When you're hunting for the next big thing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it helps to have a bird dog. I lucked out and...

Share story

When you’re hunting for the next big thing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it helps to have a bird dog.

I lucked out and stumbled into one in a remote corner, far from the huge TVs in the central bazaar, back where obscure Chinese manufacturers show their quirky gadgets in rows of tiny booths. In the very back was a company that makes plugs, covers and other accessories for iPods and game systems. Right in front, it proudly displayed a mysterious pile of vinyl mats next to a Nintendo Wii.

Computer-monitor covers? Toilet-tank protectors? I had no idea.

Then a guy beelined into the booth, flipped through the stack and started talking terms with the salespeople from Update Technology of Shenzhen, China.

After the global trade went down, I found out the buyer was Matt Johnson, operations manager of Alliance Sales and Distribution, a toy and game importer and distributor near Toronto.

Johnson had searched at least 25 booths looking for this kind of thing.

The mats are aftermarket covers for Wii Fit, a new game from Nintendo that uses a plastic step as a controller. The game was released in Japan last month and sold 300,000 copies.

It’s coming to the U.S. by midyear, as soon as Nintendo’s team in Redmond can finish the complicated translation into English.

Wii Fit extends the sports games bundled with the console. The controller senses the pressure of players’ feet as they play aerobics, yoga, ski or soccer games. Wii Fit also tracks activity and body mass index, opening up a new realm of video-game competition.

Johnson said it will be the hottest product in 2008 — just as big as the Wii console was in 2007.

“This game, it’s going to be the hit, absolutely,” he said.

As the Wii, Apple’s iPhone and Microsoft’s tabletop computer are illustrating, the new frontier for gadgets isn’t necessarily on their screens or in their wireless connections. The action’s in the space around the gadgets and their interaction with physical movement.

Devices are moving themselves — like the dancing robot music player Sony introduced — or they are getting users to tap, wave and stomp to control their functions.

Also at CES were Internet devices controlled by tilting, furniture that hops in sync to games and movies and stereos controlled with finger flicks. I liked Toshiba’s prototype home theater controlled with gestures instead of a remote.

Forget plastics; invest in accelerometers.

The Wii wasn’t the first game system with motion-activated controls, but its success helped revive interest in the category.

Like Apple, Nintendo doesn’t do much at CES but still has influence.

Johnson said Nintendo’s been a lifesaver for the international chain of companies that build, distribute and sell game accessories, especially since Microsoft and Sony have tightened licensing requirements around their consoles.

“The Wii is a phenomenon,” he said. “If it wasn’t for that system, video-game accessories would be stagnant right now.”

How did Update Technology get its lead in the emerging Wii Fit mat business? A vice president identified as “Emily” said it bought a controller in a Hong Kong market, but she didn’t elaborate.

While we imagine the sound of millions of feet stomping their plastic Wii steps, Johnson and Emily see an opportunity to sell pads that protect and add cushion and traction.

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