Hot Products at the Show
by Stephen R. Jones (June 20, 2000)
Here's an advanced look at some of the standout products we discovered at PC Expo this year:
blaxxun's Instant Community
Real characters in a virtual world
blaxxun interactive, not content to be the granddaddy of 3D immersive communities on the Web, has released a complete, low-cost toolkit, called Instant Community, designed to make it easy to put a virtual world on every web site.
Why bother making your site avatar-friendly? blaxxun believes that immersing your site visitors in an interactive, social environment will benefit the bottom-line in two ways. First, their figures show that 3D environments are nearly three times as "sticky" as conventional sites, holding the visitor's interest for around 40 minutes per visit versus 15 minutes on a 2D site. Secondly, 3D billboards are attracting unheard of click-through rates of 5% or 10 times the draw of most banner ads.
Of course, inviting your visitor into your virtual parlor is a lot easier than actually building one. So, blaxxun set out to reduce the barrier to entry with its Instant Community (IC) toolkit, a sort of world-builder-in-a-box. IC includes a Place Builder tool that allows you to lay out the architecture, decor, and furniture of the place using lots of prebuilt parts or ones you design yourself.
Your site visitors can jump right in, since no browser plug-in is required to participate, A Java-capable browser is all they need to run the lightweight (55KB) Java applet. Usually, they sign-in, select an avatar (or 3D surrogate persona), and wade right into the experience you've crafted for them. Once they get into it, more demanding users can download 3D Contact, a peddle-to-the-metal viewer optimized for their 3D accelerated graphics card.
A fully-functional, 30-day trial version of Instant Community is available from blaxxun, allowing up to 3 simultaneous users. Of course, to build a public community, you'll pay more. But, starting at $7500 for 50 simultaneous visitors, Instant Community, can scale your site from five thousand registered users and up. You then can purchase more capacity as your community demands (and budget allows) more.
Besides the draw of the 3D environment itself, another appeal of such environments is the same as any community: to see and be seen. So, when your visitors move beyond just visiting, they'll want to customize their avatar using Avatar Studio (AS), a $20 tool that lets you define your 3D persona from the ground up. Using AS you can define everything from your body dimensions, skin color, hair type, and clothing to how you wave hello. Once you've perfected your look, your avatar can represent you in any blaxxun community.
- $7500 (free, 3-user evaluation)
- 50 simultaneous users
- 5,000 registered users
- Includes: Place Builder, Avatar Studio
- body style: measurements, hair, and skin
- wardrobe: underwear, clothing, shoes, hats, and glasses
- 10 built-in gestures (hello, shrug, etc)
Dazzle Digital Video Creator II
Video production suite in a box
Dazzle is shipping the second version of its Digital Video Creator II (DVC II) hardware and software combo for capturing and producing DVD-quality videos.
The compact hardware is no bigger than an external modem standing upright on your desk. But, there's a lot of audio and video smarts within that small footprint.
For starters, the unit can sample and record mono or stereo audio at or near CD quality. Conversely, it can output edited audio to WAV or MPEG files.
When it comes to video, the DVC II can grab hi-res stills (at near 2 megapixels resolution) or capture video (at better-than-VGA resolution) from composite or S-Video input at up to 30 frames per second (fps). Alternatively, you can set the DVC II to capture video frames at regular intervals, useful for security applications, time-lapse photography, or feeding Web cams.
The included editing software makes cutting and mixing video and audio tracks together a drag-and-drop operation. You can preview your work at any time on an external monitor or TV and then go nuts adding digital transition effects and scrolling titles.
Finally, you'll want to render your edited masterpieces directly to a VCR, the Web, CD-RW or DVD-RW disks in your choice of video formats; RealVideo®, MPEG-1, or MPEG-2.
Whether you shoot techies in training videos or toddlers in training pants, Dazzle's Video Creator II appears to be a low-cost production tool bristling with the video gadgetry you need to tell your story.
