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Open Source Strikes Again

OpenmokoApple's iPhone announcement on Tuesday managed to capture most of the early buzz at CES, but no one was happier with the announcement than OpenMoko's Sean Moss-Pultz, the brainchild behind the Neo1973—the world's first open-source consumer mobile phone. The way Moss-Pultz sees it, the iPhone will do two things: get Americans to expect more from their mobile phones, and get them used to paying for them on their own, rather than getting them free through rebates from carriers—two ideas that the rest of the world have already adopted and which Moss-Pultz sees as key to the life of his brainchild in the U.S. market.

Making its official U.S. debut here at CES, the Neo1973 (built by FIC, a prominent Taiwanese electronics manufacturer) is a feature-rich smartphone with a touch-screen interface, a 266 MHz processor and a built-in GPS module, all running on an entirely open platform called OpenMoko. "Open" meaning its source code is available to anyone, clearing the way for the world's millions of Linux programmers to create applications for the phone—applications which will be made freely available to non-geeks via an intuitive application manager. It's similar to the way the Nokia 770, featured in our November issue, managed to leverage a community of programmers to ensure exciting feature additions long after most similarly aged devices had become obsolete.

So not only will Neo1973 users have their choice of GSM carriers, they will also be able to run exactly the types of applications they want. Only need Internet-based apps like a web browser, RSS reader and email? No problem. Rather turn your phone into a portable media machine, complete with an eBook reader and video player? Just grab the apps you need, all for free. It's an exciting concept for the mobile market, one which has historically valued locked-down control over an easy user experience. Look for that to start changing when the Neo1973 becomes available next month. —John Mahoney

VoIP + Mobile Phones = Savings

Image096_2As expected, Voice Over IP devices had a big presence at this year's CES. As paid services such as Vonage and those offered by cable companies nationwide continue to gain market share, more Americans are getting used to the idea of paying drastically less for long-distance and international calls.

An exciting overlap developing here in Las Vegas is the pairing of VoIP—a service most commonly used in the home—and your everyday mobile phone. One such device which has managed to slip under the radar—likely because it is still without a U.S. distributor—is the Qool SkyCube, a Singaporean import that acts as a bridge between your PC-based Skype service, your landline and your GSM mobile phone (like those from T-Mobile or Cingular) via a SIM card slot. Enough acronyms for you?

Image097 Basically, the SkyQube is a device that's built to always ensure you're using the most inexpensive phone service possible. If you're at home, you can pop your SIM card into the 'Qube and redirect your incoming calls through Skype, saving precious cell minutes. If you're traveling internationally, pick up a cheap pay-per-use domestic SIM card and have all your calls forwarded, again saving roaming and long distance charges. The device also supports text messaging, allowing you to send it an SMS instructing it to place a potentially expensive international call via Skype and have it call you back with the connection.

Image098 The bigger mobile players also have this overlap in mind. As more high-end phones are equipped with wi-fi, using cheaper VoIP services when a free wireless network is available will undoubtedly become more common. A dual-mode phone from D-Link (left), available in the first quarter of this year, will be able to switch between wi-fi VoIP and GSM calling with a single button click. Skype itself is expected to launch a similar phone later this year, as well as a version of its client available for Nokia's wi-fi equipped Symbian smartphones. Nokia's brand-new N800 Internet Tablet , while not a phone, will also soon be able to use a freshly-announced Skype client designed for its Linux operating system, on top of its current VoIP capabilities via the Gizmo Project and Google Talk.

Tech jargon aside, what this means for all of us down the road is greater calling freedom and, most exciting of all, a drastically lower cellphone bill. —John Mahoney

Car Porn... And Audio Systems

Ces_auto The North Hall of CES is known for its audacious displays of car audio—lots and lots of undrivable vehicles with wacked-out paint jobs, displayed with subwoofers and giant-screen televisions inside that would be guaranteed to make any driver crash and/or go deaf. One audio company exhibited a 300-lb. subwoofer that generated noise so loud that the convention center's Skywalk shook when it played, and we were warned to keep our videocam 15 feet away so the lens didn't shatter from the vibrations. When they actually turned the system on, a 50 Cent song came blaring out (Fitty was unsurprisingly very popular with the after-market car gadgets audience); at first I grooved a little, but when the bass-line refrain started, I crumpled to the floor in pain. The sensation was less "sound" than "earthquake," inciting a very uptight lady nearby to storm angrily out of the room to jeers of "If it's too loud, you're too old." Watch as Jonathan and I cruise the booths in Cartown, CES, in the video below. —Megan Miller


