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Virtual Power

Report From the Consumer Electronics Show

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Power was the underlying current of the Consumer Electronics Show. Not the electric power needed to run the flood of devices, but the virtual power used to sell them. From car speakers to video games, a recurring pitch tapped into vast reservoirs of felt powerlessness.

Power had an electoral charge at the "Right to Tape" booth, where the Home Recording Rights Coalition offered resistance to industry-backed legislation like the Motion Picture Anti-Piracy Act. The HRRC warned that those who advocate scrambling cable and satellite signals aim "not just to reverse the VCR revolution, but to cripple your fight to own your own equipment."

Being heard in Washington was not on the agenda of car audio aficionados; they just want to be heard over an eight-block radius. Stacks of magazines in their reverberating corner of McCormick Place aimed at the juvenile's need to be very loud. "When you're sick of being told what's good for you and you just want it good and loud," read an ad for a purveyor of 900-watt amps. "We think you're old enough to think for yourself."

"Guess we shouldn't drive with the windows down," mused another manufacturer, offering 18 subwoofer systems from $99. The words were printed above a photo of a devastated block of apartments.

"In this religion, it's okay to express bass desires," advertised Boston Acoustics ("Car sound is our religion").

If cars are private temples for decibel evangelists, the CES emphasis on electronic interface and interaction promoted an indoor cult of computer acolytes. Home entertainment--and home everything else--loomed as an asocial movement, a plot by agoraphobes. 'Reel in the Great Outdoors Without Leaving Your Living Room," baited an ad for a 16-bit salmon-fishing game.

Vast floor space at CES was devoted to the multimedia zone, where interactive compact disc systems were leapfrogging over video games, creating a new class of games that mess up ideas of plot, at least as taught by high school English teachers. Players are "empowered" to "interact."

"Experience a New Way of Storytelling," urged the maker of an interactive computer comic. Inside a Star Trek game, "It's almost as if players are controlling an episode of the show," suggested Garry Kitchen, president and CEO of Absolute Entertainment. Of course you're not inspired to compose on your own, only to choose among preprogrammed options. Just like shopping. It's the power to pick among brands.

Plugging "a quantum leap in electronic publishing," Philips Interactive Media urged consumers: "Imagine...puzzling over a mystery when your choice determines the denouement....In an interactive movie, the viewer can select the characters, activities, and locations....He or she becomes the director ..."

In game space, the consumer is controller. This fantasy is sold so fanatically that it has become fodder for self-parody. A Sega ad states--after telling you that you control archers, magicians, fighters, centaurs, and strategy--"You control our company. You control our engineers. You control your purchasing decisions....You control your TV. You control the eyes that just finished reading this." Above this text, a warrior brandishing a sword stands astride a heap of skeletons, surrounded by apocalyptic flames and circling bats. The warrior's face is a blank space with the legend "Your mug here." Clad in rags, a buxom woman wears a sign: "Your babe?"

"Many kids--and lots of adults too, let's face it--daydream about what it would be like to actually control a sophisticated battle tank, jet fighter, or race car," states a video game CEO in a CES press release. "Well, these games provide players with just that--the opportunity to be in total command..."

Irked by the mess in Europe?. Take matters into your own hands with Ashes of Empire: "As you enter the heartland of your one-time great adversary, you must find a strategy to bring order to chaos, while at the same time avoiding the initiation of a nuclear conflict with an embittered and desperate people, mistrustful of your intentions in this New World Order."

Perhaps the Mideast is what's got you down. In that case you want a Desert Storm game that's "so real, you'll think you're back in Baghdad." The revolutionary 3-D graphics furnish a "digitized map of downtown Baghdad," including such details as "the 'Baby Milk' factory."

"Ever want to rule the world? Philips gives you that total power" in Earth Command, programmed with 500 crises in 130 countries. "To ensure total reality, the producer enlisted the cooperation of CNN, Greenpeace and the U.S. State Department." Your task is to save the earth.

But maybe you'd enjoy a more corporate power trip. "As the CEO of your own airline operation, negotiate around the world for holding slots," invites the hype for Aerobiz. "Gain market share with cut-rate ticket prices....Launch special TV campaigns to increase name recognition."

Or play Microcosm: In "an exciting cinematic epic set inside a living human being...a corporate rival has implanted a miniaturized brain-manipulation droid" inside a CEO. Players take on "the mission of destroying the micro-invaders and restoring the chief executive's free will."

For a control fantasy on the domestic front, the CES displayed a device named "TV Allowance--the Television Time Manager," a winner of the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval. This electronic lock rations children's access to the family TV set.

On the other hand there was hightech "eyeware" that overlays a video image (originating from a broadcast, camcorder, VCR, or electronic game) on the wearer's natural field of vision. These tinted goggles, equipped with stereo earphones, allow users the sort of mobility that personal stereos furnish. "Answer the door without missing a second of your favorite show," suggests the manufacturer. "Take it to sporting events...Watch a basketball game while sitting at a baseball game!...Watch your golf or tennis swing--while doing it!"

"TV now goes where you go," rhapsodizes the brochure for Virtual Vision. "Empower yourself to be two places at once. Tune in without dropping out...for really the first time, you are free from the tyranny of TV."

Not to mention the tyranny of reality.

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