It’s a Jungle Out There

The first week in January, while most people are busy joining gyms they’ll never actually visit, I’m tossing my sneakers into a suitcase and joining 150,000 other techies on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). In the span of four days and 28 football-field-sized halls, I will witness so many HDTVs, MP3 players, iPod accessories, car stereos, wireless networks, and digital cameras that the effect will be a veritable blur of specs (1360×768 vs. 1920×1080 resolution, 7.2 megapixels vs. 7.3 – yawn), terrible convention-center chicken tenders (never leave your hotel without eating first), and bearded, big-bellied white guys towing wheelie luggage to hold all their swag.

This year’s CES was divided between the Las Vegas Convention Center and the relatively intimate Sands Expo Center, where the newer and more unusual tech companies happened to be sharing a roof with the porn industry’s Adult Video News Expo. I pushed myself through the weird crowd, searching for products that were even weirder – the most outrageous gadgets of 2006.

WowWee Alive Chimpanzee
Allow me to state the obvious: I never realized that my life was missing an animatronic monkey head. Then I stumble across the WowWee booth, and I find myself face-to-face with one. Famous for its Robosapien Robot, WowWee has now banked on the shock value of an eerily realistic chimp bust outfitted with interactive touch sensors, infrared vision, and four moods: Curious, Happy, Scared, and Angry. The chimp can be operated via remote control, or it can be set to automatically react to sounds, images, and touch. Better read the manual, though: “Do not rub the face. Otherwise, the color on the skin would be removed. Do not hold the Chimpanzee by the hair only. The hair is not designed to support the overall weight of Chimpanzee.” And you don’t want to see what happens when a rubber chimp gets mad – or do you? www.wowweealiveonline.com $149

Fender Hello Kitty guitar & Badtz-Maru bass
Apparently it’s hard to get a kid to pick up a guitar these days. Solution? Put cartoons on it! From Japan comes this pretty-in-pink fixed-bridge Stratocaster adorned with the iconic Hello Kitty in a bid to convince American girls to become badass rock ?n’ rollers (with young boys as their sidekicks). But the marketing folks seem unaware of Hello Kitty’s gay male appeal, and even less so of the black penguin Badtz’s status as an icon for butch lesbians. So I politely inform them. “Hello Kitty’s appeal transcends all demographics,” they sniff. www.fenderhellokitty.com $325

BenQ SPA Projector
Sadly, my favorite multimedia product at CES only exists in the minds of the very confused designers at the up-and-coming Taiwanese brand BenQ: a concept for a home video projector that isn’t afraid to embrace its feminine side. In addition to stereo sound, it boasts an aromatherapy well perched above the projector that diffuses scented oils as the lamp heats up. The goal is to “not only refresh your eyes, but your mind.” At this point I decide to refresh my mind by fleeing to my hotel room for a much-needed catnap. www.benq.com

Dance Praise
At one of the evening press events, I trip over this year’s most unlikely mash-up: a conversion of the arcade sensation Dance Dance Revolution into a wholesome Christian activity. Manufactured by Digital Praise – whose motto is “Glorifying God Through Interactive Media” – Dance Praise pairs a floor pad that hooks up to your computer with a soundtrack of Christian pop, rock, and hip-hop hits from such artists as tobyMac, ZOEgirl, and Seven Day Jesus. Song lyrics are displayed onscreen along with arrows to guide your feet into the proper moves, and you can add a second dance pad for $25 to compete against your friends. (If only the animatronic monkey had legs.) www.digitalpraise.com $49.95

Samsung SilverCare Washing Machine
I’m hot and sweaty from my dance workout, and I’ve spilled a cocktail down the front of my shirt. What to do? According to Samsung, it’s not enough just to get the dirt out and move on with my life. By running it across a pure silver plate in the drum, their SilverCare Washing Machine will coat my shirt with 400 billion “electrolytic silver nano-particles” that have the power to obliterate mold, odors, and 99.99 percent of bacteria. Ahh, the joys of total sterility! All I have to do is move into a bubble in my laundry room, and I can make this feeling last forever! www.samsung.com $1,100 ­ 1,400

EnterTrainer
If you’re like me, you’d much prefer to blow your budget inviting mental abuse from a dominatrix – or a shrink – than from a smug, perfectly toned personal trainer. Introducing a more cost-effective way to suffer: the EnterTrainer, a strap-on, softball-sized device that monitors your heart rate to ensure you’re burning calories at the proper level while you exercise in front of the TV. If you slack off, the wireless EnterTrainer turns down the volume or mutes it entirely; if you work too hard, the volume becomes unbearably loud. If your loved ones complain, ask them whether they prefer living with the noise or your S&M habit. www.theentertrainer.com $99

eMagin EyeBud personal display system
At the eMagin booth, the demonstrators are cyborgs, with a robotic politeness and their left eyes obscured by small video displays. The former comes with the territory at CES; the latter is the new 800×600-pixel EyeBud. As the cyborgs tell it, the doll-sized OLED puts the equivalent of a 105-inch display at 12 feet all up in your grill, so you can watch a portable DVD player or a video iPod feed, freeing your hands to do more important things, like clap to the music. The 3.6-ounce, battery-powered, adjustable headpiece also includes stereo speakers so you can tune out all the people standing behind you and snickering. www.emagin.com

CoolIT Systems USB Beverage Chiller
Because taking a break from fighting off flesh-eating zombies at your computer is really such a pain, the CoolIT USB beverage chiller offers the convenience of having a frosty drink at arm’s length at all times. Plugged into any USB port, it maintains drink temperature at a steady 45 degrees. Welcome to paradise. www.coolitsystems.com $39.99

Atech iLounge
Addendum: Two days after CES, I’m in San Francisco for the MacWorld Expo when I finally discover my holy grail. With dozens of milky-white, ultra-minimal, hi-fi iPod speaker systems hoping to steal your heart, only Atech has managed to find a way to make theirs stand out: Its iLounge iPod dock and speaker system doubles as a toilet paper dispenser. Just as I’m preparing to go out and shout the amazing news from the rooftops, I find that I’ve been beaten to the punch by Porcelain, the World Bathroom and Toilet News and Etiquette blog, where the iLounge has already made quite a splash. My work here is done. www.atechflash.com $175 *

Tom Rielly (tom@ted.com) founded PlanetOut.com and tries to make people wet their pants laughing at his original satires for the TED Conference in Monterey, California.

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