2007 promises heaven for gadget freaks


As Moore’s Law, or something like it, continues to drive down the cost and size of electronics, increasingly sophisticated technology will find its way this year into consumer electronics products of all kinds. If you’re a gadget freak, fasten your seat belt and hang on. It’s going to be one hell of a year.

The year of gadget Wi-Fi

Home PC users have become extremely comfortable with Wi-Fi in the last five years. Connecting at home through a Wi-Fi connection is old hat. The new game in town is Wi-Fi for gadgets, especially media players, cameras and TVs. Consumers will increasingly demand Wi-Fi in gadgets for the convenience, power and flexibility of being able to zap media around without hassles and without adding to cable bloat.

If nothing else, Microsoft’s new Zune media player will drive demand for Wi-Fi in handheld gadgets. People already share music, videos and pictures, so why not do it in math class or at Starbucks rather than waiting until you get home? It’s only a matter of time before the first Wi-Fi-enabled iPod hits. When that happens, Wi-Fi will become a must-have feature of media players for many users. New media players this year will not only connect peer-to-peer, as the Zune does, but also link to the Internet directly, like a PC.

Right now, only an exotic minority of digital cameras sport Wi-Fi connectivity, including the Nikon S7c, Nikon Coolpix P1 and P2, Nikon D2H, Kodak EasyShare One, Canon PowerShot SD430, Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and others. Look for these cameras to become more popular and new cameras to emerge with Wi-Fi capability. Wi-Fi lets you offload pictures to a nearby PC — or upload them to the Internet — without hunting for a USB cable or risking the loss of your tiny media card by removing it from the camera.

Wi-Fi in media players and cameras? Absolutely. But TVs?

Three years ago, a smattering of Japanese companies came out with what they called “wireless TVs” — small LCD displays that received their content from a base station connected to cable. Those products never went anywhere. At press time, however, Samsung planned to release its new HP-TS064 Plasma TV, which features Wi-Fi, at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

The Samsung uses Wi-Fi in a totally different way from the old “wireless TVs.” It doesn’t get its regular TV signal over wireless, but it can connect to your PC over Wi-Fi, so you can watch YouTube videos or other Internet- or PC-based content, such as photo slideshows, on the TV.

The year of the mobile trackball

This year, the trackball will become the hot input device for mobile gadgets, especially smart phones. For a decade now, mobile devices have employed rocker dials, scroll wheels, thumbwheels and other input technologies for navigating menus, moving cursors and controlling various features.

Suddenly, however, two of the hottest brand-new devices — the T-Mobile Sidekick 3 and the RIM BlackBerry Pearl — are taking older devices to school with their super-fast mini-trackballs. The smart phones use them for everything from camera zoom to ripping through icons and menus.

In 2007, the trackballs on these gadgets will influence the entire industry. Look for trackballs to show up on a lot more phones, as well as media players and other devices.

The year of the media cell phone

Will Apple announce a media-playing cell phone in 2007? If so, will it be called the iPhone? And will it be popular?

Our predictions: Yes, no and sort of.

The Apple phone may be announced at Macworld, and may ship in 2007, but it won’t be called the iPhone. That trademark train has already left the station. (More likely branding: the iPod Phone.)

We’re predicting that it will not be a runaway hit like the original iPod was, mainly because it’s not 2001 (when the original iPod shipped), and it’s not the media player market, which was easy for Apple to dominate. The mobile phone market is mature and jam-packed with awesome devices that have in many cases built strong loyalty among users. Still, Apple is Apple, and the phone will do pretty well.

More importantly, the move will make the world safer for media-playing cell phones.

Most of the better phones these days play music, but consumers are slow to change their behaviour for several reasons, including iPod brand loyalty, weird pricing and downloading schemes promoted by the wireless carriers — and habit. But Apple’s entry in this space will accelerate the pace of adoption across the industry and give those who have invested heavily in iTunes media a phone to play their files on.

The year of face recognition

Face-recognition technology will be red-hot this year, and will show up in a growing number of consumer products and services, including digital cameras, online photo search engines and biometric security devices.

One of the most exciting new features in an increasing number of consumer digital cameras this year will be face recognition — or, more accurately, face detection. Artificial intelligence software onboard these cameras knows the difference between a human face and other objects in the shot. When you press the “face recognition” button, the camera favors faces for focusing and auto-exposure. Face detection is currently available in the Canon PowerShot SD900 Digital ELPH, Fujifilm Finepix cameras and others. It’s a great trick, and superior for casual users.

We currently search photos online based on keywords and tags; in other words, based on words rather than images. But face recognition can help us find photos of people — “show me more pictures of this guy, whoever he is” — from the massive quantities of photos online. The free Polar Rose browser plug-in employs the kind of face-recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies. But Polar Rose is a consumer search engine that combines tagging with face recognition to help you find pictures you’d never find otherwise. The technology will take off this year, and will go mainstream when Google and Flickr embrace it.

And, finally, face recognition will come into its own this year as the hottest new form of biometric security for PCs and laptops. The technology has been around for a decade, but new improvements in quality will boost its usability for consumers this year. Lenovo’s Y300 and Y500 notebooks, for example, have cameras and face-recognition software that prevents people it doesn’t recognize from gaining access to the system.

The year of the professional camera for amateurs

The longtime trend of ever-lower prices for ever-better digital cameras will continue unabated this year. A significant percentage of amateur but enthusiastic photographers will abandon “prosumer” cameras and start buying up full professional digital cameras.

We’re going to witness this year the spectacle of parents buying a 12.8-megapixel SLR digital camera with continuous drive capabilities of over four frames-per-second and professional-quality lenses to take pictures of their kids playing little league. And by the end of the year, they’ll pay as little as CDN$1,700 for these extreme cameras formerly reserved for the exclusive use of professionals and formerly costing over $11,700.

Likewise, the point-and-click snapshots crowd will move from amateur to prosumer cameras, with the amateur cameras reserved for children and cheapskates.

The year of the safe laptop battery

If 2006 was “The Year of the Exploding Laptop Battery,” 2007 will be “The Year of the Safety Batter

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