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[Technology]

The recession will be televised

But does anyone want to buy this year’s new flat-panel TV to watch it?

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Photo: T.R. Witcher

I am an American who believes in the power of entrepreneurship,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, during last week’s Consumer Electronics Show. He was introducing the event’s keynote speaker, Sony chief Howard Stringer, to a ballroom packed with press and exhibitors, and assuring everyone that CES, with its 2,700 vendors filling 1.7 million square feet of Vegas convention space, was a “bright spot in a tough economy.”

Stringer, with help from a somewhat reluctant Sony pitchman named Tom Hanks, was like the Wizard of Oz offering one high-tech toy after another. He spoke of dye-sensitized solar cells, sugar-based bio batteries, organic light-emitting diodes that make possible a flexible TV screen—add a touch screen and you have the magazine/newspaper of the future. There was even a picture frame/digital alarm clock/Internet concierge thingie to wake you up in the morning.

The culmination was a demonstration of 3D—with an assist from snazzy, oversized Ray-Ban glasses. As the creatives come out—first Toy Story’s John Lasseter, then DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg—to display ever more grandiose technologies, we were assured that the technology was always in the service of the story. The fundamentals of the economy, I’ve heard, are also sound.

Of course, the question on everyone’s mind was how CES would do in a down economy, and whether people still needed all the gizmos and devices the consumer electronics industry peddles here every year. Or whether the very technology this show hawks might make the show itself obsolete in a few years. Consumers want big screens, big sounds and a low carbon footprint, Stringer said, but the country has left the realm of having its cake and eating it, too.

According to a CES spokesperson, the projected attendance for this year’s event was around 110,000, down from the 140,000 who attended last year. Most vendors felt that this was an emptier show. Of course, the convention had the usual digital bits and bytes of eye candy. Across the hundreds and hundreds of flat-panel TVs and displays blazing were the usual HD images of roller coasters, mountain ranges, flocks of birds flying over wide wetlands and WALL-E. This year’s big theme, besides 3D, was thinness. Samsung claimed the world’s thinnest TV, a prototype 55-incher that’s 6.5 millimeters thick, but Panasonic also was demoing a sliver of a set.

There was digitized wall-art—beautiful animated Japanese silk-screen paintings—and TVs shaped like toilet seats, Wii messenger bags and Japanese models in turquoise turtlenecks, white mini-skirts, tape measure-thin white belts and white knee-high boots. And there was no shortage of bemused comments from passersby, my two favorites being “Dude, you haven’t even begun to experience the pain in your feet” and “This is rather nightmarish.”

Jason Goldberg with MTI, a firm that designs retail spaces for electronics, told me that this was his 21st trip to CES. Like others, he figured attendance was down—though it was hard to tell because there were always little micro ebbs and flows of people coming past his booth. But certainly, it was easier to get a cab in Vegas this year. Usually it was two hours from McCarran to the Convention Center. This year it was more like 10 minutes. Still, he noted, “Every year it’s more expensive for me to get a booth. The return on investment is harder to justify.”

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In a show with 150,000 people, there may be 30 he’s really interested in seeing. And so his display booth keeps shrinking. Three years ago it was 50 feet by 30 feet. This year it was 20 by 30. A “show like this is a grind. Physically, it’s hard.”

Nevertheless, he was bullish on the industry and believed people would continue to buy consumer electronics, even now, because they consider them necessities rather than luxuries. If their dwindling income “can buy them a single cost-effective product that gives them a year’s worth of entertainment, people are making that decision.”

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On the final Sunday, with thinning crowds that were more interested in the Eagles-Giants game than in doing business, the vendors in the North Hall selling electronics for automobiles were optimistic. Omaha-based TREO Engineering was hawking a giant International CXT truck—next to which a Hummer looks like a toy—with wheel wells so large they could (and did) fit TV screens in them. The black beast, which features 11 TV screens and 20 speakers pumping music so loud it made the doors shake (you could hear the sound of the air being moved), cost $300,000. The company also sells a tiny Jeep-looking, open-cockpit ATV that gets great gas mileage and only costs $15,000. That one’s doing brisk business.

TREO’s Mike Hudson pointed to the truck, then to the ATV. “This is porn,” he said. “That’s your wife.”

Numbers seemed down, noted Gerry McGinley, a TV display analyst from Atlanta, but some things never change, as he had been working to track down clients throughout the week. “I know that I’m running around. That hasn’t changed.”

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