Sights and sounds of IFA 2008: look how far Wii've come

We won't lie: this started as an excuse to do a visual gag pertaining to the abundance of Nintendo Wiis in action at IFA 2008 (that most excellent headline pun is just a bonus). But we got carried away and ended up with some deeper impressions we took away from the show, which took place last week and this week in Berlin, Germany.

The Wii was naturally not the only thing we saw at IFA. Panasonic was back with its 150-inch plasma, a large rock garden of displays backed by a row of 103-inchers and its fully-featured Blu-ray players. Sony's gigantic room-within-a-room forest was mesmerizing, and the surrounding technology like that paper-thin LCD (though Philips got the last laugh) and intriguing Sountina were no doubt of interest. Samsung brought its A-game once again, with a breathtaking wall of LCDs, and enough miscellaneous gadgets to significantly, literally raise the temperature in the back of the booth. Toshiba's more modest affair hid many technology demos and futuristic technology like a Cell-powered television and resolution upscaling. LG was a tad subdued, but by "subdued" we mean "not as insane as Samsung." A slew of a Europe-only companies weren't slumbering either, with wild displays of their own, primarily of televisions.

That said, the two biggest draws of the Samsung booth turned out to be the acrobatic routine done beneath the wall of LCDs and a sexy model astride a motorcycle to help consumers "test out" the digital cameras. Toshiba's advanced technologies like WirelessHD and Resolution+ seemed to go over the heads of consumers, and LG's lack of many announcements for the show kept the traffic low over there. Almost everybody showed up with a 200Hz display (240Hz for us Americans), but if there's anything that's hard to sell to the average consumer it's 200Hz, especially when 100Hz (120Hz for us) is more than many have them have even seen, much less found use for.

So that said, if you'll allow us to get all philosophical, it's an interesting statement on the point we're at in the consumer electronics industry where the most consistent go-to draw at a trade show that sees billions of dollars in revenue for its vendors is a video game console released almost two years ago, with the graphics prowess of a generation before that. Sure, Sony had the much-anticipated Little Big Planet -- the primary other display of video games at IFA -- on display, but had trouble teaching consumers how to use it. We'd see the rep hand over the controller to an interested onlooker, only to pull it back quickly to "teach" how things really should be done. Microsoft's Xbox 360, on the other hand, was a total no-show.

Most consumers at the show still seemed to prefer the intuitive, simple pleasures of the Wii, with perhaps a 10 foot image projected dimly on a wall and their friends gathered around to watch. Netbooks seem to be a related phenomenon, offering cheap and simple pleasures in comparison to overly complicated and overly expensive laptops that consumers can find intimidating. It's not that there's a lot of "innovation" in the space, merely the repackaging of the previously niche, expensive ultraportable as a cheap and simple secondary computer. Similarly, Toshiba is taking a gamble that consumers would rather make their existing DVD collections look a bit better through upconversion instead of investing heavily in a whole new generation of disc media -- and they could be right -- but even that very upscaling can be a hard sell at times. Blu-ray is also feeling heat from downloadable content, and downloadable content is in turn feeling heat from low-fi streaming like Hulu, with its "good enough" quality and ease of access.

Obviously, we found plenty of nerdy things to be nerdy about at IFA 2008, as did many of its patrons, and that won't stop in our lifetime. If something like quad HD catches on in the next few years we could be looking at a new format that can't be contained on current physical media, outstrips current US broadband speeds, and needs a brand new TV to be viewed on -- sounds like plenty of IFA fodder for years to come. Similarly, the decades-old cellphone market is still in a technological renaissance, with usability struggling hard to keep up. Even the portable audio market continues to see standouts, with iriver's SPINN impressing us greatly this year. Still, it's clear that most consumers are well beyond the phase of tech specs for tech specs' sake: the primary war of innovation is now accessibility, not excsessivity.