Latest high-tech marvel? TV sets

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LAS VEGAS -- The good news about the coolest gizmo to grace the Consumer Electronics Show this year is that you probably already own it: the television set.

Despite the mountain of newfangled mobile devices and PC-bound applications on display here, the old-fashioned boob tube has emerged as something of a retro darling. And it isn't just because such TV veterans as CBS Corp. chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves and Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Robert Iger delivered keynote addresses joined by the likes of "CSI" executive producer Anthony Zuiker and "Lost" star Matthew Fox.

What really boosted TV's profile was a spate of new high-tech solutions that wirelessly port broadband-delivered video from PCs to the average living-room set. At CES alone, Sony Electronics, Sling Media, Hewlett-Packard, NetGear, SanDisk and still others unveiled variations of PC-TV tools.

And that's not even counting the highest-profile example of new entrants into a category known as digital media adapters. From its own Macworld conference over in San Francisco, the newly named Apple Inc. introduced Apple TV, a 40GB set-top box that will be in stores next month for $299.

"It validates the space," said Jason Hirschhorn, president of Sling Media Entertainment Group. "We may have a different way of doing it than Apple, but there's room for others."

Sling Media, the company behind remote-viewing device Slingbox, unveiled a new device, Sling Catcher, that essentially reverses its core product's TV-to-PC or mobile programming flow.

The rationale for this rash of new devices is obvious enough: The explosion of video content coming to PCs, both professional and user-generated, should only grow if consumers get the ability to migrate programming to the living-room screen that typically affords the best display power.

"Think of the Internet as one big DVR, and the PC allows you to access to all kinds of material," said Charlie Raasch, senior director of product planning at Quartics, a semiconductor manufacturer producing PC2TV, a technology that enables PC-TV connections for clients including JumpTV and AddLogix.

The enduring value of the so-called "10-foot" viewing experience even influenced new interfaces from traditionally "two-foot" services like Microsoft. Its video platform, Media Center, is set up for TV-like consumption as the anchor of Vista, the company's new operating system that will be in stores Jan. 30. At CES, Microsoft announced that it already has signed up four content partners -- Nickelodeon, Showtime, Starz and Fox Sports -- to provide programming that will be designed for viewing from couch-bound distance.

Microsoft also might have the most potent PC-TV play of all in its video-game console Xbox 360. In addition to offering subscribers the ability to stream or download movie and TV programming a la iTunes, chairman Bill Gates announced at CES that Xbox will function as an IPTV delivery mechanism. With Microsoft and AT&T already working together on IPTV, the announcement raises the possibility that Xbox 360 could eventually offer optional service to AT&T's new video offering, U-Verse.

Although perhaps the least known among the PC-TV players, SanDisk caused a stir with a standing-room-only news conference to introduce its own nifty solution to this space. The Flash data storage manufacturer's new USBTV is like a Swiss Army knife of TV technology, melding a Flash memory stick and a remote control into one device that allows you to siphon digital video off your PC and then inject it into your TV via a cradle that connects to standard A/V sockets.

"There's lot of new devices moving devices from the PC to TV," said Josh Goldman, CEO of Akimbo, a video aggregator that is partnering with SanDisk to contribute content to USBTV. "But no one is doing this like SanDisk."

The trend was put in motion at last year's CES with Intel's introduction of its Viiv technology, embedded in PCs and marketed as an application that allowed consumers to easily move Internet video to TVs via wireless home networks. "We were the biggest instigators of this phenomenon last year," said Gordon Dolfie, director of marketing for Intel.

But what would a trend be without its skeptics? Critics have noted that most user-generated content already looks rough on computers and won't look that much better on a big-screen display. Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research, sounded a cynical note even before CES began, citing research that found only 20% of consumers sampled had any interest in a PC-TV device. That percentage fell to 3% if said device cost just $100.

Also, PC-TV connections won't do much for HDTV, and high-definition programming is a rare commodity on the Internet because of bandwidth issues. That could keep the cable and satellite companies breathing a little easier. Although they seemingly stand to lose most if consumers begin bypassing their services en masse for broadband content, top-shelf content like HD remains their exclusive domain for the time being.

"I see this as more complementary than competitive to what cable can do," Raasch said. "The operators aren't going away anytime soon."

The PC-TV trend also might end up being an interim solution. Computers may be a way station for broadband content in the near term, but TV sets probably will end up embedding the same delivery and storage capabilities as the PC, which could find itself cut out as a middleman.

To wit, Sony's new Bravia TV sets will have an optional feature that allows consumers to sample video programming, albeit from a select handful of Internet partners including AOL, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Yahoo! and the company's own user-generated-content hub, Grouper.

"It makes TV manufacturers very reticent how the field is moving so quickly," Raasch said. "But eventually TVs won't be dumb devices. They'll access Internet content directly."
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