For the past three days, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas has been showing off acres of them: the latest in televisions, stereos, cellular phones, and video games.
Often, the improvements are incremental; sometimes, they're technological leaps. This year was no exception. One company showed off the world's smallest FM radio (it fits in your ear). Others hawked wristwatch pagers. And then there were these black goggle things.
''Have a nice trip,'' a woman's voice told the dozen or so convention goers who had strapped on the goggles. ''See you on the other side.'' The other side, it turned out, is virtual reality -- a long-promised technology that is finally making its way into the consumer market.
Using the goggles of Virtual i-O Inc., viewers saw a three-dimensional collage of real-life video and completely made-up worlds. In one of these, a cartoon snake struck out at viewers; in another, viewers sailed through a series of rings.
''I see this greatly enhancing the fun people can have playing games, whether they're video games or PC games,'' says Greg Amadon, president of Seattle-based Virtual i-O . ''And from there, I think it goes into computing.''
Mr. Amadon says he envisions laptop computers becoming in a few years very small keyboards with people using goggles rather than flat-panel displays.
If wearing goggles seems a little too weird, consider the ones Vidtronics Corporation is selling. The glasses, like those that three-dimensional moviegoers used to wear, give depth to big-screen television. ''It's not true 3-D,'' cautions Frank Iaconis, marketing director for the Royal Oak, Mich., corporation. But the viewer does perceive that the background seems farther away than the foreground. Because the 3DX system is optical, it works for any movie or TV show, but it requires a projection television set.
The cost? A mere $529 to $749, depending on whether the television is rear- or front-projection technology.
For about $1,000, the videophile can pick up Fuji's Photo-Video Imager FV-7. It's a camcorder that works like a scanner. Users can capture images, slides, and even three-dimensional objects onto their computers. Since the FV-7 uses the video standard, it could conceivably record short video clips as well as still images. The intended audience is professional photographers, says Tony Sorice, optical products manager for Fuji Photo Film USA, in Elmsford, N.Y.
Electronics shows such as this one usually show off toys for adults. But some companies have turned that logic on its head to make adult tools for children. One such company is Casio, whose Casio Cool division is selling electronic diaries to the preteen set.
Both the age group and the gender are new for Casio. ''Girls have been sorely overlooked in the consumer-electronics business,'' says David Schwartz, marketing director of Casio's toy division. ''Video games are heavily boys-directed.'' By contrast, about 85 percent of the market for electronic diaries is made up of girls. Last year, the industry sold more than 1 million of the juvenile diaries, Mr. Schwartz adds. This year, he says he hopes it can double the figure.
In fact, the technology may be a little too good, because it allows a child to send messages to another diary user up to 30 feet away. ''We recognize that teachers are concerned about this,'' Schwartz says. ''On the other hand, these are products that are designed to organize kids' lives, keep kids in tune with their day. And we think, in the long run, it's a net positive.''
While children are becoming more knowledgeable about electronics, many adults are still scared of the technology, especially computers. Recognizing this, the industry is trying to shed its technical image with a more consumer-friendly one, which explains the growing presence of computer software and hardware companies here. The biggest announcement toward that goal came from Microsoft Corporation, which Saturday unveiled new software called ''Bob.'' The program aims to make computers simpler to use by offering cartoon figures that give users step by step advice.
In testing thousands of novice computer users, Microsoft has found that they enjoyed personal computers best when an expert was guiding them through a task, says company chairman Bill Gates. ''Bob'' attempts to recreate this social aspect of computing. ''We are just at the beginning of the social interface,'' Mr. Gates adds.
Anything to make the computer friendlier is welcome, since the computer itself is moving into more and more industries. Two months ago, Timex unveiled its $129 Data Link Watch, which comes packaged with PC software. Users track their appointments, phone numbers, anniversaries, and so forth on their computers. When they're ready to go somewhere, they hold the Timex watch face about 6 inches from the screen to load the computer material into the watch.
''For someone who wants to stay on schedule and have phone numbers right at their wrist, it's a very handy device to stay organized,'' says Michael Barcello, business development manager for Timex.
Oh yes, it tells time too.