One of the most fertile areas of human imagination resides in the consumer electronics industry. No matter how weird or wacky an idea might seem, someone out there is producing it in the hope it will become the next big seller. And once in a while it does.
So here is a selection of the latest and (maybe) greatest from the recent Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:
Products under $50
Bass Fishin' - $20
Probably the closest thing to bass fishing without leaving the living room. This unit, roughly the shape and size of a parsley grater, lets you cast an imaginary line and reel it in. The little screen tells you if the lure is traveling at the proper depth. When a fish bites, the unit shakes and the at-home angler has to jerk quickly to hook his prize.
It looks like a game, but manufacturer Radica USA claims at least 75 percent of its customers are adults. It has been so popular that many mass retailers, such as Wal-Mart, are running low, but the company hopes to catch up with inventory in March. Coming near the end 1997: Deep Sea Fishin' for catchin' marlin, sailfish, spearfish, and swordfish on the open seas.
World's smallest radio - $20
American Technology Corp. offers AM and FM versions of this neat device. Based on microchips, they're small enough to plug into your ear, yet deliver all the sound anyone would need. The company's vice president of sales uses the ear clip (included) to go jogging.
SmartSwitch - $39.95
Tired of clapping to get the light to go on? The SmartSwitch from VOS Systems in San Diego lets you call out instead. Just say "lights" and the switch comes on; say it again and it goes off. The system worked flawlessly even on the noisy floor of a trade show. VOS, which is looking for distributors, hopes to have the system available in March. It's especially useful near entrances to the home, where a person with hands full of mail or groceries can call out and have the lights come on, says the company's Rick Matulich.
Products under $100
Car Stereo "Thummer" - $70
For all those drivers who like cruise controls on the steering wheel, Blaupunkt introduces a steering-wheel remote for its high-end line of cassette and compact-disc players. The seven-button device lets you tune the radio, switch to cassette or CD, skip to a favorite song, and adjust the volume with your thumb while you grip the steering wheel. The device works exclusively with Blaupunkt's Reno, Aspen, Denver, and Las Vegas models, which retail for $199 to $349.
In May of this year, the German company expects to introduce a new line of CD and cassette players that use a smart card. Plug it in and the card automatically has all your individual music settings. Take it out and thieves won't be able to make the system work (which should discourage them from taking it in the first place).
Safetywear light-up vest - $65
Extra protection for anyone working at night. Besides the traditional high-visibility orange coating, these vests are ringed with a flexible orange light tube that blinks when you turn it on. Requires two AA batteries that operate about 200 hours. Small size fits most people up to 150 pounds. (Regular size at $80 fits larger people.) Manufacturer Buddy Products in Green Oaks, Ill., says it will be available in stores soon (Call 800-886-8688 for retailers).
Voice Clock - $75
Billed as the first voice-recognition travel alarm, this palm-sized gadget lets you set the time using your voice. Want to set your alarm without punching a whole lot of buttons? This handy model (available only through Brookstone) lets you talk your way through all the features. And once the alarm goes off, you can yell at it to turn it off. (Just don't try to set it in noisy environments, where even yelling didn't seem to work.)
Products for $100 to $500
Classic car radio - $159-$399
For the enthusiast who wants a vintage automobile but not vintage sound from its radio. Custom Autosound in Anaheim, Calif., builds its own line of radios and modifies models from Kenwood and Pioneer to fit the smaller openings of some 450 classic cars. It even has replicas for hard-to-fit cars, such as the 1959 Cadillac, which had both the volume and tuning knobs on the driver's side of the radio.
ViaTV Phone - $499
This is one of the latest crop of video telephones coming to the market. Plant the camera above your TV, hook it up to the set and your touch-tone phone, and voil - a 21st-century picture phone. Well, almost. The video is still fuzzy and does not handle movement well. But if you absolutely, positively want to see the grandchildren 1,000 miles away, this is a product that can do it. From 8x8 Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif.
Navitel TouchPhone - $499
One of the best of the new Internet telephones that will be coming to market later this year. Its promise: Anyone who can dial a telephone can use the Internet. Besides the traditional keypad of a touch-tone phone, the unit includes a full keyboard and a screen that allows users to activate many of the functions simply by touching the screen. It's probably best suited for people who really want to use electronic mail without having to learn how to use a computer. Slated to be released in May or June by Navitel Communications, Menlo Park, Calif.
Products for big spenders
Sound Immersion Chair - $5,975
For the person who wants home-theater sound without all those speakers plastered around the room. Modernica International, a Los Angeles furnituremaker, hides 14 high-quality speakers in its chair. The company will sell models in fabric, breathable leather, or mohair, but it can also cover the chair with the material of your choice (as long as it doesn't muffle the sound of the speakers). The chair won't replace full-scale home theaters, but will appeal to people in smaller spaces who still want the experience. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're going to spend big money to furnish your very own home theater, you might as well make it comfortable for everyone in the family. That's why First Impressions Design and Management of North Miami, Fla., is marketing theater seating specially designed for children three to nine years old.
Smaller than the company's adult-sized seats, the CineMiniLounger includes a built in cup holder and candy tray. It has a tab on the bottom of the recliner so a parent can activate the recliner in case Junior can't. Comes in faux leather, so spills are easy to clean.
These seats are part of a home-theater installation, which typically starts at $50,000, not including the electronics.