GADGETS and gimmicks abounded at last week's consumer-electronics show in Chicago. Thousands of new products were exhibited by a growing industry that is projected to sell $56 billion worth of goods this year.
One company boasted a telephone replica of Tyrannosaurus Rex that rings with a dinosaur-like roar; one called ``Quacky II'' that looks and sounds like a duck decoy; and one modeled after Star Trek's spaceship USS Enterprise, which rings with a ``red alert'' siren.
Another firm advertised a handgun-shaped remote-control device called ``Gunvertor,'' which operates with a pull of the trigger. ``It's a fun way of changing the TV channels,'' says promoter Danny Nigris, waving the pistol-shaped device. ``And you don't lose it behind the couch.''
Novelties aside, the huge array of video, audio, computer, and other products displayed seemed designed to offer people electronic alternatives to almost any activity imaginable, even - temporarily - life itself.
``You are transported to a computer-generated world,'' says David Brisbee of VictorMaxx Technologies, demonstrating a large, black headset plugged into a computer. ``You are reacting to a computer screen, but your mind and body think it's the real world.''
The headset is called the CyberMaxx and costs about $700; it covers the eyes and ears, enabling the wearer to watch and hear three-dimensional videos and video games run by a computer. When the wearer moves his head, his field of vision seems to shift. The headset comes with a joystick for moving the vantage point back and forth and ``for shooting,'' a colleague of Mr. Brisbee explains.
Based on technology used in flight simulators, the headset immerses the user in a ``virtual reality'' so captivating that it should not be worn for more than 20 minutes at a time, Brisbee says.
``It takes a while to readjust'' to the real world, he says. This reporter, however, found the slightly blurry video game picture, tinny music, and sagging headset more tedious than transporting.
Many products at the show, like the CyberMaxx, seemed to be designed to appeal to people's desire to escape reality and fantasize about living another life.
Companies today offer a wide variety of electronically programmed alter egos for people to ``experience'' vicariously. Why spend another day as yourself, if you can pretend to be an official working to save a city from disaster? Or an astronaut on a space-walk? Or a king's servant in medieval Europe?
Companies pitch such programs by saying they let people ``interact'' with computer-generated fantasy worlds. But in ``interacting'' with the technology, individuals also are isolated.
Exhibitors at the show promoted many electronic devices billed to enhance and systematize old-fashioned pastimes such as playing cards or baseball, as well as daily routines like checking the weather and caring for children.
Why play cards with a friend when you can skip the deck-shuffling and conversation and play with your personal computer? Capstone Software, a firm at the show, invites consumers to ``choose from over a dozen computer opponents, all with their own personalities and skills'' for gin rummy, hearts, crazy eights, and other card games.
And why step outside to gauge the weather, sensing the changes by looking skyward and feeling and smelling the air, when you can just glance at your BA-212 Electronic Home Weather Forecaster?
Oregon Scientific Inc. makes the $90 forecaster, which measures barometric pressure to provide a 12- to 24-hour weather forecast that is 75 percent accurate, the firm says. The device provides indoor and outdoor temperature readings, the time, and an alarm that warns of a possible storm when barometric pressure falls sharply. The alarm beeps until the weather improves.
For parents who have trouble monitoring their children, there are electronic babysitting devices.
The Sitta, from Cameron Enterprises Ltd., sounds an alarm when a child leaves a 15- or 36-foot safety zone, alerting parents ``to look for the child,'' a brochure says. Priced at $50, it includes a transmitter to be worn by the parent and a receiver that is pinned onto the child. The alarm also sounds if the child falls into water.
Another exhibitor, IDI Enterprises, bills its babysitting product, Childlink, as ``ideal for busy shopping malls.'' ``No more leashes!'' says IDI sales vice president Gregory Shaw, as he demonstrates the Childlink.
Tired of talking to your children? IDI also sells a new product that will record messages up to 20 seconds long and repeat them relentlessly when a child walks into its 15- to 20-foot range.
`` `James, put your toys away! James, put your toys away! James ....' The possibilities are endless,'' says Mr. Shaw enthusiastically, holding up the golfball-sized motion sensor and recording device set in a plastic stand.