Actual Porn... And Robots

Panda One of the best things about CES is the satellite exhibition hall at the Sands Hotel, which, incidentally, is also the venue for the Adult Expo—the porn trade show associated with the Adult Video Awards, an event that for unknown reasons historically takes place during the same week as the Consumer Electronics Show. Presumably because of its couple-mile distance from the rest of CES at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Sands exhibits tend to be a bit lower rent—no gleaming giant booths displaying 108" plasmas screens in here. Instead, it's home to tacky bling-related accessories for cell phones, mom-and-pop gadget shops hawking weird inventions, robotics start-up companies, and Chinese imports. So basically, it's nirvana. Oh—and did I mention the porn stars? The cultural convergence of the sex industry and extreme geekdom at the Sands is like peanut butter and jelly. Only a lot more fun to watch. So without further ado, here's the video you've been waiting for: Future Girl and Jonathan Coulton at the Sands. —Megan Miller


Roboticists, Meet Your New Best Friend

This booth demo model is capable of sensing large objects on the floor,
and if unable to run them over, picking them up with a smart robotic

We at PopSci have always been big fans of the Roomba, the autonomous home robo-vacuum. Aside from being able to diligently cleaning your dirty, dirty floors without complaint, the Roomba has become become a thing of hacker legend. Enterprising robot fans the world over (including PopSci contributor and MAKE editor Phillip Torrone) have used its standard serial interface to make it do all kinds of tricks, from protecting your home to, well, cockfighting.

At this year's CES, the folks behind the Roomba took the original vac-bot's famous hackability several steps further with the iRobot Create—a wide-open, customizable platform for novices and serious roboticists alike. Basically a vacuum-less Roomba, the iCreate retains the original's advanced sensors, drive train and power management and adds several options for custimizaion: An on-board cargo bay with a standard 25-pin connector supports additional sensors, lights, motors or anything else you can dig up at Radioshack, and a command module accessory adds additional expansion ports and a programmable microprocessor for storing commands and processing sensor data.

At $180 for a package that includes the programmable command module, it's a powerful and remarkable affordable robotics platform sure to set many a hacker heart aflutter this year. —John Mahoney

Building Robots Just Got Easier
Roomba Rumble 

LCD's Debutante Party

Sharp1082007 seems to be the year of the LCD. In TV land, liquid crystal displays have always played little sibling to plasma technology. The most obvious form of tutelage: They have literally been small in comparison. At last year's CES, for example, Panasonic unveiled a plasma TV measuring 108 inches diagonally. Meanwhile Sharp introduced the largest LCD panel—at "only" 65 inches. This year, Panasonic was still pimping its 103-inch TV, while Sharp stunned everyone by debuting a 108-inch panel. For the first time ever, the biggest TV in the world is an LCD. Size isn't all that matters, though. Companies also introduced technologies to zap LCD's other weaknesses vis-a-vis plasma:

Sharpblur Motion video is a classic problem. Liquid crystals move sluggishly compared to fast-firing plasma pixels. So in action scenes, images on LCD sets tend to have a smeared look because the screen can't refresh fast enough. Until recently, 8 milliseconds was considered fast for an LCD pixel to turn on and off. This year LG Electronics showed off TVs with a 5ms response, and Sharp set the record with 4ms. The faster pixels allowed Sharp to double the screen speed from 60fps to 120fps. Philips and Samsung also showed off 120fps sets. Demos of panning video with the old and new technologies made the improvement clear.


Contrast ratio is another weakness. LCD screens usually can’t produce dark tones as well as plasma, because some glow from the fluorescent backlight always leaks through the screen. With grayish blacks, the ratio of light to dark is reduced, and LCD images lack the depth found on plasma. But Sharp claims its new TVs hit a contrast ratio of 15,000 to one by dimming the backlight as needed. Plus, the faster pixels can shut down all the way before switching to the next frame of video. Samsung bested this performance by using a grid of light-emitting diodes as a backlight. It can selectively brighten or dim the lights behind different parts of the screen to deepen shadows and brighten highlights. With it Samsung claims a 100,000 to one contrast ratio, and its side-by side comparison of old and new technologise was dramatic. But Sharp doesn't take that lying down. Using undisclosed technology, it demonstrated a prototype TV that hits a million to one ratio.

