CES 2008: Previewing the future

January 6, 2008: 1:39 AM ET

By Michael V. Copeland

sonoro-cubo-elements.jpgLAS VEGAS - Solar-powered Bluetooth headsets, radio-controlled beer coolers, a $2,000 iPod dock, and it's hard to tell whether it's day or night. Welcome to the Consumer Electronics Show, 2008 version.

While the show doesn't kick-off officially until Sunday evening with Bill Gates' annual keynote speech, the press on Saturday got an advance look at what the world's largest electronics trade show has to offer over the next four days in Las Vegas.

If the sneak peek was a good indication, there will be a lot of floor space this year once again devoted to gadgets that connect to your iPod or some other digital music player. There are docks featuring old-school vacuum tubes, docks you can float in the bathtub, and docks that look like ladybugs. Then there is the $2,000 Bel Canto Ultra-Dock that uses Sonic Focus software and a chipset from Analog Devices to replace the musical data, and therefore the sound, that sloughs off during MP3 compression. It does sound great, but for two grand it had better.

Devices that connect to the Internet without the use of a computer are also making a run at this year's show. One of the byproducts of the ubiquity of WiFi is that now you can start connecting other things to the Internet that don't rely on a PC. The kinds of things you do with these connected gadgets are in some ways as varied as the Internet itself. Geeked-out gadgets from Bug Labs and others keep track of sports scores, the weather, the Nasdaq, or your bus schedule.

What is likely to be quite popular in the coming year are devices that stream Internet radio broadcasts to your kitchen table or office desk. Sonoro, a German brand new to the United States but popular in Europe, is launching a particularly sweet-looking Internet radio console. Sleek and jet black with a glowing dial (photo above), it would be Darth Vader's choice for sure (and priced at around $349, he could buy one for Luke as well).

It's a good bet that in the future, most electronic devices will connect wirelessly via some means -- WiFi, cellular networks, or satellite, to get the job done. That might be for gathering and sharing information, entertainment or for safety.

Spot, a subsidiary of satellite services company Globalstar (GSAT), is pushing its Spot Satellite Messenger. The size of a chubby Blackberry, the device lets globe-trotters and extreme adventurers send out messages via SMS or e-mail to let people know where they are -- whether they've just summited Everest or sailed around the Horn.

The recipients of your messages can even track your progress via a mashup with Google (GOOG) Maps. If things aren't going so well in the South Atlantic, it will send out a 911 call, every five minutes for a week. And since it uses a satellite signal, it works anywhere in the world. (Whether you can get help anywhere in the world if things go awry is another matter). All this doesn't come cheap: The device costs $170 and requires a $99 a year service contract. The tracking feature is an extra $49.95 a year.

Of course this is what CES is all about: introducing innovative technology that may not be perfect today but leads the way to the future. You can bet the Spot, or some version of it, will be smaller, faster and cheaper in six months. Screens will be bigger, headsets stealthier, and whatever gadget you have in your pocket will hold more and do more than you ever thought possible. Everyone descends on Vegas this time of year, whether they have a booth or not, because they want to see what the future looks like. Check back, and we'll let you know.

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