Notes on CES 2014

Last week I went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, mostly to see interesting connected devices. What follows is a summary of some of the highlights, for me.

If you’re in the motion tracker business, you’re in trouble. There were several dozen of your competitors on display. In fact, many of the trackers appeared to be little more than a light wrapper of user experience design and industrial design around existing accelerometers, gyrometers, and other motion sensors. The silicon vendors making the sensors themselves, like InvenSense, showed a wide array of sensors that have the motion detection algorithms built right into the sensor.

If you’re a Bluetooth Low Energy expert, you’re in high demand. a large number of the devices on display connected to other devices using Bluetooth LE.  There were some WiFi-connected devices as well, of course. Other than Samsung and LG, I saw very few manufacturers using NFC to connect devices, however.

Among the activity trackers, InfoMotion Sports94Fifty basketball was perhaps my favorite. What I liked is that first and foremost, it’s a basketball you can play with. Properly weighted and balanced, the electronics are totally unnoticeable. The interaction is nice too: Bluetooth-connected, you dribble it four times to connect to your device automatically. If it’s not paired, it goes into discovery mode so you can find it.

Instabeat‘s heads-up display for swimmers was also an eye-catching device. It tracks your heartbeat and swimming motion, and displays your stats over your goggles. Since swimming is one of my favorite forms of exercise, I want one of these.

Netatmo announced the June, a bracelet that senses UV light levels from the sun, asks a few questions about your complexion, and advises you on appropriate sun time.  It’s Bluetooth-connected to your phone. Nice-looking, simple, and useful.

Withings has a number of health tracking products on the market, all Bluetooth or WiFi connected. Overall their user experience design is good. The blood pressure monitor in particular caught my eye.

ClinicalGuard has a pulse oximeter that uses the analog audio jack on your phone to send the data to an iOS or Android app. I thought this was interesting just because it was an alternative to the large number of Bluetooth and Wifi-connected sensors.

Sleepow makes a pillow with a speaker inside. It’s USB-connected, not Bluetooth. You plug it into your computer and upload songs, it shuffles them. Like having an iPod shuffle in your pillow.

Serta had a series of motorized bed which were very comfortable, and which featured built-in Bluetooth speakers.

FashionTEQ showed a Bluetooth e-ink necklace, Zazzi, that links to your phone via Bluetooth and displays the image of whoever is calling.

It was nice to see Dave Vondle’s Central Standard Timing watch in the e-paper booth as well, it’s a beautiful and very thin watch.

CLO Virtual Fashion had a clothing simulator (video link) that uses computer vision to show you what you’d look like in a garment. Reminded me of an early project from Masamichi Udagawa’s ITP class around 2002-3.

Sadly, I didn’t catch the company name, but here’s a video of a beautiful LED fabric (video link) that was very close to FashionTEQ’s booth.

The Internet fridge was at CES in force.  Whirlpool had on display Bluetooth refrigerator, which plays music when connected to your phone or tablet.  LG and Samsung both had Internet-connected refrigerators,  Samsung’s featuring a full Android touchscreen interface, which, inexplicably, mirrors your phone so that you can take calls on the fridge (“What’s that? I can’t hear you, the mayonnaise is in the way.”). Changhong had an internet fridge which featured voice recognition, the application of which was not immediately clear to non-Mandarin speakers. None of these refrigerators could track the food in them in an automated way, though Samsung’s featured an app that allowed you to enter the food manually. Having seen various internet fridge and kitchen prototypes over the last twenty years, I remain unconvinced of their utility now that they’re commercially available.

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Samsung’s Internet Fridge interface.

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Changhong’s Internet fridge has voice recognition.

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Whirlpool’s musical fridge.

Whirlpool also had on display a demo of the “intelligent cooktop”, mostly a video tracking and projection app, that would activate burners, bring up menus from the internet, and control cook times all with the wave of a hand. There was a lot of hand-waving going on.

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Whirlpool’s kitchen of the future proximate future.

LG also featured a number of dishwashers and clothes washers that include Bluetooth connectivity for watching the progress of a wash. This seems more practical to me, somehow.

NFC didn’t show up too prominently at CES, except in LG and Samsung’s products, and one or two smaller brands. LG’s Bluetooth-connected washers had NFC connection of credentials, and Samsung had a range of WiFi-enabled cameras (NX-30 and the like) that featured NFC connection to phones or tablets, followed by handover to WiFi for media exchange. There were a few companies selling NFC-connected Bluetooth speakers as well.

