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I’ve returned from the biggest battleground of tech, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
My Intel Basis Peak smartwatch told me that, over four days at CES, I walked 73,376 steps, or 18,344 steps per day. Those steps felt heavier this year because I carried a shoulder bag instead of using a roller bag, per the new security rules at the event. On the plus side, I managed to come back without the nerd flu and without a blister like last year.
I did my best, but that means I still only covered a very small percentage of the 3,000-plus companies spread across 2.4 million square feet of exhibit space at CES. My eyes began to glaze over as I saw the enormous numbers of drones, augmented reality glasses, virtual reality headsets, robots, smart cars, fitness wearables, 3D printers, and smart appliance that were part of the Internet of Things (making everyday objects smart and connected). I have published 63 stories about CES products and events. (I should say, I’ll continue to publish stories from CES over the next couple of weeks). I think this was my 20th CES, though I have lost count.
Inside the bubble of CES, which was attended by an estimated 150,000 people, I didn’t even know the stock market was melting down. CES is the place to look if we want to find the things that are going to save us from economic gloom, although we may have to really look. The global technology industry is expected to generate $950 billion in 2016, down 2 percent from a year ago, with the decline due in no small part to weakness in China. This year, I didn’t see much that was going to save the world economy and overcome the skepticism of natural-born cynics. You could certainly find partisans who will say that virtual reality or the Internet of Things will do that, as both movements have spread well beyond just one or two companies. But it’s a reach to say that these categories have already given us their killer apps.
Sill, I had a lot of fun finding things that I liked, and there was no shortage of these. Without further ado, here’s my favorite technology from CES 2016:
Panasonic Transparent Display
The idea of a transparent display isn’t that new. Big tech companies have been targeting them at retailers for a while. But this week Panasonic showed off a 55-inch television for the living room. The display is embedded in a bookcase, where it can transparently show a kind of trophy case behind the glass. But then it turns to black and shows home portraits. The image swivels to reveal a personalized screen with a weather report or a screen displaying a liquid-like aquarium. And it can even show a television show. The display has micro light-emitting diodes. While the screen is limited, as it isn’t completely transparent, it can display at a resolution of 1080p. This was a glimpse of the future, much like Panasonic’s Magic Mirror from a year ago. And I thought it was a wonderful example of how to make technology blend into the environment of the home.
Eyefluence was the shortest demo I did at CES, but it was enough to show me the future of using your eyes to control things. The tiny Eyefluence sensors are attached to the inside of an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and detect the smallest movements in your eyes. I blinked, turned my head, and moved my eyes around, but Eyefluence could still track when and how I wanted to control something. I could navigate through a menu without using my hands, a keyboard, or a mouse. It was fast. It only takes about a minute to learn how to follow Eyefluence’s instructions, after which you can start controlling things that are before your eyeballs. This could very well supply a major ingredient missing from virtual reality headsets and augmented reality glasses.
Vayyar’s 3D sensing
Israeli startup Vayyar uses 3D imaging with radio waves to see through solid surfaces. It can be used to show a 3D model of a cancerous growth in a woman’s breast. It can be used to detect the heartbeat of a person, such as a sleeping baby, in another room. Or it can be used to find studs or pipes that are hidden in a wall. It can see through materials, objects, and liquids. Vayyar can also detect motion and track multiple people in large areas. It works by shooting a radio wave into a solid object and measuring all of the ways that the wave bounces around as it hits various objects. Vayyar collects the reflections and analyzes them, putting them back together as a 3D image in real time. While it is powerful, the amazing technology doesn’t use a lot of power. It comes from seasoned technologists Raviv Melamed, Miri Ratner, and Naftali Chayat, who were inspired by military technology. Melamed, formerly of Intel, told us that the technology is inexpensive. And yes, if you have the ability to see through things, you’re Superman.
ODG’s ultra-wide wide-angle augmented reality glasses
The Osterhout Design Group has taken its technology for night-vision goggles and turned it into augmented reality headsets for government and enterprises. The newest R-7 headset is like looking at a 65-inch TV screen that’s right in front of your eyeballs. The company demoed a future-generation technology with ultra wide-angle viewing. The R-7 has a 30-degree field of view, but the future product has a 50-degree field of view with a 22:9 aspect ratio. It’s more like sitting in the best seat in an IMAX theater, said Nima Shams, vice president at ODG. I was able to look at it and see a wide Martian landscape. The glasses are packed with technology, from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios to gyroscopes and altitude sensors. The R-7 costs $2,750, but there’s no telling how much the wide-angle display will be. At some point in the future, I fully expect that his experience is going to be better than going to an IMAX theater.
