Tools & Toys

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The first Consumer Electronics Show (CES) of the official new millennium, held last month in Las Vegas, had its usual share of giant TVs, but it's the microchippy small side of the business where most of the high-tech action is these days. And we're talking not just small but wearable - there were MP3 players, phones and even whole computers designed to be not only mobile but attached to the body. And in the case of these body attachments, the smaller the better.

Just how much better remains to be seen. I tried out a prototype WIA (Wearable Internet Appliance) developed by Hitachi, Shimadzu and Colorado MicroDisplay, which will be sold by Xybernaut of Fairfax, Va. The system combines a microcomputer powered by Hitachi's SH4 processor, a slick hand-held mouse and a head mount with a monocular display; I had a little trouble focusing with the display, but I was told it was a problem with the prototype device only - a standard CES line. The thing was immediately easy to understand and use, and I definitely liked it, even though I looked like a Borg.

Head mounts, it seems, are no longer the devices of geeky VR cybernauts. Instead, they're being designed for voiceover IP (Internet Protocol) phones, as heads-up displays for the financial market and as pure consumer entertainment. Olympus' head-mounted display, the Eye Trek, features two incredibly lightweight LCD screens, and the latest model, the FMD-200, provides the same field of vision as a 52-inch screen seen from 6.5 feet. The Eye Trek can be used for watching DVD movies on the plane or TV at home, and the FMD-200 supports the Sony Playstation 2.

Reflecting the 70 percent market share owned by machines relying on the Palm OS, including the Handspring Visor, the Sony Clie and the venerable Palm itself, a whole pavilion was given over to the wonderful world of PDAs. The two biggest technologies at this year's CES were clearly digital photography and digital audio, and both came together on palmtops. Canadian software company MGI debuted new software for the Palm OS that lets users transfer digital photos from their PC to a Palm device, display it and even beam the image from Palm to Palm. Franklin's e-Bookman is using a Palm-style device to offer digital books, which can be downloaded from sites like It also plays MP3 audio. As for the potential for downloading promotions, coupons and book news, the company doesn't think the public is ready for advertising quite yet. Franklin will be happy at this stage if people will simply consider the idea of reading books on a 240x200 pixel screen. Increasingly, Palm devices are featuring PC card slots that allow the addition of memory for music, pictures and wireless, which will go a long way to making the whole experience more palatable.

But above all, the future is in phones and the keyword is wireless. The real revolution is coming with the ability of PDAs to connect to the internet and to function as cell phones. In Japan, kids are already using their phones/pagers to peck out e-mails, play games and view simple animations. What's next? Video, games, web pages and full-blown, phone-based e-commerce. Along with customizable targeted ads, naturally, which, marketers can only hope, won't be construed as an invasion of privacy but rather as useful information. At CES, it was evident that there's no reason why a phone has to be any particular shape or size; in fact, they're evolving into devices that look like PDAs. 3G, the next generation of wireless telecom tech, is on the way with faster bandwidths, and plenty of companies are working on the hardware. For example, Compaq is interested in adding communications to its StrongARM chip-based iPaq devices, and Motorola has licensed Sega's Dreamcast technology for its 3G phones, which will be introduced this year.

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