For anyone who has not heard the acronym “CES,” it does not represent a legal concept. The initials stand for the Consumer Electronics Show. For the last half century, vendors, distributors, buyers, and the press have gone to the CES where they show, buy, and/or ogle the offerings from the makers and sellers of technology for consumers.
I have gone to CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, every January for most of the last quarter century. In that time, I have watched CES grow dramatically in size and scope—most significantly after the collapse of the computer show known as COMDEX, held in Las Vegas every November for many years. COMDEX canceled its show in 2004 and never held another one. Many vendors that had gone to COMDEX went to the next CES instead, significantly increasing the attendance. Many continued to go to CES, and as the event grew, it attracted even more exhibitors.
CES always presents an interesting collection of goods and services, some new and exciting (even revolutionary), most less exciting and more evolutionary than revolutionary. This year held particular interest for me as it focused on some relatively newly emerging technology and continued the evolution of the IoT (Internet of things). I found myself particularly drawn to the health technology and to the vast array of drones on display. The explosion of offerings in the smart-home rubric tapped into my curiosity, and I spent a fair amount of time looking at those devices.
3-D printers. Another thing that fascinated me came under the heading of evolutionary, not revolutionary. I have watched the evolution of the 3-D printing technology with interest. We see better and more versatile 3-D printers every year. The printers shown at CES ranged widely in size, efficiency, competence, and cost. For those of you who do not have a good grasp of what 3-D printing does, it uses digital files to build three-dimensional objects using whatever materials the printer has been set up to accommodate. Printing from a 3-D printer literally results in the construction of a solid object from the bottom up. The printer lays down one layer of material after another until it completes the object. Most 3-D printers use a plastic filament as the construction material, but some printers employ many other materials. Materials used for 3-D printing include, without limitation, ABS plastic, PLA, polyamide (nylon), glass-filled polyamide, graphite, graphene, epoxy resins, silver, titanium, steel, wax, photopolymers, and polycarbonate. I have seen a wide variety of products generated by 3-D printers, including various toys, figurines, chess pieces, small parts for other devices, and molds for casting jewelry.
At CES I saw one 3-D printer that I found quite impressive. I am negotiating for a demo unit so I can try it out. If that comes to fruition, I will likely review it for you at a later date. From what I could see on the exhibit floor, it appeared compact, solid, stable, competent, and efficient, and it only costs $699.
VR and AR. If you want to sound like you know your stuff when it comes to technology, you need to keep current in the latest terms and acronyms. For you old-timers who think “VR” means voice recognition (as it used to do and still does), be advised that it now also refers to virtual reality, and you have to differentiate by context.
Virtual reality relates to the ability to create a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or projected environment where a user can interact in an apparently real way, usually using special electronic equipment such as goggles with a screen inside.
You also need to distinguish between virtual reality and augmented reality (AR). Augmented reality blends elements of virtual reality and real life. Developers can create images that merge with the real world, allowing users to seemingly interact with virtual components in the real world.
Although both have business uses, they come into play most heavily (so far) in entertainment and gaming. I point this out because I saw a significant amount of VR and AR at the show. Expect to see devices to facilitate both in droves during the next year or so. Be careful with them: Augmented reality, while it might prove entertaining, may also prove highly distracting and ultimately expose the user to dangers resulting from inattention to the real world owing to the distraction of the augmentation. It should go without saying that you should not play with AR while driving any vehicle, and you are well advised to use caution if you use AR while walking in traffic.
IoT. One of the biggest players at the show, the Internet of things (IoT), showed up almost everywhere. IoT refers to the connection through the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. We use the term IoT to incorporate much of the health-tech and smart-home technology we encounter. Speaking of health tech and smart homes, they each accounted for an amazingly large piece of the show. A few years ago, these represented very small components; now they appear almost ubiquitous.
Health tech. Health tech includes a collection of devices (wearable and not) that electronically poke, prod, and assess us in our sleeping and waking hours to determine the state of our health. They can measure caloric intake, caloric use, blood pressure, oxygen levels in our blood, blood glucose, strength, physical activities, brain activity, how long and how soundly we sleep, and more. Many of these devices come with Internet connectivity (usually WiFi), enabling them to transmit information to your doctor or simply to an Internet account that will store the information for you and maintain your records for later reference and/or transmittal to your medical team. The Apple Watch, Fitbit devices, and similar technology represent examples of this part of the pie, but they only scratch the surface. On the horizon you will find myriad condition-specific devices that can supply continuous monitoring to the patient and information to the medical team via a wireless connection. Also on display were several devices that can facilitate the diagnostic process for medical professionals.
In a similar vein, smart devices can measure your activity during a workout to gauge how efficiently and effectively you exert yourself. Some of the devices also have a coaching function to help you in your efforts, functioning effectively as a virtual personal trainer.
Smart-home tech. To my surprise, the smart-home devices took up an extremely large part of the exhibit space. It seems that the marketing departments for every company making things for the house from doorbells to refrigerators and beyond have decreed that whatever you make, you must add the word “smart” in front of it before you let it on the market if you want it to sell. We now have, in addition to our smartphones, smart deadbolts and door locks, smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, and, the one that caught me most off guard, the smart toilet (sorry, but that seems like an oxymoron to me; if it had any brains, I suspect that it would not serve as a toilet. . .).
FYI, they call the toilets “smart” as they can figure out when to flush themselves (no need to push a lever anymore). They also can determine the amount of water necessary to complete the flush and regulate the flow of water (kind of an automatic version of the toilets I have found regularly in Europe, but not so often in the United States); they give you the option of manually selecting a smaller or larger flush depending on the content of the toilet bowl. Some of the smarter toilets also have overflow protection. Other features available on the smart toilets (at varying prices) include:
- massaging bidet wash;
- air dryer;
- heated toilet seat;
- foot warmer;
- remote control;
and what smart toilet would be complete in today’s word without
- Bluetooth and MP3 capabilities to provide entertainment while you utilize it.
