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DEMO of what may be next

'New business must be built on real market needs'

Evolution Robotics touts its personal robots as machines that can read to your children or help you learn a new language.
Evolution Robotics touts its personal robots as machines that can read to your children or help you learn a new language.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

PHOENIX, Arizona (CNN) -- Robots rock.

It's not that e-marketing strategies and enterprise portals don't. It's just that in a room full of 500 or more techies and tech journalists, a rambling little robot that can recognize the difference between a FedEx box and a box of Fruit Loops -- and can then say out loud which is which -- well, this piece of hardware commands attention.

The $995 developer's kit from Evolution Robotics used to create this stage hit is one of 65 products debuting this week at DEMO 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona. Robot building takes more than a smattering of technical skills. It also helps to have a little mechanical acumen, a little electrical knowledge; some C++ programming skills and a knowledge of the Linux operating system.

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Humming and buzzing and beeping and blinking here  for an interactive gallery of some of the items on view at DEMO 2002.

It may still be a long time before we interact with robots like the jovial housekeeping Rosie from "The Jetsons." But developer Bill Gross says the time is now for plenty of robot assignments, both fun and practical.

"Robots are great for tasks you really like," says Gross, "things like entertaining your children or helping you learn a new language. Or, for things you really don't like; putting chemicals on the lawn or doing very boring, repetitive tasks, like taking inventory."

DEMO is produced by IDG Executive Forums ( has a content-partner relationship with IDG) at the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs resort in Phoenix. And the exposition bills itself as "the conference that launches the future."

It has helped put on the map a fair share of hits in its 12-year history, from TiVo to Java to the Palm Pilot. The downturn of the United States economy and the demise of a slew of dot-coms in the past couple of years has turned this elite gathering to a back-to-basics mindset. But it certainly hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of DEMO executive director Chris Shipley.

"What impresses me more than anything when we look at the economy and we say, 'Things aren't going so well' is to see what great technology is really happening here," says Shipley, who has covered the personal technology business since 1984.

Finger on the future

Most products are not as big and bold as robots. Modern workers nursing cramped and calloused thumbs from banging on Blackberrys or pounding out text messages on cell phone keypads may want to have a look at a Digit Wireless keypad that lets you punch in numbers or letters with just one click.

The Fastap has two superimposed keypads -- one for letters, one for numbers. The target audience here is users of SMS, or "short message system" text. Developers note that 100 billion SMS messages were sent globally in 2000; they say they suspect that number will grow with fewer throbbing thumbs.

And you don't have to have Barbie-fingers to navigate this small keypad effectively.

"We measured 50 guys' thumbs in Boston to establish an ergonomic limit," says Chris Hare, vice president of business development for Digit Wireless. "So we knew size was important."

Credit compression

Another tiny piece of hardware being shown is a sort of "one size fits all" credit card from PrivaSys. The single card could replace the bank, department store, credit, debit and gas cards that stuff many a purse and wallet. And because it can't be used without the owner entering a PIN number, company officials say it's more secure than most current charge cards.

PrivaSys CEO Joan Ziegler says she expects that fewer losses from fraudulent transactions should be the incentive to get competing banks and stores to agree to share space on the same card.

Reading into it

Zinio Systems has unveiled a technology for avid magazine readers who are either constantly searching for tidbits in past issues, or given to tearing out articles to send to family or friends.

This "page turner" on the computer screen really has the look of a physical glossy magazine. That's because the entire magazine is downloaded to the consumer's computer. Quick shortcuts are available, so you can e-mail excerpts or an entire edition to others.

CEO and founder Kevin McCurdy says he expects several technology publications to be the first to use the digital magazine service, with dramatic savings expected on mailing and distribution costs.

Layers of data

A technology that can impact the lives of pilots, surgeons, and even gamblers also has caught the eye of DEMO executives. Deep Video Imaging has created a multi-dimensional desktop monitor that can display several layers of information.

The New Zealand company creates a 3-D effect, but one that doesn't require those wacky red-and-blue glasses.

Company advisor Rj Seigel says the first clients will be in the gambling industry, since casino customers are usually attracted by the glitziest displays on slot machines. But this same technology can layer information on monitors that doctors use during surgery, or that pilots rely on in the cockpit.

Wireless is winning

Nearly a fifth of this year's debut products are tied in some way to wireless applications. Prices are coming down, and demand is up for all types of no-strings-attached devices.

Shipley says economic realities have affected the thought processes of creators and technologists. These days, she says, you've got to have a plan, not just a "gee whiz" concept.

"New business must be built on real market needs," says Shipley, "not just college students hoping for a home-run IPO."

CNN's Ann Kellan has a report on DEMO 2002 airing Saturday at 1 p.m. EST and Sunday at 4 p.m. EST on CNN's weekly TV magazine covering the next big things in science, space, technology and the environment, Next@CNN.


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