What's new in the fast-moving home electronics field

Digital audio tape (DAT), liquid crystal color TV (LCTV), portable video camcorders, and digital video cassette recorders (VCRs) were some of the much-discussed items at the International Winter Consumer Electronics Show, which ended here yesterday. This twice-yearly ritual of the Electronics Industries Association (EIA), representing the $30 billion audio, video, and home information products industries, also presented new variations on old themes: more ``surround sound'' audio and audio-visual home entertainment consoles; smaller, slimmer, and sturdier compact disc players; more designer colors in everything from ``boomboxes'' (portable stereos) to typewriters and telephones; and an unprecedented range of options in digital stereo equipement, and remote-control television.

``One thing's for sure,'' said Frank Myers, incoming EIA vice-president, ``we are a country of extremes. We like things that are very small or very large.'' As evidence of the new trend toward ``video-to-go'' liquid crystal TVs (miniaturized sets using quartz crystal) Mr. Myers said, ``Just look at the streets of New York during last season's Mets games.''

To sample the newest equipment, 100,000 people spent four days here examining 1,400 exhibits. Since the show was so large - spread over many halls and various hotels - and the number of exhibitors so extensive, the directory was the size of a thick paperback. The show included a vast array of slick, microphoned presentations, fast-talking public-relations representatives, and stacks of brochures from which to sort out claims.

The one major new-product introduction here was digital audio tape, a spooled magnetic medium for storing audio information in digits, much the way compact disks (CDs) do. Eighteen Japanese companies had presented prototypes at an October fair in Tokyo. Here in Las Vegas, Sony and Onkyo were the most talked-about exhibitors. There is still much to be resolved about DAT before equipment will be seen in stores, industry watchers say. This includes:

Price. Recorders are expected to cost between $1,200 to $2,000. Even at the low end, that's more than CD players when they first hit the market, after which they saw only slow growth until prices came down below $500. Price of tape was anticipated to be high, as well.

Marketing. No manufacturer has said when components and tapes will be available, though Sony's Al Gordon said the evolution of CDs started the same way: in exhibitions, about two years prior to market placement.

Copyright laws. CD manufacturers are reportedly concerned that DAT recorders could become cheaper than CD players, or that owners could pirate digital sound off the airwaves. The Audio Recording Rights Coalition was here trying to coalesce industry support against such measures. ``There's no doubt the record industry will inspire one or more restrictive proposals this congressional year, much in the way they wanted royalties on taping of LPs off the air,'' said Allan Schlosser, communications director of EIA. The latest tactic, Mr. Schlosser and others point out, is the proposed placement of a microchip device on both audio and video recordings that will prevent duplication.

Among the other products that caused excitement:

``Direct-view'' (as opposed to projection) large-screen, color televisions - increasingly seen in 30-, 31-, and 35-inch models - were shown by a number of makers. A 31-inch model from Panasonic, for example, was priced at about $2,000 and will be in stores next summer. Mitsubishi's $3,500 35-inch was considered extremely crisp and clear for its large size.

The new digital VCRs, which enable a viewer to watch up to four different screens at once or scan channels while tuned in to one channel.

Perreaux audio equipment. Exhibitors remarked about this New Zealand manufacturer's exceptional design of basic tuners as well as stunning digital sound produced on Signet SL-100 speakers.

Samsung's 4-mm camcorder was one of the most-mentioned innovations in the video section. The firm has added a new recording format to the 1-inch, -inch, and 8-mm versions already available.

The Fisher VTMK-30 television, with which owners can superimpose messages, telephone numbers, and important dates onto the TV screen while watching a program.

Other industry firsts include the Konica Color 7 copier, which reproduces any color of an original in one step. A complete wet lab inside the console produces the copy in 5 minutes. Ninety more are possible in 60 minutes. And Houston Tracker Systems has released its ``microprocessor controlled integrated receiver/descrambler'' for satellite antenna dishes. The device performs all the functions (decoding, antennae positioning, and receiving) previously done by three separate devices.

In his keynote speech, incoming EIA vice-president Frank Myers presented a manufacturer's perspective on the dizzying growth in formats for recording and playback - a picture of belt-tightening, executive turnovers, and company mergers as the industry tries to cope with the rapidly changing market.

``In spite of the troubles and turbulence,'' he added, ``we remain heartened by the fact that the people out there are still in love with our products.''

Boosted by a sales surge in the last quarter of the year, both volume and gross revenues were up. Anticipating more competition from home modernization and auto industries in 1987, Myers said manufacturers must figure out ways to make profits keep pace with sales volume. That volume is expected to increase to $35 billion at the retail level this year.

Dick Lewis, president of Newmark & Lewis in Hicksville, N.Y., one of the fastest-growing electronic retailers, gave this perspective: ``Customers currently regard [electronic retailers generally] with low esteem. There is need for a less adversarial climate. ... We must speak to our customers of the quality and excitement of ideas in what we sell, not its price.''

Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina spoke briefly, noting that decisions of the new Congress will have great bearing on the future of recording devices of all types.

Commenting on the show and echoing a point often heard here, industry observer Lawrence Ingram, a writer for the Howard H. Sams Co., said, ``I'm not bowled over by anything [as being] dramatically new here. This is an industry of evolutionary refinements - smaller, slimmer improvements here, innovations there.''

One approach that is being rethought in the consumer electronics field is the distinction between office and home equipment. In 1986, more than 23 million homes contained some sort of office, and 10,000 small businesses came into being each month. An increasing number of suppliers are aiming squarely at this home-office, small-business market for telephones, telephone systems, computers, printers, modems, calculators, photocopiers (including new, portable, hand-held models for less than $500), answering machines, and facsimile machines.

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