THE consumer electronics industry still has its share of fishbowls made to look like bubbly sculptures, clocks with faces of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, calculators, camcorders, computers, karaoke systems, and cellular phones. But this year, the industry's focus is not so much on individual products as on digital paths that can make electronic products and systems work together.
Hundreds of the manufacturers and distributors who displayed their wares at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show at Chicago's McCormick Place last weekend hope those digital paths will combine to create vehicles for the "information superhighway."
Consortiums of hardware, software, and communications vendors are emerging. They look forward to the day when a distributor or retailer can provide the "installed base" that might guarantee a consumer market for their product or service.
"We will work with vendors that prove they have the installed base out there; it's that simple," says Robert Botch, president of US Gold in San Francisco, a subsidiary of Center Gold Ltd. of Birmingham, England. Consumer electronics goes high-tech
By the end of 1994, Mr. Botch says, his company plans to support a new hardware "platform" called the REAL (Realistic Entertainment Active Learning) Interactive Multiplayer. It involves a consortium with three vendors: 3DO Company, Panasonic Company, and American Telephone & Telegraph Company. For game playing, 3DO's REAL consortium promises to bring compact-disk technology to the consumer's home television, providing more realistic, three-dimensional graphics.
In a booth next door, another San Francisco firm, PF Magic, takes advantage of an agreement between AT&T and Sega. The system allows two young rivals to play video games on Sega Genesis equipment "across the country or across the street," and talk over headsets at the same time, says John Scull, PF's managing director. The Genesis "box" and the AT&T hookup are expected to sell for about $500 apiece.
The 3DO consortium is not restricted to games, says Trip Hawkins, 3DO's president. Mr. Hawkins says his company has licensed its technology to more than 300 vendors, 92 of whom already are developing software products for the system. Besides games, interactive software is aimed at education, movies, sports, and information, as well as categories called "simulation" and "family."
The machines, made by Panasonic, will appear on store shelves in October, just in time for the Christmas rush. The system is expected to retail for $600 to $700. More than just a game
The other major consortium announced in Chicago has more potential appeal for the business person than for the average consumer. Tandy Corporation, Casio Inc., and Palm Computing among others have developed the Zoomer, a personal digital assistant (PDA) device.
It acts as a calendar, an address book, a communications device, and a notebook that accepts handwriting done with a stylus "or even a chopstick," says John McDonald, Casio's president. The Zoomer also provides translations in 26 languages, retrieves reference material, and records financial transactions for the business person dealing with travel expenses.
The pocket-sized PDA, weighing less than a pound, is designed to connect to an ordinary personal computer using Microsoft DOS as an operating system. With a modem, Zoomer will be able to communicate with "E-mail" systems, faxes, computers, and other PDAs, consortium executives say.
John Roach, Tandy's president, says the Tandy version of the Zoomer will be in Radio Shack stores by October, selling for $699. The Casio version will be available at about the same time and at about the same price, Mr. McDonald says.