- Video Formats: RealVideo®, MPEG-1, MPEG-2
- Video In: Composite and S-Video: NTSC, PAL
- Video Out: Composite and S-Video: NTSC, PAL
- Media: Create CD-ROMs or DVD-ROMs
- Audio: RealAudio®, MPEG and WAV at 64Kb/sec to 384Kb/sec
- Audio sampling: 32KHz, 41.1KHz and 48KHz, mono and stereo
- Max resolution: 720 x 480 (video), 1600 x 1200 (stills)
- Still image capture: single, multiple, or periodic snapshot modes
- Max frame rate: 30 fps
- DVD playback: Mediamatics Software DVD Player
- Requires: 400 MHz CPU, 64MB RAM, Windows 98/2000
- Interface: PCI
- Price: $350
Fujifilm's Tiny Camera
This tiny digicam can perform triple duty. While it can produce 2,400 x 1,200 still images, the FujiFilm FinePix 40I can also play MP3 files as well as well as capture 80 second AVI movie clips. I listened to the audio being played from this “camera” and it sounded great. It uses the same CCD image sensor as the 4700 ZOOM digicam which was introduced at PMA earlier in the year.
Reviews OnLine is currently reviewing it’s brother, the FinePix 1400 Zoom, another Fuji camera released this year.
3D-commerce breaks out of the box
Metatsream version 3.0 puts the reality back into virtual
The latest browser plug-in and real-time rendering technology from Metastream makes fully-interactive, photorealistic product models appear to float in front of your browser window as you manipulate them. Improvements include realist rendering of reflective or translucent surfaces. The technology gives Metastream models nearly a hyper-real or better-than-video quality.
In addition, the customer can freely "handle" the merchandise, turning and zooming in for a closer look at even tiny details. Or, the product can animate or transform itself at a click of the mouse. For instance, Metastream's site offers an example page that lets you pick the color of a VW Beetle or click a latch to open a laptop.
All this flash and dazzle would be academic except that Metastream also paid attention to your average Joe's limited bandwidth. The file format employs wavelet texture compression and progressively streamed geometric detail so that objects appear quickly then become more detailed.
Peek at Sony PDA
Prototype Under Glass
When a giant whispers, you listen. Case-in-point: Sony's much anticipated press conference about its first foray into PDA territory was arguably the most highly anticipated event of PC Expo.
So, you can imagine all the drooling journalists lapping up whatever scraps of information Sony cared to dish out. Well, we love speculative journalism as much as the next rag, so here we offer the information scraps and speculative drool from the event.
Sony is developing a Palm OS based PDA as a result of a recent licensing agreement with Palm Computing. They showed off a prototype-under-glass, as it were, and an artist's rendering (above).
Other than the OS, we learned little except that it will feature a color display, a Memory Stick(TM) slot in the top and a Jog Dial(TM) on the side for one-handed, scroll-and-select operations.
The prototype's dimensions were quoted as being 23/4" (W) x 4 1/2" (H) x 5/8" (D).
Sony also hinted (ever so slyly) at "digital imaging capabilities."
...hitting the same consumer electronics nerve as it has with the Walkman, PlayStation, Mavica.
Imagine Sony doing a PDA...
...with the same craftsmanship and clean design it has shown in its other products.
Imagine Sony doing a Palm-OS PDA...
...based on the proven, leading handheld platform with features and a form factor already embraced fervently by consumers.
Imagine Sony doing a Palm-OS PDA with digital imaging features...
...so vaguely hinted at but so full of promise.
Picking the Palm OS was a master stroke but did not require much imagination. After all, Sony was able to sit back and watch last Fall as the demand for the HandSpring Visor outpaced manufacturing capacity.
So, assume they got the design, technical specs, and manufacturing right (come on, this is Sony we're talking about), then they'll have a solid PDA contender, no doubt.
But, what special something might emerge to make this either a category dominator or resounding dud?
The one Achilles' heel could be the Memory Stick(TM) which Sony is stubbornly promoting throughout its product lines despite its sparse acceptance in the marketplace. I think they see the Sony PDA as the great integrator that bridges between their other Memory Stick(TM) products.
If they are right, the PDA will be everyone's excuse to buy other Sony products and gobs of Memory Sticks(TM). On the other hand, people might sense the lock-in strategy and decide that a different Palm PC with a CompactFlash slot offers more freedom. You can't plug a 1GB IBM Microdrive in a Memory Stick(TM) slot, now can you?