Cypress’s energy-harvesting solar beacon
Beacons are devices that can connect to your smartphone using a local Bluetooth network. Retailers like to use them to send special offers to your smartphone. That technique can target people walking by a specific store and get them to come inside. But Beacons often run out of battery. By combining technology from Spansion (which Cypress Semiconductor has acquired) and Cypress, the product designers can create a Beacon with a solar energy array. Using that technology, the device can generate its own electricity and doesn’t need a battery. You can embed this kind of technology in any device that is part of the Internet of Things (smart and connected everyday objects). You could put a Beacon in a cemetery and use it to send a story about the life of someone buried there. “We want the Internet of Things, but nobody wants to change 20 billion batteries,” said Eran Sandhaus, vice president at Cypress Semiconductor. Hundreds of potential advertisers are looking at it. We’ll definitely need new sources of power, whether kinetic or otherwise. This is how the Internet of Things is going to become practical, with billions of smart, connected objects that operate on the slimmest amount of power.
Netatmo’s Presence smart outdoor security camera
Presence is a smart outdoor security camera that sends an alert based on an analysis of a scene. If someone is loitering around your house, Netatmo’s Presence will detect that person and send a message to your smartphone. It can detect the movements of your pet, or it can tell you if someone is dropping a delivery at your door. You can train the camera to stay in a particular zone and, using deep learning technology, analyze only certain types of motion. It also comes with a floodlight. Presence doesn’t dump a ton of video on you. You don’t have to take an online storage subscription out. When it identifies significant events, it saves the video so that you can view it, preventing you having to view long, unedited footage. Presence will be available in the third quarter.
LG Rollable Display
Rollable and flexible displays seem like either science fiction or a waste of time. But the LG rollable OLED screen is real. We can roll up the screen like a newspaper, and, in fact, that might be a good use of the technology. LG is showing a prototype now that is as thin as paper and has a resolution of 810 x 1200, or almost 1 million pixels. I’m not sure how we’ll end up using it. But I suspect the roller display will find many usages over time. This makes me feel like technology is becoming as disposable and flexible as a poster. You can go somewhere, put up a rollable screen, and then turn your surroundings into a movie theater or living room.
AtmosFlare 3D drawing
3D drawing is pretty cool. Adrian Amjadi of AtmosFlare showed me how to draw physical images in 3D, using the 3D drawing pen. The system uses ultraviolet light to cure a resin. You can pull on it and deform it any way you wish, essentially making something like the jellyfish in the video here. The resin sticks on porous things, but not on metal. The longer you leave the UV light on, the harder it becomes. The $30 system is on sale at Toys ‘R Us. The company says this will “forever change the way you do art.” I don’t know if it’s going to do that, but it did give me a small moment when I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.”
Medium painting and sculpting in Oculus Rift
Oculus VR came up with its “paint app” in September, but I finally got some hands-on time with it at CES. I was amazed at how easy it was to sculpt objects using two virtual hands (via the Oculus Touch hand controls and Oculus Rift headset). Expressing yourself with sculpting tools isn’t easy. But sculpting in the virtual space gave me a feeling of instant gratification. I started with a blank slate. Then I selected a tool for adding clay with one of my hands. I was able to change the way that the clay shot out of the Oculus Touch wand by rotating my hand. Then I was able to smooth out the edges, spray paint it, replicate it, and delete whole sections of it using my hands in the virtual world. It really makes you feel like you are sculpting something that is real. I can imagine it will be very easy to use a 3D printer to print out the 3D creations you build. You could certainly do something like this in a video game, like Media Molecule’s upcoming Dreams game on the PlayStation 4. But in VR, you feel like you are also inside the thing you are creating. You can turn the image to view it from new angles. This is one of those experiences that could make your head explode with creativity if you’re a 3D artist or sculptor.
Parrot has created a unique drone that can fly for 45 minutes on a single charge and reach speeds up to 50 miles per hour. The Parrot Disco is the Swiss company’s latest entry into one of tech’s fastest-growing markets. The Disco is a flying wing that has a motor. It can fly itself or follow instructions you give it via an app. The drone can also take off and land by itself, using its own autopilot. If you use the Parrot Skycontroller, you can get a first-person view on a tablet screen of everything the drone is seeing. You don’t need any training to fly the drone, which has a range of two kilometers, and can navigate its way back to you.
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