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At CES, progress comes a step at a time

Image: A booth hostess demonstrates Spatial Motion Interface
A booth hostess demonstrates Spatial Motion Interface at the Toshiba booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.Jae C. Hong / AP
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The International Consumer Electronics Show last January was bristling with optimism, as manufacturers and software firms showed off major advancements in media systems, miniaturization and wireless connectivity.

Technology journalists oohed and ahhed over monster-size televisions, breakthroughs in high-definition TV based on plasma and laser technology, and fully functional notebook computers the size of small paperback books.

Times have changed.

The big consumer electronic debuts at this year’s more subdued CES aren’t whiz-bang computer or gaming systems. They’re innovations designed to finally meet longstanding demands in the technology already used by consumers, who are reluctant to spend big on new toys during a recession.

The unofficial theme at CES isn’t “breakthrough” or “faster” or anything to do with leaps in core technologies. It’s “green” — scores of companies are emphasizing products that use less power and are more easily recyclable.

The Consumer Electronics Association, organizer of CES, found in a survey in September that while cost and features remain paramount in buyers’ minds, “green aspects will increasingly matter.”

In the survey, 89 percent of respondents said they wanted more , clearly labeled with easy-to-use information like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star logo.

“Consumers are not being reactive but are being proactive,” said David A. Thompson, president of Electric Manufacturers Recycling Management Co., a joint venture of Panasonic Corp., Sharp Electronics Corp. and Toshiba America Inc. In other words, he said, more consumers are actively seeking out green alternatives, as opposed to stumbling upon them on the showroom floor.

Green: the official color of CESFew sets with screens smaller than 50 inches in stores today meet the third generation of Energy Star’s TV requirements, which went into effect in November. But most industry officials say nearly all of them will by the end of this year. (There is no penalty for failing to meet the standards; those that do measure up get to carry the Energy Star logo.)

Samsung Electronics Co. impressed many here with its new series of energy-efficient LED HDTVs. The company’s 6000 series of 40-, 55- and 60-inch sets reduce power consumption by as much as 40 percent without sacrificing performance, the company claimed.

LG Electronics Inc. claims that its newest sets will slash power use by half — part of what it calls its global green initiative.

At times, it seems marketing language like that is all you can hear in the exhibition halls this year. Toshiba is “demonstrating its commitment to sustainability”; Nextar Inc. is offering solar-powered hands-free cell phone kits as “the smart and green solution to cell phone driving usage”; the HD-PLC Alliance, a trade group of companies that send broadband over power lines, procalims itself “Green Ubiquitous.”

The CEA, touting this year’s CES as “an Eco-Friendly Electronics Show,” is dedicating an entire program track, with six sessions over three days, to “Technology and the Environment.”

It’s a tough message to get out to consumers, who may only vaguely understand what Energy Star is (a set of government standards that is different from product line to product line), never mind the two dozen or so other green logos that manufacturers can claim from governments, activist groups and trade organizations. The documentation backing up such rankings is often non-existent or buried deep in a corporate Web site.

John Frey, manager of corporate environmental strategies for Hewlett-Packard Co., said consumer technology companies were doing a good job of increasing the energy efficiency and reducing the carbon footprint of their products. The everyday consumer, however, has little idea how much progress has been made, because “the challenge is making the consumer aware at the point of purchase,” he said.

Jeremy Arditi, president, a shopping portal that aggregates consumer products that meet its standards for environmental awareness, said retailers were “seeing a consumer that is knowledgeable in this space.” But even knowledgeable consumers can’t make good choices unless the data are “right next to the size of the monitor” on the product display, he said.

Breaking the battery barrierBatteries remain a weak link. While most are now recyclable, many can’t be reused. And because newer devices demand so much energy that they can irretrievably wear out a battery after only a few hundred charging cycles, the need for longer battery life is as much an environmental concern as it is a key to consumer satisfaction.

“The market is in demand for more and more energy,” said James Prueitt, vice president of engineering for MTI MicroFuel Cells Inc., which is working on making fuel cell technology small enough to work in tiny devices like cell phones.

As devices suck more power from standard lithium-ion batteries to fuel more internal components — think of wi-fi and Bluetooth radios — “the number one complaint is the battery dies by midafternoon,” Prueitt said.

Energizer Battery Co. is promoting what it touts as a legitimate breakthrough with a zinc-air cell called Prismatic, which it says promises much longer battery life and greater design flexibility for makers of small devices. Instead of generating electricity by the chemical reaction of two substances packed internally, such as lithium and cobalt oxide or lithium and iron phosphate, zinc-air cells draw one of their main components — oxygen — from the air.

The technology, which packs significantly more energy density into a battery with little known environmental impact — isn’t new; it’s been used in hearing aids for decades. But researchers have struggled to make the form fit energy-intensive consumer electronic devices.

Energizer claims to have solved that problem, which would represent “one of the holy grails of the industry,” said Ross Dueber, president of ZPower Corp., which is promoting a rival zinc-silver battery technology.

But zinc-air cells still face a big hurdle: They’re not rechargeable, at least not without physically replacing the spent zinc in the battery. As a result, “I don’t see it anywhere in the short term,” said Dueber, who said zinc-silver cells were a better bet because they could be recharged.

Manufacturers of consumer devices say they’re desperate for something to give customers a full day’s use from battery-driven products.

“We’re in a crisis” when it comes to consumer devices, said Jerry Hallmark, manager of mobile-device energy systems for Motorola Inc. “We have to make the devices more efficient,” he said, as much to protect the environment as to serve consumers.

Still plenty for the tech-headsAll that green talk isn’t to say CES is short on the shiny new machines that traditionally draw tens of thousands of gawkers:

  • OLED-A, a trade group of companies developing super-high-definition Organic LED television screens, showed off a prototype of a foldable active-matrix OLED display, or AMOLED, created by Samsung. “Foldable” means just that: You can close it up on itself like a book.
  • Fujitsu Consumer Products Inc. promoted its recently announced Lifebook N7010, a laptop with two screens. The second screen pops up from the top of the main screen to provide iPhone-like multi-touch functionality.
  • After miniature projectors for mobile devices small enough to fit in your pocket emerged last year, Samsung came to CES aiming to up the ante. The company’s MBP200 Pico Projector adds a media player. Users can project their video directly from the 2.2-inch-wide box to a screen as large as 50 inches, Samsung says.
  • Sony Corp. also showed that it had managed to squeeze a Web browser into a camera. The Cyber-Shot 3G can go online through wi-fi.
  • The Secure Digital Association announced specifications for the next generation of SD cards, providing for up to 2 terabytes of storage on the same SD interface millions of consumers already use — enough to store 100 high-definition movies. Hours after the association made its announcement, Sony and SanDisk Corp. had a reply: Their rival MemoryStick will also reach 2TB.