But, any downside could be trumped by other gotta-have-it factors. For instance, the Jog Dial(TM) is oh-so cool because it enables cell-phone-like one-handed operation. But, other PDA's sport similar controls or will emulate them quickly.
So, where's the zinger, the draw-dropping, killer feature? Clearly, the tease about "digital imaging capabilities" is Sony's ace-in-the-hole. But, what could that mean?
At minimum, I think it means you'll be able to pop in a Memory Stick(TM) into your Sony PDA hot from your late-model Mavica digital camera or Sony camcorder and review and/or edit your images. OK, that's a nice to have, not a gotta-have.
We've come to expect more from Sony. So, if I was to speculate what "digital imaging" features Sony's PDA will have, I'd venture this:
Consider that nearly every digital camera includes a video out port. The components for this must already be darned cheap and small.
Consider, too, that the Macromedia Flash engine has already been ported to the Palm platform.
So, my wild guess and/or heartfelt wish is:
Sony will add a video-out port and bundle lightweight presentation software with the device.
Such a bold move would simultaneously make the Sony PDA a must-have, portable presentation tool among the roadshow/sales crowd as well as among proud Mama's and Papa's showing off vacation photos.
We'll have to wait and see. But, if Sony follows its media convergence instincts far enough, the Sony PDA could be a breakthrough multimedia integrator that lives up to the hype and becomes the gadget everyone will want in hand.
Alas, the latest specs of the Sony PDA suggest that the digital imaging feature alluded to above will be the ability to play digital video. While that's nice and keeps the Sony PDA on a par with Pocket PCs, we can always hope that Sony will inject a few unannounced surprises (like my suggestion above) into the production model or a later model.
TIQIT Matchbox PC
The Walkman of PCs
Unbelievable. TIQIT is showing its Matchbox PC at PC Expo this week. The name isn't merely a cute nickname thought up by Marketing but actually describes the size of this fully-featured personal computer.
Well, perhaps its closer to the truth to say that the Matchbox PC is about the size of two stacked decks of playing cards. But, that's quibbling when you consider the features (below) packed into a mere five cubic inches.
All this engineering would be a laboratory novelty if it was a hacked together prototype with proprietary software and wiring.
Fortunately, TIQIT built the whole thing on existing PC standards, meaning that Matchbox PC plugs into many of the devices you already own (keyboard, CompactFlash, etc) and can run Linux (pre-installed) or Windows 95.
Imagine the possibilities. For example, TIQIT suggests you tote a Matchbox PC along with your LCD projector for presentations. Or, how about using it as the ultimate, portable music library for your MP3 player?
Who knows? If the history of technology has shown anything, it is that new form factors create new applications and sometimes whole industries - think Sony Walkman. Now, think Walkman-sized PC.
TIQIT's Matchbox PC might just ignite the next digital wildfire fueled by undreamed of portable applications.
Matchbox PC Features:
- 66 MHz 486-SX (AMD Elan SC410)
- SVGA display (800x600x256 or 1024x768x16)
- CompactFlash 2 socket (w/ adapter supports IDE devices)
- 340 MB IBM Microdrive
- Power: runs on a Lithium-Ion camcorder battery
- 16 MB onboard flash memory
- Linux installed
- Dimensions: 2.75" x 1.97" x 0.95" (70 x 50 x 24 mm)
- Volume: 5 cu.in. (84 cc)
- Weight: 3.3 oz (93 g)
- Price: $1,495.00 (includes port expander)
Port Expander Features:
- PS/2 keyboard
- 2 RS-232 Serial Ports (COM1/COM2), both 16550A
- Parallel Port: EPP, ECP, bidirectional
- VGA connector
- Ethernet: 10BaseT (10 Mb/s twisted pair)
- 1.44MB floppy connector
- Dimensions: 79 x 70 x 18 mm
Want to see all this page in a more compact form? View the linked version of this article. It's a smaller download than this page, and each product's information is only a link away.
© 2006 Stephen R. Jones All rights reserved.