Domo arigato, Mr. Penguin-boto
Fortune's Peter Lewis describes highlights from Japan's annual Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies trade show.
By Peter Lewis, Fortune senior editor

TOKYO (Fortune Magazine) -- The annual trade show known as Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC), under way here this week, is the Japanese equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), except about two years more advanced. We've come here, along with some 200,000 gadget-happy Japanese consumers, to see what American consumers might expect to see at home in 2008.

There are robots that ride bicycles, penguin-bots that sit on a car's dashboard to alert the driver to road hazards and red lights, and handheld spoken-word language translators that translate your English into Japanese and back, and all sorts of odd and inscrutable gizmoids that may not survive the fickle Japanese market long enough to make it to the States.

But the stars of the show are flat-panel TV sets, which, as if they were not already confusing enough to American consumers, are about to get bigger and better and more baffling.

Kill your television

Just when you thought it couldn't get much better than high-definition TV (HDTV), along come new sets from Japanese companies that go way, way beyond the 1080p standard that we in the States consider top of the line. But since there is no way for normal humans to feed Ultra HD content to such sets, a more practical advance is ultra high-contrast plasma and LCD sets. The more contrast a TV set offers, the better the picture looks under normal viewing conditions.

1080p sets, which only recently arrived in American stores, are amazing home theater centerpieces. Scanning 1,080 lines of video progressively, they deliver several times the resolution of the conventional TV sets that we all grew up with. With the right video source, the latest 1080p high-definition sets will dazzle anyone who used to think that a DVD player and a plasma set was video nirvana.

But the "ultra" HD sets on display at CEATEC (which aren't expected to be on sale in Japan until 2007 and in the USA sometime after that) promise to blast past the current 1080p sets on all fronts, especially price. Some of the highest resolution sets generate images that are virtually indistinguishable from film. In fact, they have the same resolution (2,160 lines by 4,096 lines) used by the next generation of digital movie projectors in movie theaters.

Price? Don't ask, unless you're Bill Gates or Larry Ellison. But just as HDTVs have come down from megabucks to under $1,000 in just a few years, you'll probably find an affordable model by the time you pay off your next car loan.

Consider: Twenty years ago, a 3-inch LCD was state of the art. This year, Sharp of Japan will be churning out 65-inch LCDs with full 1080p resolution, and, if you've got $50,000 or more to spare, Pioneer will offer plasma sets the size of a queen-size bed.

I'm most excited about high-contrast TV sets from Toshiba, Pioneer and Sharp, which were unveiled here and which will go on sale in Japan in the coming year or two. With contrast ratios of 10,000 to 1 or more, compared to maybe 800:1 on today's fanciest sets, these new flat-panel TVs paint true blacks on screen, instead of the dark grays that pass for black on most sets. (Purists will note that conventional cathode ray tube, or CRT, TV sets offer even better contrast ratios - but try lifting a 37-inch CRT, which weighs at least 200 pounds compared to 100 pounds or less for a 60-inch flat panel.)

Turning Japanese

Sharp's iPod-size pocket translator prototype was the device that I would buy today, if it were available and if the price was reasonable.

With the Sharp device, one speaks a phrase or question into the gizmos's built-in microphone. In mere seconds, the text shows up in the target language (in this case, Japanese) on the built-in LCD screen, and a remarkably good synthesized voice says the translated phrase in Japanese. When someone answers, the response is then translated in both text and synthesized voice back into the source language (in this case, English).

You say to the gizmo, "Where is the toilet?" The gizmo churns a second and displays, in Japanese, the text equivalent of, "Otearai wa, doko desu ka?" and says the phrase. A good Japanese Samaritan then either points, or says back to the gizmo the equivalent of, "It's right in front of you!" The gizmo then translates the response into English text and, if you haven't started dashing there already, synthesized English voice.

Video killed the radio star

Sharp also showed a prototype of a three-way LCD display for automobiles. Picture this: An LCD display that, when viewed by the driver, shows a map of city streets, but when viewed by the person in the passenger seat, shows a TV show or movie. That's a two-way LCD. The three-way LCD, which will probably find its home in tomorrow's minivans, allows three people sitting side-by-side to watch three different video sources all on the same LCD screen.

Your little one can watch a Disney film, the older one an MTV music video, and the oldest a DVD movie or a live TV feed. This assumes, of course, that you live in a country like Japan where mobile TV is available. Those of us in the States will have to wait until mobile video (satellite or terrestrial broadcasts) are available to the car.

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

And what about the Pioneer penguin-bot? This five-inch tall gizmoid sits on the dash, beeping and chirping and flapping its wings, using its little video-camera head to look at the road and monitor such hazards as neighboring cars, traffic lanes and traffic lights. If you stray in your lane or otherwise drive recklessly, it will squawk and flash lights and create a ruckus until you straighten up and drive right.

Fortunately, it's only a prototype. The way I drive, it wouldn't be long until I used my Louisville Slugger-bot on the penguin-bot. Top of page

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