LAS VEGAS: Hello future, you are weird. At least it is here at CES 2019, the tech industry’s biggest annual conference. It’s where companies big and small come to launch gadgets and test new ideas.
Not all of them make it to stores. But there’s an eternal optimism that technology can solve any problem - even ones you never knew you had. There are suitcases that push themselves and automatic toilets for dogs.
The big news this year is that artificial intelligence is working its way into all sorts of places, from your bedroom to the concierge desk. Amazon’s Alexa is battling with Google Assistant to control our fans, taps, clocks, you name it. Alexa is winning the race for more gadgets, though Google seems smarter - just ask it to be your interpreter.
TVs are entering a new phase. Just when we were getting used to UltraHD 4K televisions, the industry is gearing up to start pushing (still extremely pricey) upgrades to 8K sets.
And talk about weird: Samsung and Apple became official frenemies by including an app for iTunes on Samsung’s newest TVs.
Walking the show floor this year, I picked these products - some practical, some downright strange - that captured the spirit of where things are headed or at least the creativity that makes CES so much fun.
The roll-up TV: LG Signature OLED TV R
This is 2019’s must-have television for billionaires and wannabe James Bonds. With the tap of a button, LG’s 65-inch TV dramatically rises from a long box where it is rolled up inside. How did they do that? The screen uses plastic and OLED tech, which in addition to having fantastic image quality is also capable of bending. (Coming this year, we’ll also be getting smartphones with foldable OLED screens.) The idea is you can place your TV in front of a window without having it block the view all the time. But with a TV like this, who wants to be inconspicuous? Go ahead and show off: LG says it can withstand being rolled up for at least 50000 cycles.
Price TBD, available later this year.
The self-driving follow-along suitcase: Ovis
The suitcase that follows you like a puppy has been a long-running CES fantasy. This one, from a company called ForwardX, looks the closest to actually delivering. Cameras all over it identify you - as opposed to a someone else passing by - and then lock on and follow you at up to10 km/* , avoiding obstacles along the way. (The company also put the same tech into a lawn mower.) When I tried it, the suitcase kept up about 75% of the time, even when I spun around in circles. You can wear a companion wristband that vibrates if your suitcase strays too far. Now can we get one that also unpacks itself?
$800 (R11000), available on Amazon in the second half of the year.
The TV app: Apple iTunes on Samsung TVs
Sometimes CES makes strange bedfellows. Samsung TVs will now support an app for Apple’s iTunes movies and TV shows. That means you can buy video from Apple without plugging in Apple’s own streaming box, the Apple TV. And new sets from a variety of makers including Samsung and LG will also support AirPlay 2, Apple’s tech for beaming music, pictures and video from iPhones and Macs to the big screen. Why is Apple suddenly playing nice with other hardware brands? It’s part of a bigger push by the tech giant into making money through services, including subscriptions for music and (perhaps soon) streaming video.
Available by midyear.
The companion robot: Lovot
Japanese inventors really want robot pets to become a thing. First there was Sony’s Aibo the dog. The latest, from a firm called Groove X, is like a cat from the future: it doesn’t do anything. But its sophisticated technology makes you feel like you need to pick it up and cuddle, particularly when it flaps little cloth-covered arms. Some 50 sensors and cameras - many in a “horn” on top of its head - recognise faces and the heat of humans and other organic pets. Sold in sets of two, they’ll play with each other and also compete for your attention. Before you adopt one, though, know Lovots really do demand a lot of attention. Half an hour with two of them booping around and begging to be loved left me a little batty.
$3000 for two and a charging “nest,” shipping in the US in 2020.
The security camera for your peephole: Ring Door View Cam
Ring, the company that popularised internet-connected doorbells, has found a new place to stick one of its tiny cameras: your door viewer. From the outside, it looks like a doorbell, letting people in apartments, dorms or other buildings that only have knockers add that functionality. But this thing does more than just ring when someone presses the button: it pushes an alert to the owner’s phone that someone’s at the door, allows for two-way conversations and even records live video of what’s happening. You can also have it trigger an alert when there’s motion at the door or someone simply knocks. You’ll have to charge its battery from time to time.
$200, available later this year.
The new resolution: 8K TVs, with 16 times the pixels of HD TVs
4K is already old hat. Why do we need even more Ks? With 8k screens, the idea is we can sit closer without seeing any pixels. But it’s also a way for Samsung, LG, Sony and other manufacturers to start seeding the notion that we need to upgrade in the next few years. In person, the pictures certainly are crisply detailed - on a shot of a swarm of bees, I could see every disgusting hair. But for the moment there aren’t any decent sources of 8K content, so the TVs are all taking lower-resolution stuff and using algorithms to make up the pixels in between. The takeaway: 8K is in our future, but not something you need to buy today.
Price TBD, many available before midyear.
The instant translator: Google Assistant Interpreter Mode
Google’s ever-improving AI translation capabilities have made the leap to its smart speakers. Say “Hello Google, be my Italian interpreter”, and, ciao bella, it’ll start listening, and translating - pronto! On Google Home devices with displays you’ll see a split-screen readout of what it hears and the translation. It works in more than 20 languages. Google is piloting Interpreter at concierge desks Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco. It might also be a lifesaver in any home hosting a foreign exchange student.
Available in the coming weeks on Google Home devices.
The automated dog toilet: Inubox
Can’t get home in time to walk Lassie? Inubox has got you covered in a very techie way. Lassie steps in, and sensors detect when she’s done her business. Then a shelf closes up and cleans itself, pushing the waste into a sand basket and, eventually, sealed baggies you dispose of properly. At the end of the process, it automatically dispenses a treat for the dog too. Inbox promises the whole thing is odourless to humans, though it smells like a toilet to a dog.