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Benjamin Spillman

Las Vegas trade show reveals new technology

8 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- No amount of high-definition capability will turn a piano-playing house cat into Beethoven.

But a 150-inch plasma-screen set from Panasonic can make a feline Liberace a lot more entertaining.

That much was clear Monday when Panasonic President Toshihiro Sakamoto unveiled the monster set during the International Consumer Electronics Show.

The TV, some 11 feet wide, is expected to be built at a new Panasonic factory in Amagasaki, Japan, and is billed as the world's biggest flat-screen plasma.

"Can you imagine sitting at home, watching the Olympics on this baby?" Sakamoto said.

The big screen was just one of several innovations Panasonic announced, along with collaborations with YouTube and Comcast cable.

Panasonic doesn't have a date set for wide-scale production of the 150-inch TV or a retail price. But the company says it has already sold about 3,000 versions of a 103-inch plasma screen priced at $70,000.

Pairing the big screen with appearances by leaders from YouTube and Comcast helped Sakamoto emphasize the new wave of converging technologies on display at CES, the largest electronics show in the world.

To show off devices that can wirelessly link televisions to the Internet, Sakamoto queued up a YouTube video of the piano-playing cat.

People can also use the technology to upload photos directly from digital cameras to their televisions. With about 140,000 attendees and 2,700 exhibitors, there's too much clutter for CES to develop a coherent theme.

But linking digital devices such as cameras, televisions, phones and computers to each other and the Internet -- without wires -- seems to be a central feature of many high-profile exhibits.

Sakamoto, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts were fixated on a future in which people could shoot a picture or video of a piano-playing cat, project it in high definition onto a big screen television and post it online before the end of the first song.

"Technology is often seen as something that pulls people apart," Sakamoto said. "It is our vision that it should be something that should bring people together."

Besides producing bigger television screens, technology on display at the conference is making electronics faster, smarter and more pervasive.

Speakers at the conference envisioned devices much more advanced than what's available in stores today.

"It is going to involve getting around wires, it is going to involve getting around batteries and maybe even power lines altogether," said Sean Captain of Popular Science magazine during a forum on emerging technology.

Captain said technology already in production today will enable computer-human interaction that goes well beyond fingers on a keyboard or eyes on a screen.

He described "a robot that knows more about your environment than you do."

Besides providing a peek into the future, the people at CES are dealing with more mundane issues facing the technology industry.

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the group that operates the show, said trade barriers are one of the biggest threats to advancing technology.

"Free trade is critical to our industry," Shapiro said.

Besides the opportunity to import cheap electronics from Asia, free trade feeds American innovation to the rest of the world, he said.

According to the association, about one-fifth of American exports are technology related. America exports about $221 billion in technology-related trade annually, Shapiro said.

"Technology has become the shining star of this new economy," he said.

CES, which is open only to people affiliated with the technology industry, continues through Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo and Convention Center. In addition to a talk Sunday by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, the show includes an address by General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner and executives from Yahoo, Circuit City Stores and Best Buy Co.