Finally, Affordable Flat-Screen TVs

The ubiquitous flat screens

Las Vegas, moonshine metropolis, where feverish mortals chase silicone dreams and even the hotels gussy themselves up like whole cities—neon simulacra of New York, Paris, Venice, and Rome, jutting up from the desert like cartoon skyscrapers. What better place to hold the annual mega-fest of fantasy called the Consumer Electronics Show!?

More than 2,000 manufacturers, sprawled out across more than a million square feet, flaunt their next season’s wares before a quarter-million dream walkers—and that’s just at the Convention Center, the show’s main exhibition hall (known to denizens as “the Zoo”). In the past several years, as technology has expanded, the show has stretched to the ballrooms and suites of a dozen hotels scattered all over town. There is no way to cover it all, any more than a tourist in the capital can look at everything in the Smithsonian.

I’ll be sending dispatches from the front the next few days. For now, a bleary-eyed first-day’s trek through the Zoo indicates two major trends.

First, in the realm of television (more than ever, the show’s centerpiece), flat screens are everywhere—but the types of flat screens are diversifying. In the past two years, the show featured plasmas, plasmas, and more plasmas. This year, there are—in roughly equal measure—plasmas, DLPs, and LCDs. That’s Digital Light Projection monitors and Liquid Crystal Displays—as flat as plasmas but a few thousand dollars cheaper, and not susceptible to the dreaded “burn-in” effect. (If you watch the same channel all the time on a plasma, after a while, the channel’s logo—or, if it’s a news channel, the crawl bar on the bottom of the screen—will permanently burn in to the screen; it will always be there, at least in a shadowy form, no matter what you’re watching.)

Second, and more profoundly, in virtually all types of electronics, the emphasis is on mobility, connectivity, and interchangeability—in short, on storing and streaming data anywhere and everywhere.

Last year’s novelty was cell phones that doubled as video cameras. This year, Sony and Samsung have cell-phone/cameras that display 1.33 megapixels—and that also serve as message centers, newscasters, word processors, MP3 players, and even DVD players.

This is the new big deal: Anything that you can do on a PC, a TV, a camera, a video recorder, or a music player, or any other device that handles digital data—you will soon be able to do on all devices that handle digital data. And since most information will soon be coded digitally, it won’t be long before you can record, store, download, transfer, and play back everything, everywhere.

“One Digital World”—that’s the slogan of this year’s show. At the vast Panasonic exhibit, the gorgeous models who recite the preposterously technical scripts purr on about “the Panasonic lifestream” and “the vision of a ubiquitous network.”

Slogans like this, of course, sum up what’s been the guiding dream of giant multimedia companies for the past decade. But this year’s show marks the first time that the dream is tangibly on display in real-life merchandise. With these gadgets, the scattered strands of bits and bytes are forming an all but seamless web. Convergence lives.

Microsoft (which owns Slate) exhibits a torrent of goodies based on this theme. Read the table of contents to its show guide: “Transferring Music to Your Pocket PC Using Storage Cards. … Transferring Music to Your Pocket PC or Smartphone Using ActiveSync and Windows Media Player. … Taking Pictures With Your Pocket PC or Smartphone. … Transferring Videos to Your Pocket PC or Smartphone …” and so forth. This isn’t mere talk. On display are as many as a dozen products for each function.

Just last year, Sony took a gigantic leap forward in the quality of its TV monitors and projectors; the feat was the talk of the show. This year, Sony’s display uses these fabulous monitors as mere vehicles to exhibit a new wave of products designed to transfer sounds and images from one kind of storage medium to another.

Other companies are showing high-definition televisions with built-in tuners, so you can watch HDTV without ordering a special box from your cable company. DVD recorders, including wireless recorders, are now made by so many companies that the items are given a separate area of floor space.

The trend is so prevalent, so overwhelming, that products having no connection to the trend seem tired. One company has an exhibit of wall-mounted atomic clocks. This would have been very cool even a year ago. But this year you can get Greenwich Mean Time, automatically adjusted for whatever time zone you’re in, on a cell phone. Now that’s cool.

It’s not clear whether this new world is an entirely good one. Privacy is becoming a more slippery commodity. So are intellectual property and copyright laws. Companies small and large are selling rippers and burners of various sorts. If something’s been digitally stored, it’s getting cheaper and easier to duplicate. And what happens to the concept of “public space”? Will people with these gadgets move about in their own infotainment bubble, oblivious to the social life around them? (This was a concern about the Walkman when it first hit the market a quarter-century ago—overblown, as it turned out—but the bubble made possible by these new technologies is far more vast, self-contained, and impermeable.)

Whatever its impact, the trend is real. And it’s totally fitting that the trend is unfolding here in Las Vegas, the city that is, boastfully, a bubble all its own.