CES 2016: A Place for the Insane and (Sometimes) Useful Technologies

CRB_1271The international Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegas gets underway today. This popular show gathers tech companies, reporters, advertisers and analysts for one giant sprawling series of events dedicated to showing off thousands of new gadgets.

The CES typically offers a mix of cutting-edge tech products that range from exciting and potentially world-changing to insane ideas, with a likely mixture of both. However, most of the time, the CES offers an excellent window at the big new trends in consumer technology that companies hope will be successful in the coming year. Some technologies, like 3D TV or ultrabook laptops, have fallen completely flat. But others, like virtual reality and 4K TV, are steadily making their way into our living rooms.

What are some of the things we should expect to see this year?

Wearables

The year 2015 was a big one for wearables. The release of the Apple Watch, updated Android Wear OS and new versions of the Pebble Watch made their way to our wrists. This year, we could see many of the same themes: fitness tracking, notification serving and always-connected will likely play a big role in the new year. Most of the wearable tech present at CES in 2016 will take the shape of small gadgets. But those looking to make a statement have no shortage of options either.

Virtual reality

It looks like 2016 will finally be the year that consumers will be able to get their hands on powerful VR headsets. Major players in VR like Facebook-owned Oculus and Sony-owned Playstation VR will drum up pre-launch buzz at each of their CES booths by showing off some of the most advanced headsets on the planet.

Smart Homes

At this year’s CES, almost all of the Tech West hall will be covered by new smart home gadgets. Products that are compatible with Google’s Nest Learning Thermostat, Apple HomeKit, Wink, and Thread are expected to be there in numbers.

Driver-less Cars

Driverless cars are set to come onto the scene in a big way. Appearances from Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Hyundai, Mercedes, Toyota and more could bring some interesting features to the car industry in their own right. Chevy and Volkswagen are expected to unveil new electric automobiles. And Ford might be looking to unveil its Google-powered self-driving cars.

Drones

A newly designed drone from Amazon was revealed for its fleet of proposed delivery drones in a video posted to YouTube. The new Amazon “hybrid” drone can switch between flying like a helicopter and airplane, and has a range of 15 miles, according to the company.

Times have changed for drone technology. As recently as 2014, there were only four exhibitors at CES that were offering drones. This year, there will be 27 different exhibitors, with a massive marketplace taking up a large percentage of the showroom floor. Today’s demands for drone technology is that they have advanced sensor arrays that monitor the environment, keep them from crashing, remain in legal airspace, and make flying them easier.

The British Are Coming

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I’m a huge theater geek. Every time I visit New York, I stay as close to Broadway as possible and have been known to see a show a night for the entire trip. It’s not exactly a cheap hobby, but you do see some terrific stuff. Last night, I swapped Game of Thrones for the Tony’s and settled in for the usual cavalcade of “luvvy” fun watching a rich whitey award talented young things. By the way, what on earth prompted them to put Kristin Chenoweth in charge of anything? Let alone half the hosting duties. Fortunately, the writing was strong and she was there mostly as a punch line. But really, that was the best we could do?

It started with Helen Mirren and got progressively more and more British as the evening wore on. It’s tough to get more British than Helen Mirren, but somehow they succeeded. In category after category, the large glossy American shows and plays were aced out by edgy Brit fare. It was almost weird to watch. Plays like Fun Home and The Curious Case of The Dog in the Night pretty much swept the board. The Brits also won the categories they don’t typically feature on the show, like design and staging.

The stuff that did the best was by no means typical Broadway. It was dark, edgy, disturbing and, in most cases, pretty low budget. It was as if the powers that be just had enough of the glittery stuff. Speaking of glitter, I was delighted to see that John Cameron Mitchel — the creator of the show I have seen more than any other, Hedwig and the Angry Inch — was given his own special award. Having won a bunch of Tonys (including best revival of a musical last year), it didn’t seem like he was missing one. But perhaps it was special recognition for soldiering on with a knee brace, having broken his ACL on stage in the current run. A theatrical Purple Heart maybe.

