20 Jan 2017
CES 2017 Attendees Connect with Driverless Cars and Vibrating Jeans
Connectivity was the watchword at this year's CES event, arguably the world's biggest consumer electronics expo, with everything seemingly wirelessly linked – from cars to watches to sneakers to the competing array of personal assistants.
Arguably the world's largest trade event for all things electronic, overwhelming and exciting, CES – originally the Consumer Electronics Show – now embraces every aspect of household technology. Celebrating its 50th year in 2017, the event – once the launch pad for VCRs and 512k personal computers – now brings together innovators from just about every field, including the inventors of driverless cars and the masterminds behind shoes that talk to smartphones.
Karen Chupka is the Senior Vice-president of CES and Head of Corporate Business Strategy for the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the body that organises the event every year. Identifying the major themes for 2017, she said: "This year, the show was all about connectivity – both in the form of the technologies unveiled and in terms of the invaluable face-to-face business connections happening throughout the event."
Another key talking point at the event was the likely impact of 5G – the new high-speed wireless data transmission protocol – on the Internet of Things (IoT). Tackling the issue as part of his keynote address, Stephen Mollenkopf, Chief Executive of Qualcomm, the California-based wireless telecoms giant, said: "5G will be a new kind of network. It will support a vast diversity of devices with unprecedented scale, speed and complexity.
"It will have a similar impact to the introduction of electricity or the arrival of the automobile. It will affect entire economies and benefit entire societies."
One product that was seen as having a key role in this connected future was Alexa, Amazon's 'intelligent personal assistant'. A virtual aide, it has evolved from simply being able to stream music and make shopping lists to being integrated into more than 7,000 appliances – including LG and Samsung refrigerators, Westinghouse TVs, ADT door locks and Whirlpool's range of washers and driers.
The most notable extension to Alexa's functionality announced at this year's event came as a result of a new collaboration with Ford. This will allow users to access Alexa's smart-home control systems and its Amazon functionality – including audiobook connectivity – from their cars. In future, if want to know how much petrol you have in your car while sipping your morning coffee, you can just ask your black cylinder.
According to Charlie Kindel, Alexa's Smart Home Director, the original idea was to "recreate a Star Trek-style computer in the home". Expanding on the concept, he said: "Today the world stands at the precipice of the next major computing disruption. Alexa's voice user interface and other sensor-based technologies will allow people to interact with machines in exactly the same way they interact with each other."
Although, in essence, the concept is similar to the other virtual assistants out there – notably the Google and Apple variants – Amazon's offering is widely seen as heading the field, with the company's stock rising by 4% as CES kicked off. Overall, though, across all of the digital assistants, the key point is that voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence are changing the way we interact with electronic devices, with pushing buttons likely to soon be considered archaic, if not obsolete.
It's not just buttons though – even the steering wheel may soon be consigned to history. A number of automobile manufacturers are now committed to having a self-driving car on the road by 2020, with this year's event seeing many of the prototypes on show.
Overall, Toyota's Concept-i car was widely seen as taking an early lead. Along with autonomous driving and parking, it also feature its own built-in virtual assistant – Yuri – which is said to be able to sense the driver's emotions and adjust the interior settings accordingly, while also offering voice interaction with the dashboard systems.
Another notable contender came courtesy of Faraday Future, a California-based start-up focusing on the development of intelligent cars. It had on offer its all-electric and autonomous FF91 SUV, which can apparently be parked via a smartphone app.
What exactly makes a robot a robot was also one of the many discussion points as this year's event, a topic inspired by the growing number of robots that actually look like the robots long envisioned in science-fiction books and movies. LG, for instance, rolled out an entire lineup that can provide airport navigation, airport cleaning and lawn mowing.
Another common strand was dedicated companion robots for children and seniors. Most of these featured facial and voice recognition as standard, while also being able to hold a conversation, read aloud, play music and monitor the safety of their charges.
A particular striking example was Tapia, a communicative robot developed by Tokyo-based based MJI. Tapia is said to be able to detect emotions through conversation and even has the facility to cheer up its companion if necessary.
Outlining the robot's potential, Donovan Yeh, a Senior Executive with MJI, said: "Tapia's not just a machine. It learns about you, becoming your assistant and your friend. That is particularly important in single-person households in aging communities."
Tapia was possibly only outshone by the sleek and shining coffee-making 'bot developed by Denso, another Japanese robotics specialist. In its favour, it was somewhat better looking and more co-ordinated than any of its likely human owners of a morning.
While innovations in the field of cars, robots and consumer appliances were only to be expected at CES, high-tech clothing is a relatively new addition to the event's roster. Putting it very much on the agenda this year, though, was Under Armour, a Baltimore-based sports clothing and accessories brand.
During its own keynote session, the company focussed on connected fitness – devices and applications that gather information about the exercise, sleep and diet patterns of their users. This year, the latest addition to its repertoire was the US SpeedForm Gemini 2 Record Equipped, said to be the world's first smart sneaker.
Retailing for US$150, this sports shoe tracks and stores data relating to the wearer's work-out session. Compatible with the company's overall fitness tracking system, after 450 miles of use, the shoes even remind you that it's time to buy a new pair.
More subtle and – as a consequence – with a greater potential for going mainstream was a new lineup of hybrid smartwatches from both traditional watch companies and a number of sports brands. Lacking in fashion appeal and frequently duplicating the functions of other digital devices, smartwatches have had a hit-and-miss relationship with US consumers. This could all be changing, though, with certain watch manufacturers confident they can now integrate the most popular smart features without compromising on style.
This year a considerable range of hybrid watches was on show, including the latest offerings from Kate Spade, Armani Exchange, Skagen, MisFit, Emporio Armani and Fossil. Explaining the appeal of this new generation of smartwatches, Robyn Sills, PR and Communications Manager for Texas-based Fossil, said: "While many of them look like traditional analog watches, they don't have to be charged and they have some awesome functionality, including a notifications filter and an activity tracking option. A number of them also have a programmable smart button. This can be set to jump to the next music track, take a selfie or anything the user chooses.
"There are now a lot of choices both aesthetically and in terms of functionality. If one week you decide you don't want to use the smart function, you still have a great-looking watch. It's quite possible that, within the next five years, every item we offer will come with a smart option."
CES, though, just wouldn't be CES without a selection of devices that bordered on the weird. This year these fringe offerings ranged from a smart hairbrush to a connected cat café that keeps tabs on food and water consumption.
For their part, two of the leading beauty brands – L'Oréal and Kérastase – collaborated with Withings, Nokia's dedicated connected health products division, on a 'hair coach' – a smart brush that listens to the sound of hair being combed through its built-in microphone. Together with the input from a number of other sensors, this data is fed to a mobile app that advises the user on how to maintain the most luscious of locks – all for under $200.
If that wasn't quite weird enough to fill this year's weird quota, there was always the Spartan Smart Pants. According to the two French entrepreneurs behind the brand, a layer of silver woven into its proprietary boxers creates an electromagnetic shield, ensuring a man's fertility remains unimpaired by any pocketed cellphone emissions.
Still not quite outré enough? Then, as a last resort, courtesy of the French clothing manufacturer Spinali, there are the vibrating jeans. These, apparently, allow you to navigate you way home through a series of targetted trouser tremors, to the right or to the left as appropriate.
CES 2017 took place at a number of venues across Las Vegas from 5-8 January. The event showcased new products by more than 3,800 companies and attracted in excess of 175,000 visitors.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas