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Fun and Fresh at CES

LAS VEGAS - The giant Consumer Electronics Show, which ended Sunday, ushers in a wave of cutting-edge consumer electronics and cool new ways to access your favorite entertainment. Here's a look at some of what you can expect to see this year:

Cisco videoconferencing for the home

Add Cisco Systems to the growing ranks of tech companies that see the future of the Internet on a television screen.

At CES, the Silicon Valley tech giant showed off a videoconferencing system for the home. Modeled after Cisco's TelePresence, a high-end videoconferencing system for businesses, the home version would let consumers do the same on high-definition TVs.

Trials in the U.S. are set to begin in the spring, with Verizon as a partner. Trials in France will start later this year.

"Video will lead the revolution for exciting content available on any device or screen whenever you want it," Cisco CEO John Chambers said in an interview at CES.

The emergence of Internet-enabled TVs is a big trend. An estimated 45 million TVs will be Net-enabled by 2014, ABI Research says. This year there will be 32 million U.S. households with the necessary broadband connections to support things such as videoconferencing, according to IDC.

Cisco faces competition. Leading TV makers Panasonic and LG are adding Skype, the free online-telephone service, to Internet-connected high-definition televisions. That means anyone with the snazzy new TVs, plus a Web camera and microphone, can conduct live video chats and phone calls from their couches.

The new TVs are expected in the first half of this year. "Video calling is huge, and Skype has made it mainstream," Skype CEO Josh Silverman said in an interview at CES.


Waking up: There's an app for that

Is it an alarm clock? Yes. Is it also a way to listen to streaming online music from Slacker and watch YouTube videos? Yes again.

Sony's Dash is another of those new multipurpose connected devices. Sony calls it a "personal Internet viewer," meant to reside by the night table, like an alarm clock. It will set you back $199. The units hit stores this spring.

The touch-screen Dash uses Internet widgets to bring in the best of the Web, including YouTube videos, Slacker radio, sports, recipes, traffic updates and even e-mail from Gmail. (You can read messages on the device, but you can't send them.) There's a virtual keyboard to sign in and register at websites.

Sony says you could program it to wake you up every day with the time, weather and your favorite YouTube video.

Elsewhere at CES, iHome was showing off a couple of new "app-enhanced" iPhone/iPod alarm clock docks.

They are designed to work with a forthcoming iPhone/Touch app, iHome+Sleep, that the company says could launch any time now, pending approval from Apple. When used with the new app, both products can track sleep patterns and help you gather other data about your sleep habits. They also offer customizable alarms and music settings and offer ways to interact with your social networks, the company says.

The iA5 model will be available by March and will retail for $99. The more expensive iA100, which has Bluetooth and an FM radio, will be available in late summer and retail for $199.

- By Jefferson Graham and Nancy Blair

Tunebug's headphone-free music on the go

It's not safe to ride your bike through the streets with headphones in your ears. Ditto for dashing down the slopes.

But it's so much fun to soar along, listening to music.

What to do? The folks at Silicon Valley Global think they have the solution. The company just introduced Tunebug Shake, a music speaker that attaches to the top of your helmet to beam the sound into your ears the old-fashioned way - without wires.

It turns "many 3-dimensional surfaces into a surround-sound speaker," the company says. To plug into the music without wires, the Tunebug uses Bluetooth technology to connect to MP3 players and phones.

The product sells for $119. It's a good idea, but when we tested it, the music sounded muted and hollow. Without the earbuds in our ears, the music just wasn't there.

- By Jefferson Graham

Verizon welcomes Palm Pre, Pixi

Verizon Wireless is embracing Palm's slick webOS mobile operating system. That's a boon for Palm, whose well-received Pre and Pixi phones have been overshadowed by Apple's iPhone and an invasion of Google Android devices.

Palm and Verizon's new Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus become available Jan. 25. Both have touch-screens and standard keyboards, and use Palm "Synergy" for neatly incorporating data from disparate sources into a single, easy-to-read view.

The most interesting feature: A downloadable app in Palm's App Catalog lets you take advantage of Verizon's 3G network and turn the new handsets into mobile hotspots that let you share a "personal Wi-Fi cloud" with up to five Wi-Fi-equipped devices, notebooks, cameras and portable media players.

Pricing for the new handsets will be announced closer to the day they become available, Palm says.

AT&T says it, too, will add a couple of Palm phones in the first half of the year. Palm introduced the Pre at last year's CES, exclusively with Sprint.

Palm finally opened its developer tools to folks who hope to produce apps for the Pre and Pixi. With only about 1,000 downloadable apps now, Palm has a fraction of the 100,000-plus third-party apps that have been developed for the iPhone.

- By Edward C. Baig

Control a toy helicopter with your iPhone

A new toy helicopter that you can control with your iPhone could help lead iPhone and iPod Touch games toward another dimension.

The AR.Drone (for "augmented reality"), by Paris-based tech firm Parrot, is controlled via Wi-Fi with an iPhone or Touch.

Moving the iPhone turns the helicopter or makes it go forward and backward. Buttons on the iPhone make it go up or down.

The chopper has four propellers and two on-board video cameras. One camera assists in flight, the other broadcasts video back to the device. That's where game developers could use the toy's capabilities to create augmented reality games to play in the real world, Parrot founder Henri Seydoux says.

"For the first time, you can play together with a friend like a flying ace," he says. "You pilot your copter and could shoot him in the game, and the video camera makes that connection."

Adding the AR.Drone to a game could get gamers off the couch, he says. "You are playing in your backyard in reality, you are piloting in reality. You will see that is much more interesting because you have to factor in the wind and places you can hide for real," Seydoux says. Parrot is talking to game developers who might want to use the technology. "It is a new kind of gaming platform," Seydoux says.

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