits across the table top to hook together puzzles or move game pieces. Predictably, a timeline for the debut of this fanciful product was not provided.

Apple didn’t exhibit at the show, but in many ways was more apparent than any other company actually there hawking its latest shiny goods. “It’s ironic that the one vendor that isn’t here is the one that is defining the market,” said analyst Rob Enderle. “Apple’s influence on the user experience – on just making things work – can’t be underestimated.”

Alongside hordes of iPod accessories was an army of wannabe competing digital-music players. Sony’s new PlayStation Portable plays digital music files, and so should be considered a potential rival – especially as its games are rather more sophisticated than those found on the iPod...

There was a Windows PC that mimics the Mac interface. The Hip-e (even the dreadful name has Apple pretensions) is aimed at teenagers — its marketing slogan is “This is not your father’s PC”. The company openly admits that it wants to build a Windows computer that’s “as cool as the iMac”. Hip-e software hides the Windows XP desktop and organizes software into categories for music, movies and “hangout software” such as instant messaging and email. Keyboard buttons call-up online shopping sites such as eBay.

Apple’s product marketing, says Enderle, emphasizes cool and useful over speed, and this has been adopted by many of the computer companies exhibiting at CES. As it has been so many times during its lifetime, Apple is once again the inspiration for a new future of computing and technology in general. Apple was nowhere and yet everywhere at CES – so much so that Macworld Expo felt like a continuation of the flourishing consumer-electronics show rather than a niche event just for Mac users. How Steve must have chuckled when, during Bill’s CES keynote, a Windows Media Center PC repeatedly failed while showing a slide show of digital photos of O’Brien and Gates out for a night on the town. Not all Steve’s keynote jokes work, but at least his products do. MW