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Monday, January 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Sniffing out hidden gems in big show

Seattle Times staff columnist

LAS VEGAS — At the crazy Consumer Electronics Show, it's hard to figure out what's really the next big thing.

My strategy is to make a beeline past all the flashing TVs, the booming car stereos, the bleeping phones and the smiling booth attendants and head straight for the soft-spoken scientists in lab coats, the ones off in quiet corners of the massive displays set up by Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba and other giants. Every January, they bring a few promising science projects from their research labs in Asia. These exhibits are the least sexy things at the show, but they're often a good indication of the future.

In years past, this technique led me to early prototypes of blue-laser DVD players, organic light-emitting diode displays and wireless devices that stream high-def content — all now going mainstream.

That's why I spent time last week talking to Akihiro Kasahara and Kazunori Nakano from Toshiba. They brought an innovative copy-protection system that seemed dry compared to all the flashy entertainment around them.

But the two things are tightly wound together: Will the shift toward digital entertainment be limited by ham-handed copy protection designed more for recording studios than consumers?

We need more flexibility to move content from device to device and even make a few copies without butting up against digital locks and draconian anti-piracy laws.

Apparently the pressure is really on for this flexibility in Japan, where strict copy restrictions are colliding with a digital lifestyle in which people buy music via phone and computer, but can't copy it to other devices for playback.

It's especially frustrating for early adopters unable to move content stored on hard drives from one vehicle to another. The Toshiba guys' solution is a copy-protection system that uses SD memory cards to unlock and play digital content.

It's important to protect content from being ripped off and resold. But the protection technology makes all these new gadgets harder to use and less useful. It's the grain of salt you take when you hear companies at CES roll out their grand visions for devices that play music and movies everywhere.

The Toshiba system lets consumers make copies of a digital song for their car, home stereo, portable devices or wherever they'd like to play that music. But the song can only be played when the SD card is inserted into a slot on the music player.

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Only the key holder can play the music, so in effect that person has one usable copy of the song. But multiple copies are allowed, unplayable until the key is used.

Record companies could add coding that would allow consumers to make a fixed number of copies of a song. The SD key would know how many copies had been made. People who receive the song would have to use their own SD key, which would limit further copying.

To demonstrate the system, Toshiba whipped up nifty home- and car-audio systems with SD card slots. Each had buttons to "copy" the music from the card to the systems' hard drives with one click.

When the card was removed, the songs were still there but their titles were faded out on the display screens. When the card was replaced, they brightened and could be played.

It's still a ways off. Toshiba is trying to line up company partnerships.

Let's hope somebody sorts it out by the time average folks in the U.S. start getting cars with hard drives.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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