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CES 2021 Will Showcase Plenty of Truly Useful Tech

A 2021 CES Innovation Awardee, Softbank Robotics' Whiz is an autonomous vacuum sweeper that uses an AI platform to deliver a higher quality, more efficient clean.

CES is an institution. For years geeks have trekked to Las Vegas at this time of year, not to gamble but to get their fix at this mecca for high tech gee-gaws. This year’s show will be all virtual, a prospect that’s exciting because it should enable the exhibitors who toil on less glitzy but often world-altering technologies to get some attention. Viewed through a screen, CES may offer us a glimpse at more substance and less glitz than if we were shuffling through the throngs at the Las Vegas Convention Center. As a long-time partner of CES (my company Living in Digital Times was sold to them in 2019, but I continue to consult on programming) I’m seeing a more egalitarian quality to the virtual show, where the size of your booth doesn’t matter quite as much.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as big a fan of shiny tech objects as anyone. But, in this year of multiple catastrophic moments, I’m looking less forward to seeing the latest OLED TVs and looking more for techno-wizards who use their powers to rise to the challenges of our times. In a year that saw a pandemic, fires, floods and continuing evidence of extreme climate change, a shift to remote working, and a social networking system in urgent need of repair, those challenges are clearer than ever.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the technologies we should really be celebrating.  A good number of the products mentioned have already been nominated as Innovation Awardees, another indicator that the nature of consumer electronics is shifting.

Continuous Health Monitoring

Health care has historically been an intermittent activity. You go to the doctor when you’re sick or, in a good year, for an annual checkup. Fitness trackers like Fitbit or the Apple watch gave us some early indication that consumers could track their own health on a more continuous basis, but now comes a next generation. Products like BioButton, a coin-sized disposable wearable device that continuously measures temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate at rest, then analyzes statistical changes over time, is indicative of this new breed. Born of its time, it may also indicate the signs and symptoms of early COVID-19 infection. Auraband AURA Strap for Apple Watch uses bioimpedance to measure body composition (fat vs. muscle), hydration levels and even tracks lung and breathing changes. Comparing that to pulse measurement helps assess the risk of heart failure. It sends its data to the Apple Watch. 

Passive Monitoring for the Aged

It took 73 million baby boomers (according to the 2020 US Census) to finally give this market some sex appeal. Products like Sentinaire, a camera with AI meant to watch over seniors as they age in place, is one of the promising technologies awarded a CES Innovation Award. Another is CarePredict, a B2B system to monitor nursing homes, assisted living and other agencies, tracking episodes like patient falls, failures to eat or to use the bathroom. Origin Health’s Remote Patient Monitoring System, another winner, provides a similar solution for managing patient care in facilities, using WiFi devices called “Health Pods”. None of these require a senior having to put on a wearable device, something many have shown reluctance to do.

Robotics

Robots have often been cute, but outside of factory floors and other potentially dangerous situations, seldom really useful. One of my feel-good moments of CES 2020 was watching John Deere showcasing robotic technologies in its harvesters.  The giant equipment has many built-in cameras to help farmers see inside a combine’s grain tank to monitor the condition of harvested grain, down to individual kernels. This year John Deere plans on sending VR headsets to reporters to experience its virtual tractor demos from the driver’s seat. Softbank Robotics, known for its lovable but questionably useful Pepper robot on previous CES stages, this year will introduce a commercial-grade sanitizing vacuum cleaning robot called The Whiz. It’s the right robot at the right time.

Sustainability

Ree, an Israeli company, developed a modular platform on which all sorts of electric vehicles can be built. The company says that building such a base that any EV designer can use will enable much easier ways to build EVs. Meanwhile, Ambient Photonics, an early startup, received an innovation award for its specially developed solar cell that harvests energy from low levels of ambient indoor light. Photonics is one of those technologies that’s been kicking around on the brink of commercialization for all sorts of consumer uses, especially obviating the need to replace and recharge batteries in household devices.  And then there’s  BeFC, a paper-thin fuel cell that uses biology (enzymes) instead of chemistry to create energy. Uses include medical wearables and devices for package tracking, thanks to its tiny, low-energy design. 

Micromobility

OK, this is a fancy name for wheeled vehicles of all shapes and sizes that aren’t classified as cars.  You’ll see lots of them at CES 2021, promising a more pollution-free ride as well as less exposure to germy public transportation. Whether you’ll eventually hop on the new  Bird scooter or an electric motorcycle like The Damon Halo Hypersport, these CES Innovation honorees herald a plethora of transportation alternatives. Prepare for EV charging stations to become as commonplace as telephone poles.

On a Lighter Note — The Year of the Foldable

These things are not going to save the world but they will make your pocket look amazing. This could be the year of the foldable and rollable. If you recall, about this time last year Samsung released the foldable Galaxy phone. It was quickly recalled because of design flaws. In the spirit of try, try  again, watch for Lenovo’s newest foldable PC and more folding Galaxy phones from Samsung. Others are rumored to be readying their own folding versions of computing and communications devices, too. (If it isn’t to be undone, Apple may have to come up with an origami version.)

And of course you should expect a plethora of “Zoom Room”-type hardware-software devices to help us all live our new homebound largely virtual life. Many of these look like evolved Alexas, and include multiple cameras for different angles plus nifty 360-degree shots, even as they offer HD quality. They’ll use vision and voice recognition to make virtual meetings feel a little more real. Owl Perch and j5 Create  are two new systems I’m eyeing.

Call me Pollyanna, but I’m still an incredible tech optimist when it comes to its power to solve real-world problems. Hopefully CES, with this year’s virtual format, will make it a little easier to find and celebrate the truly remarkable work that’s being done.

Even more amazing is the fact that anything got built as the whole world went on lockdown. Who would have guessed this could be such a good year for inventors and builders of innovative consumer electronics?


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