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LG’s NFC-connected washer

Dagan Co. had a pair of interesting, if mismatched, products on display. The Mom Brush is a toothbrush tracks your brushing through an accelerometer, and allows a parent to log the brushing of up to four children over several days. They were also showing a heat pad for menstrual cramps. It appeared to be Bluetooth connected, though I’m not clear on the reason for the connectivity, other than temperature tracking.

Similarly, Kollibree were showing their Bluetooth-connected toothbrush/monitor, which was considerably better designed than Dagan’s. The industrial design was sleeker, the app design was cleaner and simpler, and the inductive charger was a nice touch.

There were plenty of 3D printers, most of which I ignored, but I was impressed by MCor’s printer that prints with paper. The Iris printer is a full-color printer that works in a simple and brilliant way: slice the model into paper-thin sections, then print the color of each section using a color laser printer. Then laminate the slices together and cut. You get a solid, hard, colorful model. Nicely done. 3D Systems ceramic printer, CeraJet was pretty cool too. Though it requires glazing and firing in a kiln after printing, it’s still a 3D printer that prints ceramics.

Connected Home Sensors were everywhere, almost as ubiquitous as Bluetooth-enabled motion trackers. The most common devices were weather stations or temperature/humidity sensors, cameras,  motion sensors, and of course, motion trackers. Connectivity and  interoperability varied, but for the most part every company had made their own proprietary protocol rather than using an open or interoperable one. Archos is typical of this. They were showing one of each of the aforementioned devices (camera, weather station, motion tracker), all of which had to connect through a tablet device available only from Archos. Even though the Archos tablet runs Android, you can’t use an off-the-shelf tablet in its place because they re-wrote the Bluetooth stack to improve its efficiency, and it runs only on their tablet.

While the lack of interoperability was disappointing, there was some cause for hope. Several companies are making hubs to merge several other companies’ protocols. SmartThings, for example, has a hub that can connect several different vendors’ Z-Wave products. They have a Z-wave shield for Arduino available as well. Most impressive in this category, though, was Revolv’s hub, which combined multiple radio protocols into one Ethernet-connected hub. The user experience design on their iOS app was really impressive as well, and hopefully will soon be available on Android as well.

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SmartThings’ Z-wave shield for Arduino

Cameras were everwhere.  Sigma  had a nice new product out, a USB base which allows you to customize the firmware of their lenses. It allows you to recalibrate your lenses,   set custom focal settings, or change the motor settings.

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One of Sigma’s CPU-equipped lenses

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Sigma’s USB-connected Lens configurator.

When it comes to DSLR cameras, I am a Nikon user, and Nikon’s new Df camera was the one device I had tech lust for at CES.  The design was nostalgic and very tactile, with dedicated physical knobs (!!!) for shutter speed, ISO, and other core features. For those of us who love tactile controls, it was incredibly refreshing to see.

Nikon wasn’t the only company getting nostalgic with their designs, Polaroid’s Z340 instant digital camera is reminiscent of their classic instant cameras of the ’60s and ’70s, including the ability to print out your digital images to paper at the touch of a button. For those who miss the classic Polaroid film camera, you can still get it. They still make analog instant film cameras as well. They’re even more Instagram than Instagram!

There was no shortage of iRobot-style vacuuming and cleaning robots, but Ecovacs‘  window cleaning robot, WinBot, was the neatest. It attaches to the window using suction, and cleans the windows.

Ecovacs’ window cleaning robot (video)

OrbotixSphero robot was much more impressive to me in person than online. It’s a rolling sphere robot. So what?  Imagine how you can torment your cat with a ball you can control from your tablet or smartphone.   And it’s programmable in BASIC. Yes, BASIC.

Paro Robotics won the uncanny valley award for me with their robotic harp seal pup (video link). Designed for therapeutic applications, it’s definitely cute, and I couldn’t help but think of the electric animals in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Parrot’s new mini drone and jumping robot were nice, but their Zik headphones were more impressive. Bluetooth-connected headphones with active noise cancellation enabled by two built-in microphones, they sound really good. But what won me over was the interaction: tap to play or pause, slide your finger along the earphone to turn up or down. As Parrot’s Geoff Smith described it, it’s a “Duh!” interaction moment, so obviously right when you experience it. Expensive as hell, but man did I want a pair. Parrot’s Flower Power was a nice plant sensor too: nothing too complex, just a well-designed Bluetooth link to let you know the health of your plants.

There was so much more to comment on, but those are my highlights. For another excellent summary, see Natasha Dzurny’s notes as well.

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