No matter whether the economy is up or down, whether the electronics business is booming or flat, somebody somewhere is coming up with new electronic toys.
This year is no exception.
Manufacturers at the recent Winter Consumer Electronics Show showed off new gizmos from high-tech head sets to car-navigation systems.
The trend for big electronics conglomerates is digital with a vengeance.
Digital televisions should make the biggest splash. After years of promises about high-definition television (HDTV), manufacturers should release the first models late this year, with large-screen projection sets that are clearer and brighter than today's projection TVs. Here in Las Vegas, the big electronics firms displayed huge 61-inch projection screens that beat out smaller, regular sets for picture quality.
Telephones get digital updates, too, with built-in display screens. And new wireless, digital phones sport computer-like screens to send and receive e-mail.
Hand-held computers, meanwhile, are becoming more telephone-savvy. They're able to pick up and deliver e-mail wherever you happen to be.
It's smaller companies, though, that really push the envelope with everything from a language-translating "pen" to a 360-degree television.
Here's a sampling of some of the innovative gadgets destined for store shelves this year:
American Technology Corp., which last year came up with the world's smallest radios, has done it again. To keep up with your favorite FM station at the pool, clip on the handy FM Sounds 150. Special ear-plug jackets keep the water out even underwater. Due out in March.
For years, companies have been selling devices that turn electrical outlets into phone jacks. Now, Phonex Corp. has taken the next step with Web Jack, which boasts twice the signal strength of the company's original product. It is capable of handling Caller ID as well as 28.8 and 33.6 kilobit-per-second modems. Insert one module into a phone plug and an electrical outlet in one room, plug the other module into an outlet elsewhere of your choice. The Web Jack will carry the phone signal through your electrical system. The device should be especially handy for laptop users who want to browse the Web in rooms without phone plugs as well as owners of satellite TV and Internet-over-the-TV devices (who rarely have a phone plug near the TV set).
Atomic clock radio
Do you want to be accurate to within a second every million years? Emerson's AM/FM atomic clock radio does just that. Several times a day, it receives the federal government's official time-keeping signal from Colorado, with the exact time and date. Since the government stepped up the signal late last year, everyone on the US mainland now can be on atomic time.
Weather emergency monitor
This hand-held unit from Oregon Scientific automatically seeks the clearest and closest weather-alert broadcasts by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The broadcast combines local forecasts, weather-related travel conditions, and severe-storm warnings, plus alerts from the US Emergency Alert System and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The unit sounds an alarm when an alert is broadcast. It's designed for hikers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts and comes equipped with a compass and temperature display.
Portable Internet appliance
There are plenty of electronic organizers out there, some of them Internet enabled. But Ultradata Systems, a small St. Louis company, is poised to unveil an organizer with one-button access to Internet e-mail. Besides the calculator, address book, and other typical features, PalmNet comes with a choice of monthly services. For $8 a month, E@sy-Mail lets users get e-mail, stock- quotes, weather, news, and sports scores. For $10 a month, PalmNet forwards e-mail from your other Internet accounts. Available in May.
Can't decipher that Spanish word in a newspaper story or menu? With Seiko's innovative Quicktionary, just highlight the word with a special pen-like device, and it scans it into its memory and searches a 400,000-word vocabulary to provide the translation. Works from English to Spanish and Spanish to English. Coming soon: units that can translate between English and French, German, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, and Korean. A unit that gives English definitions for English words is also planned.
Low-cost electronic organizer
Royal, the old typewriter company and now a division of Olivetti, plans to market a full-featured organizer at a slimmed-down price. The da Vinci Pro includes an electronic address book, a calendar/scheduler, and a calculator. One delightful option: a fold-out keyboard for easy data input. The $150 da Vinci Pro Plus sports a larger screen and a cradle with data-synchronization software, so users can exchange files with their personal computers. Available in early summer.
Don't fiddle with that joystick! Strap on the UR Gear headset and get ready to control the action with a nod of your head.
The elaborate headset translates head movements into joystick directions. It comes with stereo headphones and a microphone for games that are voice-enabled. There's an additional four-button device for further controlling the game. Fits a personal computer's serial or game port. Available at the end of February.
You can ontrol when your children watch television and what they see. Using the new federal V-chip standards, Tri-Vision is coming out with its new V-gis line of TV monitoring units.
Parents can block out certain hours, movies according to their ratings, or TV shows according to that industry's new ratings. The system works with over-the-air, cable, and satellite systems as well as laser-disc and the new digital versatile disk (DVD) players. Price ranges from $80 to $140. Due by May.
TV in the round
For folks who like to sit around the TV - literally. E.S.P. Electronics is developing The 360. The cylindrical display uses mirrors to project an image 360 degrees. A prototype shown here allowed passersby to walk completely around the set and see the same image. But the picture flickered noticeably. The company says its second-generation machine will eliminate the flicker by turning faster and, in the third generation, use electronic rather than mechanical means to display its picture in the round.
The first sets are aimed at conference centers, educational institutions, and advertising promotions. The company hopes to reduce the size and cost, so high-end consumers can bring the technology into their homes. Due out this spring.