Senior consumer reporter and "Deal of Day" columnist Kelli B. Grant traveled booth to booth at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to find the best, the worst, and the most-hyped gadgets and gizmos. Read her dispatches at Pay Dirt.
In the future, you may be able to slip on high-tech glasses that can shift lenses for reading or distance at the touch of a button. Or command your TV to find a movie with your favorite star without ever touching the remote. Then there's the possibility of sending a text to the washer to move that load of soggy laundry to the dryer.
Last week, as thousands poured into the Las Vegas Convention Center for the Consumer Electronics Show, Americans got a glimpse of the not-too-distant future. But they also got a peek a lot of products that critics say may take years to go mainstream, if they make it to the market at all. Here are ten that may fit that category.
The new emPower electronic eyeglasses have liquid crystal in the lenses, which will transform from distance to reading prescriptions with the tap of a button. Set them to automatic mode and they'll shift automatically based on the angle of the wearer's head. The catch: they don't come cheap. One pair costs $1,250, which a spokesman says is only slightly more than a top-end pair of traditional bifocals in designer frames.
The first of the smart appliances are coming to market this year. Among them, a Whirlpool line that connects to the Internet and lets householders start the dishwasher remotely or get text reminders of an abandoned load in the dryer. Prices are expected to be 10% to 20% over standard machines, says a spokesman. Whirlpool's refrigerator and dishwasher will be available in late 2012, and its washer and dryer in 2013.
For travelers who can't get Wi-Fi or from A to B fast enough, in-flight Internet provider Go-Go will soon launch in-flight Wi-Fi that's four times faster than the 3G-like speed most airlines currently offer. Prices range from $1.95 for 15 minutes, up to $14.95 for a cross-country flight. But the technology isn't fleet-wide yet on many airlines, a spokesman says, and global travelers will have to wait until 2015 for uninterrupted global service via satellite.
The remote control may become obsolete, experts say. Voice command technology courtesy of Vlingo, a start-up company, wants consumers to holler at their television to find a movie starring their favorite movie star. There are other competitors in the space, too, but it's early days for most. A Vlingo spokesman says the company is hoping to license the technology to cable providers and gadget makers who might in turn offer it to consumers.
Another angle of the growing home automation fields: appliances that learn the homeowners' habits. The $349 EverSense unit from Allure Energy uses GPS to note the proximity of the owner's Apple and Android devices and adjust the temperature to pre-set home or away settings. (A spokesman says that location data stays private.) The thermostat has plenty of competition, though, including the $249 Nest.
Docusign wants bring e-signatures to the next level: It's offering free software for creating them and/or signing initials to insert in emailed or scanned documents. The company says someday, it could be more common for parents to give digital approval for a field trip instead of trusting their child to remember the slip in his backpack. Worried about hacking? A spokesman says e-signing is more secure than a fax.
Shodogg promises to allow customers use their smartphones to send content to any web-connected TV, computer or other device, and pull content from those devices to watch on their smartphone. It also serves as a remote-control, letting them pause, ply and fast-forward. The app is just signing up consumers for alpha testing now, though, says a spokesman. It could be a while before everyone gets a try.
MasterCard is reinventing virtual credit card numbers with its new globalVCard, which includes an app and works for mobile payments. It's one of many new takes on the growing mobile payment space, and one that could work well for online shoppers leery of credit card fraud as well -- although a spokeswoman says it may not function well in stores as a plastic card substitute.
Analysts have noted the trend of consumers cutting their home phone line in favor of wireless, and innovations like Biscotti could hasten the trend. Hooked up to the TV and a home Internet connection, the $199 set-top box allows for video calls, as well as voice calling. Right now, the other party needs a Biscotti or Google Video Chat for a video call, but a spokesman says the company is exploring other partnerships.
Hackers newest target: your cellphone. Analysts say security protection software for phones is a tech area of increasing importance as consumers try mobile banking and shopping. NQ Mobile offers a new suite of free security apps for many devices, and a premium six-month subscription for $6. But different phones have different needs, says a spokesman. Right now, experts say, Andrid phones have a higher risk for malware; iOS devices, phishing.