SonyxvLEDs are also expanding color. Until recently, no TV could produce all the hues called for in the US television standard, but plasma came closest to 100 percent. With LEDs instead of fluorescent bulbs behind their screens, LCDs are now beating plasma and going beyond the old TV standard. In fact, Sony is backing a new system called x.v.Color that takes advantage of the newly expanded color gamut. LG and Samsung are also bringing out LED-illuminated LCD sets. —Sean Captain

If Only It Were Eight Inches Bigger

Ces_tv Oh, the indignities of being a flat-screen TV purveyor. Each year companies guess and plan and read tea leaves and pray, trying to find that magic number of inches that will make one brand’s giant lightbox gianter than that of its competitors, in time for the CES pissing contest. Last year, plasma screens outperformed LCDs, with records for the largest of the former hovering around 100 inches and the latter somewhere in the 70s.

So design engineers for Sharp, Panasonic, LG, etc. gambled big in ’07, increasing LCD screen sizes by up to 30 inches, and then crossing their fingers. CES lore has it that the big-screen market race is so intense that companies—not knowing what their competitors will bring to the table— often create posters in advance of the show proclaiming things like “World’s Largest TV,” which they keep ready to unfurl in the event that their claims turn out to be true.

What I want to know is, what is it like to be the guys who get beat out by just an inch? Or, perhaps more humiliatingly, who get beaten by a full eight inches? That is, in fact, what happened this week to the poor fellas at LG, who proudly trumpeted that theirs was the “World’s First” 100-inch LCD TV— an impressive piece of equipment to be sure, don’t get me wrong—mere hundreds of feet from Sharp’s 108-inch LCD. Okay, maybe it was first in that the LG booth got set up before the Sharp booth or something, but still: Ouch. I imagine the feeling must be akin to being Kobe Bryant and having your wife leave you for Manute Bol.

In the video below, Jonathan Coulton and I talk to the winners—and more entertainingly, the losers— of CES 2007’s battle of the big screens. —Megan Miller


Ask A Booth Babe

Ces2 How well do the hired guns and gun-ettes at CES know their spiels? Are the Vonage girls in the Fanta-colored minidresses just pretty faces, or are they shrewd and highly trained sales people? We sought to find the answers to these and other burning questions today as we roamed the halls of CES, checking out gadgets both lame and cool (standouts in the latter category included Samsung’s Bluetooth TV and Ion’s iProjector—both fully pimped in the video below). Oh yeah: and we also good-naturedly heckled the hawkers. 

Seriously, we didn’t have much else to do. MacWorld’s earth-shattering iPhone announcement stole a lot of Vegas’s thunder today, so much so that the CNN guys wandered around bored during a two-hour production break in which CES reporters’ services (including my own) were no longer needed due to a glut of stories rolling in from San Fran. In fact, maybe it’s just me, but there seemed to be a generalized feeling of ennui at the show, as if all the surprises had dried up till tomorrow and we might as well do eff-all in the meantime. Which could explain how Jonathan and I ended up testing horse-riding ab machines and drinking beers outside the show on a grassy knoll. Well, on second thought, we probably would have done that stuff anyway. Watch the silliness in the video below. —Megan Miller


Meanwhile in San Francisco...

Dsc_0182 In true Apple fashion, Steve Jobs and co. annually ditch the biggest electronics trade show in the world in favor of their own party, Macworld.  The strategy seems to be working out just fine, because today most everyone here in Vegas is talking about the much-ballyhooed and now bona fide iPhone, and with good reason: This phone is hot.

As expected, it's a phone. It's a video iPod. It's an Internet device. It's a mobile OS X computer. And it's beautiful. The sleek phone is all screen, featuring an adaptable touch-based interface that, if anything like the iPod's ingenious scroll-wheel, promises to change the way people control their mobile devices. And beyond the interface, the iPhone packs in practically every high-end mobile phone feature and more: Wi-Fi, EDGE data capabilities (via Cingular, Apple's exclusive partner through 2009), full iTunes integration including CoverFlow, free push email from Yahoo, a Google Maps application, and, well, the list keeps going.

Playing second fiddle is Apple TV, the living room media box announced last September which also debuted today. But it's clearly the iPhone's day in San Francisco. And judging by the amount of people here in the press room watching Steve Jobs's keynote on their laptops, it's the iPhone's day in Las Vegas, too. —John Mahoney

Asimo's Pimp Shuffle

Honda's Asimo demos on their North Hall stage have been drawing large crowds, likely full of people hoping to see the bipedal 'bot take another tumble. Monday's demos didn't come through in that respect, but the gathered onlookeres were instead treated to a different spectacle: Asimo's "running" capabilities. While it may look like a child astronaut urgently needing a restroom (or a child astronaut who has mastered a sort of fast-motion pimp walk), Asimo's four-mph jog—in which both feet leave the ground for a brief .08 seconds at the height of the stride—is nonetheless a pretty amazing sight. —John Mahoney

Check out the little guy warming up and then making the dash below:



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