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By Nick Wingfield
If the electronics industry has its way, sometime later this year you'll be playing videogames in the bathroom, whispering instead of screaming into your cellphone, and toting around inflatable stereo speakers.
It is shaping up to be a year of accessorizing in the gadget aisles. With corporate spending on technology at a standstill, manufacturers are counting more than ever on consumers.
The problem: A lot of them have already bought flat TV screens, digital videodisc players and other electronic furniture for their living rooms. So while electronics makers are still touting ear-splitting hi-fi systems and other standard fare, they are also pushing hard on inexpensive items like adapters and remote controls designed to improve what you've already got.
Much of this will be on display later this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the world's biggest gadget conference and traditionally a precursor of fads. Plenty of traditional high-end electronics will be featured, like sleek home theater systems (the color silver is in this year).
But a major theme will be less-sexy accessories that aim to speed up your connections, make setups easier and reduce some of the longstanding gripes of gadget users. One example: a $99 set of modules (remote control included) that lets people blast their growing collections of PC-based digital music on the stereo.
A major thread running through the show will be the rising popularity of wireless home networks, which allow people to knit together their electronics devices -- like laptop computers and printers -- mostly without cords and cables. To date, their big lure has been the ability to spread a single Internet connection around an entire home. Family members, each at his or her own workstation, can all access the Web through the same route.
But the networks have been too slow to move some kinds of data, like huge video files. So, the companies are now moving into round two of the wireless wave: devices that make these setups run faster. Companies like Linksys Group, D-Link Systems and Netgear, for example, will be rolling out new gear that almost quintuples the top speeds of ordinary wireless home networks. The devices are based on the latest version of the popular Wi-Fi wireless standard, dubbed 802.11g, yet they are also compatible with earlier wireless gear.
One possible drawback: Manufacturers, eager to get products to market, aren't waiting until the new Wi-Fi standard is finalized, which might mean that certain new products from different companies won't work with each other. Another catch: The adapters have no impact on Internet connection speeds, only on how fast you can move things like songs and video clips within the confines of your own home network.
Hundreds of new products will be on view at this year's electronics show, and many have nothing to do with the wireless trend. They include everything from recordable CDs with a thin layer of vinyl on the top to give them a '50s look, to stereo speakers that you can pump full of air or deflate to the size of small disks. Here are some of the gadgets showing up this week that have people buzzing:
theBoom: UmeVoice Inc. ($150)
What It Does: A cellphone that lets you whisper and still be heard
The Promise: With noise-canceling technology adapted from microphones used on Wall Street trading floors, it lets callers be heard without shouting. The microphone, held in place by an adjustable and pointy ear piece, extends in front of the mouth and zaps out ambient noise like restaurant chatter or the screeching of a train.