There is some very cool looking large-scale and edgy US material currently burning up Broadway. If I was a gambling man, I’d have $50 on the hip hop musical about our founding fathers, Hamilton, sweeping next year’s crop. I was trying to get tickets last night, and there was nothing available until late July. Either way, last night it was cool to be a theater-mad Brit. Now, if we could only make more great movies.

Glass as Fight Club

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The tech portion of SXSW ground to a hipster halt yesterday with the boss of the Google X division sharing insights and updates. As you may recall I’m not a huge fan of Google Glass…I like wearable tech but I always thought the way Google positioned Glass as an elitist ‘too cool for you’ gimmick was flawed.  Back in the day Google reveled in product demand, celebrating the desire from the Brooklyn Bearded ones to decorate their faces with the ultimate symbol of in-crowd cool. The mere fact that the battery life was awful, the functionality clunky and the obvious invasion of privacy concerns were ignored was neither here nor there. In yesterday’s session Astro Teller (yes that’s really his name) pinned most of the blame for Glasses failure on the way Google over hyped the project.  In effect they misled their audience to think that it was a cool finished piece of cutting edge tech as opposed to a cool looking but clunky second screen for an Android phone. In short they talked it up…then talked it to death.

Google loves long betas. as I recall their main search was in “beta” for five years.  That’s fine with a free to use web product, but in high priced consumer electronics getting the 1.0 of something is problematic…getting the beta is a recipe for disaster.  If it was never really a stable product hyping it hurt them and the entire wearable market. They turned wearable tech a into a punchline for late night talk show monologues. Next time (and I’m sure there will be one) I imagine they will take a much lower profile marketing approach….the first rule of the new Google Glass will be….Don’t talk about Google Glass.  The second rule…DON’T TALK ABOUT GOOGLE GLASS.

Expectations from the Apple Watch “Spring Forward” Event Today

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The Apple Watch, set to go on sale likely next month, will be Apple’s first venture into the smartwatch market and also its first new product category since the iPad made its debut in 2010. Introduced back in September, this gadget is expected to come with a number of new features and a wide selection of styles.

Apple has left many questions unanswered regarding features, price, battery and more. Full details will be revealed during the company’s Spring Forward press event today. Here’s what we expect to learn about the Apple Watch.

  • App Development

Several big companies are reportedly planning to release apps for the Apple Watch on launch. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter are among them. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide’s app will be able to unlock hotel-room doors, and United Airlines plans to release an app to provide flight notifications.

  • Battery Life

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he expects the Apple Watch battery life to last all day. Beyond that, the company has remained mostly quiet. On the low end, the Apple Watch may last only 2.5 hours under constant active use. Combined passive and active use would bring the Watch closer to 19 hours. To stretch that, it may also ship with a feature called Power Reserve, which would reduce its power consumption and disable all features outside of timekeeping.

  • Communication Methods

The Apple Watch will display notifications from apps and a paired iPhone. It will enable users to communicate in new ways, through heartbeats, Siri, sketches and Yo-style taps. Users will also be able to transfer messages, emails and calls from the Apple Watch to an iPhone for longer conversations.

  • Health And Fitness Focus

The Apple Watch will come with a variety of health features at launch, including a built-in heart-rate sensor. It will be able to track various types of activity throughout the day, such as moving and exercising. And if a user is not standing up or walking around much, it can be set to provide a gentle nudge with a couple of vibrations.

  • Price

The Apple Watch will start at $349 for the sport model, which features an aluminum case and Ion-X Glass for the touch screen, according to the company. But Apple hasn’t said where it plans to price the stainless steel-version and the 18-karat gold Apple Watch Edition, which both feature a sapphire screen. The steel model could come in at between $499 and $549. Estimates place the gold model anywhere between from $5,000 to $10,000.

  • Watch Band Options

The Apple Watch will have a number of interchangeable bands available for purchase. Among the options are five colors of the fluoroelastomer band, eight leather bands and three steel bands. Prices for the bands are expected to fall between $49 and $99 for the fluoroelastomer and steel bands. If Apple introduces gold options, their prices could go into the thousands of dollars.

  • Retail Store Changes

Apple is expected to make some changes to its retail stores when the Apple Watch launches, such as the introduction of glass display cases to create a more upscale buying experience such as a jewelry store. The Watch could also get its own retail space: Apple has been seen setting up displays in high-end department stores in Paris and London.

