Advances, not inventions, at CES

Although it’s one of the largest displays of new gadgets in the world, the Consumer Electronics Show was missing the technological breakthrough of past years. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.

While the four-day gathering, which ended yesterday, didn’t usher in a new product category like last year’s digital audio players from Sony Corp. and Philips N.V., Hollywood got an early glimpse of what its movies and characters will be playing on next Christmas.

Some of the early contenders for interest were:

o Sega of America’s Virtua VR, a pair of glasses that gives the wearer a 360 -degree, full-color view of virtual reality.

“With computer-generated images, it’s not only practical but, with enough horsepower, possible to pump out two images, one for each eyeball,”said Sega’s multimedia director, Doug Glen. “The next step is a mass-market product that’s affordable, meaning under $ 200.”

Virtua would deliver 256 colors and 3-D graphics from the standard Sega CD or cartridge player onto the glasses.

Though Glen isn’t yet talking to movie companies about licensing titles, he admits the system “would be a natural for space-based special effects.” He should know, since Glen was head of LucasArts’ games division until he joined Sega last March.

Keep in mind that Sega is working on a CD game title of “Jurassic Park,” in its own $ 10 million multimedia studio in Redwood City.

o Virtual Vision Inc.’s “personal projection TV.” The Redmond, Wash.-based company can project a tiny TV image onto a five-ounce set of custom glasses, using a palm-sized receiver that slips on the belt. The image itself appears to be floating eight feet away. The glasses can be used as a monitor to play back video from a Camcorder.

The TV signal is picked up by the receiver and sent to a tiny liquid crystal display mounted in one corner of the glasses’ frame. By reflecting the image into a mirror measuring less than an inch in diameter mounted in the bottom edge of the glass lens, the TV picture appears projected out in space.

The technique is borrowed from military pilots, who use this so-called “heads-up display” to see their controls without looking down.

The company looked at mounting TV controls right in the glasses, said marketing director Scott Lathe, but opted for lighter weight. The glasses, he added, should hit the market in April and are priced at a hefty $ 800 to $ 900.

o At CES’ keynote address last Thursday, IBM Corp. president Jack Kuehler raised eyebrows by suggesting that Blockbuster Corp. customers could come into any one of its music stores and buy customized compact discs on demand.

According to Kuehler, music stores typically stock less than 10,000 titles, from a universe of 75,000. Moreover, the National Assn. of Recording Merchandisers notes that 43% of record store customers leave empty-handed because a title wasn’t available.

“A store of the future could provide customers product on demand,” said Kuehler.

Customers would select music from a directory by either title or artist, and put together their own CD. The music would be drawn from a computer that had stored the music digitally for replay.

“Just think how this could cut inventory,” said Paul Mugge, head of IBM worldwide R&D for Personal Systems. “This is technically feasible and demonstrated to Blockbuster.”

IBM already is working with the giant video and music retailer. Last year, the pair introduced a kiosk at stores in Florida for customers to select videos by title, director, actor, or even genre and then be able to play a clip.

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