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It's gizmos galore in Vegas

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012

LAS VEGAS -- Handsets that listen and respond and make Apple's new Siri digital assistant look like a pretender.

Cars with steering and motors all built into the wheels, so that the passenger compartment is for work or play, and the whole thing collapses for parking in tight spots.

Foldable, flexible display screens -- or a world where you won't even need to bring a device with you at all because you'll find connectivity everywhere.

All week long, tens of thousands of inventors, entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and writers are clogging Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, looking for what Michael Lewis, at the tail end of the 1990s technology explosion, labeled "the new new thing."

Vying for the title this year are "Ultrabooks," very light notebook computers that build on the popularity of the MacBook Air, along with tablets of every shape, size, and operating system. So are products that marry technological features in novel ways, such as LED lightbulbs that double as stereo speakers, turning your lamps into a sound system.

Want a splash- and grease-proof Linux tablet designed for the kitchen and loaded with how-to videos for nascent chefs• It's coming this year from a French manufacturer. Who needs Julia Child?

How about a cheap, rugged tablet powered by a hand-crank and designed to bring Internet access to children in the developing world• Marvell, the chipmaker, is showing off a prototype that builds on the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

Not everything on display at CES is on the market right now, although stirring interest among distributors and retailers is a prime purpose of a gathering that this year is expecting more than 140,000 registrants from across the globe. Nor does it necessarily count as "vaporware" -- hardware or software promised but never delivered.

On Monday night, for instance, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, joined onstage by "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest, sought to woo a packed ballroom with demonstrations of Windows 8 and its smartphone and tablet companion, which aren't expected to debut till late in 2012.

But for an hour Tuesday morning, a panel of technophiles shared their thoughts of what's farther down the road -- such as the CityCar being developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and described by panelist Henry Holtzman, chief knowledge officer at the famed MIT Media Lab.

Like many advances, the all-electric car marries incremental steps in different sectors of technology that each might seem cutting-edge on its own. Together, they can seem more like a quantum leap.

With electric motors built into its wheels, the CityCar claims to get the equivalent of 150 to 200 miles per gallon of gas. Each wheel rotates independently, so it can move sideways in traffic or into parking spaces. Thanks to the folding body, three or four CityCars can fit into a single traditional spot, its developers say.

Not every advance is universally welcomed, of course. As voice controls such as Siri's advance, and as smartphones and tablets bring digital technology to younger and younger children, some worry that non-electronic skills -- even text itself -- may be endangered and commercialization more entrenched.

Additional Information:

The show

Some details about the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:

By the numbers: More than 140,000 people are expected to visit more than 3,100 exhibitors. The show spans about 1.8 million square feet of booths and exhibits, which is equivalent to 31 football fields.

Location: The Las Vegas Convention and World Trade Center and nearby hotels.

Days: The show floor opened on Tuesday and will close on Friday.

Keynotes: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer gave the kickoff speech on Monday. Other scheduled speakers include Intel Corp. CEO Paul Otellini, Qualcomm Inc. CEO Paul Jacobs and Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally.

Visitors: CES is only open to those in the consumer electronics industry. A business card or other business ID is required. The general public cannot attend.

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