The smart refrigerators have a feature range from a camera that lets you connect to it from outside the house to see what you have there and determine what you need to buy at the store, to the Samsung Family Hub, which incorporates a WiFi-enabled touchscreen on the door to facilitate the management of your shopping list, communications with family members, maintaining family calendars, sharing pictures, and, of course, entertainment—it will stream and play music through the built-in wireless speakers. In case you found yourself wondering, the smart refrigerators come at a steep cost increase over not-so-smart refrigerators (like most of us currently have). Samsung’s Family Hub lists for just under $6,000 (I have seen it discounted online by about $1,500 to $1,600).
Smart door locks let you skip carrying keys and gain entry to your house or office using biometric measurements (e.g., fingerprint scans) or a smartphone app.
Smart doorbells connect your front porch to the Internet and let you answer the door from anywhere in the world you have an Internet connection, allowing you see who is at the door and speak directly to them. Just think of it: You can reject the overtures of a door-to-door salesperson from across the city, across the country, or even overseas.
If you have a smart house, all the smart devices you have installed connect to each other and to the Internet, allowing you to control them remotely from wherever you happen to be through a wireless connection and a smartphone app. So, with a smart house, you can turn the thermostat on or off, answer the door, check on your groceries, watch your pets play, lock or unlock the door, etc., etc. (you get the picture), from inside the house, inside your car, at your desk, or on your vacation.
In all honesty, as I wandered through the maze of smart devices displayed at the show, thinking that we had finally reached the point where we might envision life as in The Jetsons animated television show, I had to wonder whether someone planned on making smart people who could use all these devices productively. For those of you too young to remember George Jetson and family: The Jetsons was produced by Hanna-Barbera, the same people who gave us The Flintstones (the animated show for which the vitamins were named). The Jetsons debuted in the early 1960s and presented an animated sitcom based on a futuristic version of our world. While we have not yet fully achieved all that the Jetsons’ lifestyle depicted, it appears that we are moving ever closer to that image. I, for one, will hold out for the flying car that folds into a briefcase at the push of a button and somehow weighs so little that the case can easily be carried.
Drones. Speaking of flying machines, when I went through the exhibits, I saw hundreds of drones of all sizes and shapes. The drones ran the gamut from those designed for commercial uses to those designed for entertainment. Most of the drones contained high-definition video cameras with the ability to record information as they flew, often transmitting it wirelessly to the ground. Drones seem to captivate many of us, and at CES the crowds around areas where vendors were demonstrating their drones grew very large. The drones ranged from the mundane to the fanciful, including drones predicated on the Star Wars franchise, drones designed for use in drone-to-drone combat, drones designed to record information about properties and topography, and drones designed to monitor construction or other projects in progress. I saw drones of all sizes and shapes, ranging from some less than an ounce in weight that would fit on a fingertip to others several pounds in weight and almost a yard across. One of the drones I found most impressive folded up into a very small, compact, secure unit easily carried in a backpack. The drones I saw ranged in price from under $50 to several thousand dollars. The drones came in many configurations, but the most common included four propellers mounted to the top of the drone, similarly to helicopter propellers. In fact, such drones often are referred to as “quadracopters.”
Some of the drones I saw came with separate controller devices, others operated through smartphone apps. Some of the smaller drones work well indoors (perhaps even better than outdoors as their size makes them vulnerable to relatively small gusts of winds). The larger drones are designed for outdoor use only. A word of warning: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed regulations respecting drones. These regulations require registration of drones of a certain size. Flying an unregistered drone can result in a significant fine. The basic flying rules imposed by the FAA include:
- fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles;
- keep the aircraft within visual line of sight;
- remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations;
- don’t fly within five miles of an airport;
- don’t fly near people or stadiums;
- don’t fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds; and
- don’t be careless or reckless.
If you are interested in getting a drone, be sure to check out the FAA rules. (PC Magazine recently published a summary of these rules.) Additionally, some localities have their own restrictions relating to drones, and you should check out that possibility wherever you plan on flying your drone. (See tinyurl.com/jerou5w.)
Smartphone cases. Getting back to the more mundane, I always leave CES impressed by how many vendors really and truly believe the world needs another smartphone case. In that sense, this year was no exception, but this year did see the first claims I saw for “smart cases” for smartphones. I did not see a lot of companies try this promotional gambit, but there were enough to cause me to wonder about the possibility of litigation over smart cases designed for the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 not being smart enough to stay off a phone that might catch fire (just kidding). In this context, the reference to a “smart case” means a case that can morph into other functions than simply holding the phone. Such features don’t represent a new concept, only a new label. They expand a concept that we have had for some time (cases functioning as wallets or providing additional battery power or additional photographic capabilities).
Closing thoughts. Those of you who have followed my writing know me as an avid technophile. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that there can come a time when we have too much of a good thing. I will never say that we have too much technology, but I came away from CES this year thinking that, while we have developed some exceptional technology and some wonderful inventions to make our lives easier and more productive, we also have a lot of waste of effort and resources, resulting in the creation and offering of things having what I will most charitably describe as marginal utility. I recognize that many of these marginal items will not continue as viable in the marketplace owing to their lack of appeal to end users, but I do consider it unfortunate that so much time, effort, and money go into the development of things that offer relatively little in terms of innovation or advancement. I believe that we can do better and that we should do better. That said, hope springs eternal; I plan on making my annual pilgrimage to CES in Las Vegas next January. As always, I will look for new and different things that will make life better.