CES Unveiled: The Tree Doesn't Grow Far From The Apple

Awareness. That's the word CES exhibitors use most when you ask what they hope for out of the show.

Everyone turns out all the stops to alert everyone else to their presence—and everyone does it at the same time. That's why "CES Unveiled," a pre-show press event, takes on the air of a Tunisian bazaar or a Chicago futures trading floor.

Ergo software screenshot
Ergo software screenshot

Only one hour into the three-hour event Saturday night, plenty of product-barkers and tech journos were already showing the wear and tear as they huffed and puffed through the baroque corridors of Las Vegas' Venetian Resort.

I saw at least one person flat out on his back on the floor behind a press registration booth. A complimentary "press bag" lay halfway across his chest. Other attendees lurched out of Unveiled's Marco Polo Ballroom in twos and threes for a little air, bottles of Beck's in hand.

A handful of the technology and electronics big boys had tables at Unveiled, including Advanced Micro Devices, RealNetworks, and SanDisk, among others. But the real gems in this bazaar—and at the much, much larger CES show—require a little more determination, a little more careful negotiation of the throng, if you're going to ferret them out.

Take Ergo, a UK-based software concern that held down a corner next to a DJ booth that blared a live radio broadcast from the floor. The company, a spin-off of London-traded Invu Services Ltd., has designed Microsoft Vista-compatible search software that automatically aggregates search results from flickr.com, Google, YouTube, computer desktops and other sources.

(Click for complete coverage)

But that's not the cool part. The cool part is that the tool clusters those results within cubes, trees or other visual designs that structure search hits within contextual relevance to one another. Instead of ordering results from top to bottom, like a conventional search engine, the software displays and labels them in groups of similar hits.

So, for example, if you did a search for the term "SQL," you might get one cluster on Microsoft's SQL Server database, one on the SQL programming language, one on other programming languages, and other clusters besides. Clusters are also linked to one another by their similarity to one another.

"That sounds like a complicated algorithm you guys have built," I said to an exhausted-looking Ergo staff member. He turned out to be one of the software's developers, and he looked at me with an expression of relief that seemed to say, "Finally, someone who understands my tormented world."

One thing that became clear early on at Unveiled is that a lot of companies out there have designed products that tap into, or are inspired by, the incumbent stock market darling of the technology world: Apple. Ergo's visually oriented software, which is debuting now, features search displays and touch-screen interactivity that are reminiscent of the Apple iPhone.

"We don't want to knock off Google," said Justin Staines, vice president for strategic alliances at Ergo. "Somebody wrote about us recently and said we wanted to beat Google. I mean, different people want to search different ways. We're one way. And then, you know, my mom, she would use Google."


Beyond Ergo's booth, past one of Unveiled's three open bars and a steaming buffet table, I found Addlogix, a privately held hardware company from Irvine, Calif. Addlogix makes a wireless receiver that hooks to televisions and lets users view the contents of their computer desktop on their widescreen TV.

"We have MLB.com sport events on computers now—why not watch them on a big-screen TV?" asked Matthew Chang, Addlogix's marketing manager.

The product, which started shipping in September, is similar to an existing Apple device called Apple TV. When I mentioned that, Chang had a ready response: He pointed out that Apple TV requires a user to download iTunes (subtly reminding me that Apple's system is "closed" instead of "open"—anathema to most hardcore tech-heads).

"And you can set up our system without a network administrator's level of expertise," Chang said, holding up a sample of his company's wireless box. "We're here at CES because people out there just aren't aware that you can do this."

For Unveiled attendees whose heads begin to hurt when they try to think about programming algorithms and wireless connectivity protocols, there was Aquallusion Design Concepts, a closely held firm from Orlando, Fla. that showed off what one staffer described as a "next generation lava lamp" to a host of clamoring news crews.

"We don't want to knock off Google," said Justin Staines, vice president for strategic alliances at Ergo. "Somebody wrote about us recently and said we wanted to beat Google. I mean, different people want to search different ways. We're one way. And then, you know, my mom, she would use Google."

Aquallusion: EFX Light Columns
Aquallusion: EFX Light Columns

Aquallusion's product—which, reminiscent of Apple's product-naming strategies, is called the "iTube"—looks a little like a Maglite flashlight, but with bulbs at both ends. Standing upright, it connects to various music sources (including the iPod) and emits 360-degree acoustic sound. If that's not enough for someone who wants a super-sensory experience, the product also flashes lights and other visual effects to the beat of the music. Oh yeah, and it's aromatherapy-capable. I'm not kidding.

Aquallusion, which can build custom iTubes up to 20 feet tall and has sold units to the likes of Carnival Cruise Lines, is at CES to find retail partners. The company has manufacturing agreements with Chinese factories that are waiting to let 'er rip if the big orders start to come in.

So is that what CES is all about for Aquallusion? I asked Dave McKnight, one of the company's principals.

"Well," McKnight said, talking over his booming iTube and the live, on-camera TV reporter a yard away, "We also just want to build awareness."

Editor's note: As part of our extensive coverage of CES, CNBC.com's Brian Clark and Ted Kemp will be at the event and contributing to this special edition of Tech Check.