Technological Glitz and Digital Glam

With its massive crowds, rows of flashing lights, come-ons from booth babes, and constant promise of something new, something exciting, lurking around every corner, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) managed to out-Vegas Vegas itself. It even found a fitting neighbor—where else would an endless show for techno-geeks be happening right next door to an adult entertainment expo? Attendees from two shows crossed paths in the lobby of the Sands convention center and—apart from the obvious porn stars in lingerie and pasties—were distressingly difficult to tell apart.

A bit lower on the va-va-voom scale was Bill Gates, who gave a keynote speech on the show’s opening day. Though CES has been the site of some spectacular debuts, Gates merely demoed a new Windows interface whose most significant feature seemed to be a glass “frame” for each window, a la Apple’s brushed titanium frames. Still, Gates received a hero’s reception when he took the stage—flashbulbs popped, people cheered. It was a marked contrast to the crowd’s response when the Microsoft CEO brought pop star Justin Timberlake onstage to introduce Windows’ new music downloading features. Timberlake probably hasn’t been so coolly greeted since his pre-boy band days—a murmur of polite clapping and nary a camera flash. Google’s Larry Page received an even wilder welcome than Gates when he rode in on Stanford’s DARPA Grand Challenge-winning robot car, but he gave a low-key presentation and deflected questions about the company’s rumored plans to produce a low-cost PC for the US market by bringing out an always-on Robin Williams to co-star during his presentation and Q&A.

In many ways the 2006 show was about design. There were few blockbuster new technologies on display—most of the big names were showing cellphones, mp3 players, PDAs, cameras, and TVs that at first glance didn’t seem all that different than what you’d see on a walk through Circuit City. Instead, companies were touting subtle refinements and redesigns, sleeker cases, and more intuitive interfaces. We’ve gathered a few highlights from the showroom floor:

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