A Futuristic House Leaves The Jetsons Behind

At every Consumer Electronics Show, a few products emerge that make jaws go slack, that open new doors of technological possibility, that turn the meekest soul to thoughts of robbing banks so that he (and it usually is a “he”) can afford the wondrous new widget.

Three exhibits stick out at this year’s show, which wraps up today in Las Vegas, a city that is itself a huge mirage in the desert.

The first is a house. Built specially for the occasion, in the outdoor parking lot of the Stardust Hotel, by architect Sarah Susanka, designer Steve Easley, and techno-mavens Sandy Teger and David Waks, it’s a prototype of the house we might all live in someday, a house that hums entirely on broadband.

In the utility room, next to the familiar box of circuit breakers, is a much bigger box crammed with fiber optics, modems, and Ethernet wire—a “structured cable system” that runs throughout the house, connecting dozens of ports and sockets to a vast, single network.

Reading a brief description of the house, I expected to walk into a lunatic asylum of “Internet refrigerators” (which automatically order more eggs and milk when you’ve almost run out), “smart microwaves” (which execute recipes stored on a Memory Stick), and—that ultimate cliché of futurism—videophones. Such products do exist (and were on display elsewhere at the CES), but, as a child of the ‘60s, I tend to dismiss the market appeal of consumer goods that were featured on The Jetsons.

To my delight, the Stardust house (which will remain open to the public through the end of the month) contains none of these silly items. Instead, it’s a tangible, practical, and surprisingly appealing fulfillment of a trend, which I reported on Friday, that dominates this year’s show—the growing connectivity and interchangeability of all consumer technology. In other words, anything you can do with a PC, a TV, a camera, a video recorder, a DVD player, an MP3 player, or any other device that handles digital data, you will soon be able to do with all devices that handle digital data. And since more and more information is encoded digitally, you will soon be able to record, download, store, transfer, and play back everything, everywhere.

Another remarkable thing about the house is that all its high-tech gizmos are currently available. The house is awash with Media Center PCs (of which Gateway and Dell make several models), which can function simultaneously as high-definition televisions, HD digital video recorders, DVD players, music players, and Internet-connected computers. (It seems nearly inevitable that, a few years from now, all PCs will be Media Center PCs.) The house also has a few Digital Media Adapters, which look like wireless base stations and which route data from one part of the network to any other part. There’s also a device made by Audiotron that searches every PC in the network for audio files, creates a unified index of their contents, and transfers whatever you feel like hearing to your hi-fi system.

Generally, this sort of stuff doesn’t excite me. My own (limited) home wireless network repeatedly breaks down; I don’t do banking online; I still like to spin vinyl LPs. But the Home by Design Showhouse, as it’s formally called, does have me panting a bit.

The second highlight of the show is a $12,000 high-definition digital light projector made by Samsung. I plan to write more tomorrow about the state of HDTV and home theater. But this projector, called the SP-H700A (available later this month), is a breakthrough product—not only for Samsung, a mass-market South Korean company that generally doesn’t take stabs at state-of-the-art, but for the entire industry up and down the price line.

The projector, which (as its name would suggest) is a small box that throws images onto a screen in your living room, is designed by Joe Kane. Kane is a legendary figure in the high-end TV business, disliked by some as an arrogant self-aggrandizer but respected by nearly all—including most of those who can’t stand him—as the man who pretty much devised the standard for gauging the accuracy of a TV set’s colors and who wrote the guidebook on calibrating a set to make the colors as “true” as possible.

This is the first time a large TV manufacturer has turned to Kane for help; it’s not likely to be the last.

DLP, which stands for Digital Light Projection, is a technology invented and aggressively marketed by Texas Instruments. Nearly every TV company is making DLP displays—in the form of flat-panel monitors, rear-projection TVs, or (like Kane’s) front-projection TVs—as competition to plasma screens and LCDs (liquid-crystal displays). DLP, LCD, and plasma each have their strengths and weaknesses, but all of them are inferior to top-of-the-line applications of the old-fashioned cathode-ray tube—especially in those areas that Kane figured out how to measure: the accuracy of colors, the smoothness of contrasts, and the level of detail. (DLPs, LCDs, and to a lesser extent plasmas decisively beat the CRT only in their ability to cast images on a very large screen.)

I have seen several amazing CRT projectors in recent years. They tend to be huge machines that weigh hundreds of pounds and cost up to $75,000, in some cases more. The Samsung SP-H700A costs a fraction of that price; it’s small and light enough to carry with your hands; and—herein lies its greatness—it tosses up an image that looks a lot like that of the bulkier, costlier CRTs.

In high-def TV circles, Kane’s projector has been the buzz of the show. Many observers, including industry executives, have said they had never seen a DLP projector that looks so good, that displays such realistic colors, such a smooth gradation of contrasts, and such sharp detail. (I would agree.) Since it is manufactured by a giant corporation like Samsung, which enjoys vast economies of scale, one can reasonably predict that it will apply Kane’s methods in some measure to cheaper DLP sets as well, and that competitor companies will respond in kind. As a direct consequence, the standard for “affordable high-definition television” may be poised for a dramatic leap.

The third great pleasure of this CES took place in almost a different astral plane from the frenzy of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Across town, at such small hotels as the Alexis Park, the St. Tropez, and the San Remo, a separate branch of the show goes on, devoted to the equally but more sedately loopy enterprise known as High-End Audio.

This is what has long attracted me to CES: the gaggle of cottage-industry firms that build stereo equipment—speakers, amplifiers, CD players, and turntables (yes, a lot of them still make turntables)—with such dedication, delicacy, and indifference to cost-curves that, in the best instances, they make recordings of music sound like the real-live thing.

A dozen or so listening rooms offered fine respite from the Convention Center’s zoo. Most satisfying was the Halcro room. Halcro is an Australian company that makes amplifiers. The amps are very stylish looking. They cost from $18,000 to $40,000. And they are as dynamic and pure-sounding—especially in the high frequencies—as any amp I’ve ever heard. David Pope, Halcro’s proprietor, had several amps hooked up to Wilson Audio’s MAXX speakers ($42,000 a pair). He played Telarc’s surround-sound CD of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, performed by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony. Occasionally, he turned on a Nagra D2 reel-to-reel machine and played analogue master-tapes of orchestral concerts (recorded by ace engineer Peter McGrath). And sometimes, you could easily imagine you were there, where the music took place—something that can’t yet be said of watching a car chase or a love scene on even the finest home-theater or wireless interconnect.