COMDEX: Funky gadgets compete for audience's attention

How about a friendly robot to babysit when you go out? Perhaps you fancy sending a rose-scented e-mail message to your loved one? Or how about wearing your PC around your waist?

          How about a friendly robot to babysit when you go out? Perhaps you fancy sending a rose-scented e-mail message to your loved one? Or how about wearing your PC around your waist? This year's Comdex has no shortage of funny, clever, and sometimes, seemingly useless gadgets.

          Among the devices, it is definitely the robots who are attracting the most attention on the floor show here. Sony's robot dog Aibo is making another appearance here again this year. Visitors to Comdex, who were testing the robot pet here Wednesday, tried things like scratching it behind its ears, and stroking its back. The robot dog did respond more or less as a real dog would do; for example, it snuggled up to the hand that was stroking it.

          "If I had the money I would buy it," said Corey Kirkpatrick, who was watching the presentation. Aibo costs from US$1,500.

          Kirkpatrick, a senior IT specialist at EarthLink Network Inc. in Pasadena, California, said he would want the robot dog, because "I don't have a pet."

          "It's very cute, better than the first one -- that one that was on MTV," said Dianne Sakuda, team member at Toyota Financials in Los Angeles. "It looks like it can do more things than that other one -- look, now it's wagging its tail!"

          Others were less impressed. "I am not that interested in it," said Joakim Johansson, technical project manager at Framfab AB in Gothenburg, Sweden. "I would rather have a real dog, this thing looks like it is just for children," he said.

          Popular or not, the little robot dog is not alone out there. Competitors are closing in.

          A friendly, Star Wars-inspired, family robot called iRobot-LE from Boston, Massachusetts-based iRobot also attracted a lot of attention at the show. Unlike the toy Aibo, iRobot-LE is being marketed as a babysitter and general "help" around the house.

          The idea is that the user can be anywhere in the world and still control the robot around the house from a Web site. Via a camera, the user can see where the robot is going, from the device's viewpoint. It also has a microphone and speakers through which the operator can listen and speak. Theoretically, you can let iRobot-LE climb the stairs, look in on the kids and read them a bedtime story, even if you are a thousand miles away. Besides climbing stairs, the robot can avoid obstacles and see above table tops. The robot is for sale in the U.S. now for $4,999.

          Another much smaller product could easily have found a home as a futuristic gadget in a James Bond film ten years ago. Now, it's really no big deal. However, this small pen-like camcorder and digital camera called Aiptek PenCam from Aiptek Inc. in Lake Forest, California, created a lot of enthusiasm at the show.

          "It's great, it's small, compact and it does video as well. I am going to buy a hundred of them and take them with me back to Australia," said Syd Borg, chief executive officer of PCS Australia Pty Ltd., based in Sydney. Borg was patiently waiting in the crowd around the vendor's stand for someone from Aiptek to be free to see him. He said he was not going to leave until he had been able to place an order or get a reseller agreement with Aiptek.

          One of the more crazy products shown here at Comdex this year has got to be software that lets the user send and receive scented e-mail.

          Oakland, California-based DigiScents Inc. claims to have developed a technology that makes scents digital. It's a new programming language that transforms scents into a digital form and then back to scents again, according to DigiScents.

          The user has to connect a device called iSmell to his or her computer to be able to smell their e-mail or use click-and-smell Web services for example. ISmell is a peripheral device that attaches to the serial port of a PC and can emit smelly vapors. ISmell draws on software called ScentStream that synthesizes the scents. The user can buy a digital scent index called ReminiScents, which comprises thousands of scents that can be fed into a computer and sent as e-mail for example. According to DigiScents, this new technology could be used to sample groceries and perfumes before purchasing them online or to send and receive scented e-mail.

          Fancy telling your TV to turn down the volume without having to pick up the remote control? Or telling your CD player to change the tune without touching it?

          VoiceTel Systems Inc. is showing here a prototype of a hands-free remote-control unit that is controlled by the user's voice. The user can order the unit to pick up a ringing phone and take a message, and in the future, it will be able to control household devices and alarm clocks. According to VoiceTel, the user can soon plead with their alarm clock for just a few more minutes of sleep.

          Aimed at the nuclear family, 3Com Corp. is touting its Audrey gadget here. Audrey is a device that is supposed to reside in the kitchen and keep track of a family's whereabouts. It features e-mail functions, a Web browser and a calendar. It also lets the family members scribble messages to each other on the screen in their own handwriting. In addition, Audrey features a type recorder and loudspeaker to send and receive recorded messages.

          Another cool gadget shown here at Comdex is the Magic Stick, a pen-sized device that is a combined scanner, mouse and PC pen. It is developed by Swedish company C Technologies AB.

          Xybernaut Corp. is showing its wearable PC here at the show. The user can wear the computer around their waist, for example. The PC is touch or voice activated.

          Sony can be reached via the Web at http://www.sony.com/. Aiptek can be found online at http://www.aiptek.com/. iRobot can be reached at http://www/irobot.com/. Xybernaut can be found online at http://xybernaut.com/. DigiScents can be reached at http://www.digiscents.com/. C Technologies can be found at http://ctechnology.com/.

          [Note to editors: Images for this story can be found in the News Service's Image Bank.]

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