 

Moving the Dial at CES

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It’s CES time in Las Vegas….the great and the good of consumer electronics get together and announce larger screens, newer gizmos and tech trends. This year there is much hullabaloo around two areas which I don’t think will impact most people and one which will. Let’s dive in.

The Internet of Things has been a hot topic in the investment space for a few years. The idea here is hooking up the devices which surround us to the web and make them smart. If you are running low on milk your fridge could message your smart watch or car to remind you to stock up.

Wearables are the other hot topic. Our clothing is in danger of getting smarter and  our watches are becoming mini computers. Both of these areas are interesting and over time they will no doubt become much more widely adopted. At the moment both suffer from several key handicaps:
  • They are typically on the expensive side….certainly above the price point where they will be adopted wholesale by budget conscious kids.
  • They can be clunky to use and fragile….battery life is an old school problem which dogs these new school products.
  • They lack the killer application which will drive mas adoption…I’m a tech-aholic and I’m not particularly driven to adopt either. I already have a computer in my pocket already and if I need milk I’ll remember…or not.

The announcement which I am super excited by is the announcement by dish that for $20 a month they will enable you to stream things like Hulu and Netflix and a bunch of cable mainstays like CNN and ESPN. It doesn’t include the broadcast giants CBS, NBC, ABC or Fox…but it is interesting to note that both ABC and ESPN are owned by Disney so that may foreshadow future developments. I live in a modern very efficient house with solar and pretty much my most expensive utility bill is for Verizon Fios. I have sons who are in college or early into careers and the hundred bucks a month most households shell out for cable TV has been a very intractable bill for them. Users will still have to get internet service to the house which is widely available for about $15 a month. Add in Sling from Dish TV (which can run on pretty much any streaming device including smart TVs and for $35 many households (especially younger cable cutters) may well be satisfied. That’s a huge saving and the cable giants are going to have a fit.

Did the US Shut Off Internet for North Korea?

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North Korea’s connection to the public Internet went down Monday, after U.S. officials promised a “proportional response” to the nation’s alleged cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Matthew Prince, chief executive of Cloudflare, a network and security company that monitors global Web access, said it’s conceivable. His engineers confirmed North Korea started losing its Internet connection to the outside world early Monday East Coast time, and was still down at mid-day.

Dyn, which monitors Internet performance, said its tests found North Korean Internet addresses unreachable since 11:15 a.m. ET. But Prince said there are more likely scenarios. Here are three:

Option One: North Korea shut off its own Internet access. Sounds crazy by U.S. standards but tightly controlled regimes, such as Syria, have a history of severing connections during tense moments on the world stage. Doing so would prevent the few North Koreans with Internet access from reading about the current crisis over the Sony hack and would block any incoming cyberattack from the U.S. or its allies.

Option Two: China shut off North Korea’s Internet access. North Korea gets its Internet access through China Unicom, the mainland telecommunications giant, in Shenyang, China. U.S. officials have said they are reaching out to China to pressure North Korea over its alleged involvement in the Sony hack.

Option Three: Someone is interfering with North Korea’s Internet traffic. Since North Korea has just one main connection to the global Internet, it would be possible for an outsider such as a foreign government or mischievous hackers to overload North Korea’s broadband connection with malicious traffic.

What do you guys think happened to North Korea’s internet access?

Android Going Wider

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Last week Apple gave us the larger, thinner, faster and considerably more expensive iPhone 6. Only they make the hardware. A while ago Apple pretty much invented then ruled the smartphone segment, now it’s a firm second to Android which already has over a billion users so far. Today Google announced the first Android One powered smart phones targeted at the emerging (ie third world) market and it’s coming out at just over $100. That’s an impressive move. It’s not that there haven’t been cheap smartphones out there, there have. This move is interesting because it represents a reliable high quality OS controlled by Google being offered on robust hardware built by major players.

Part of what has driven Google nuts in recent years is that Android as customized and deployed by phone manufacturers has tended to be both twitchy and bloated with custom modules added by the manufactures often to the detriment of the Android user. Not so in the case of Android One. In this version the handset makers will not be able to modify Android. They will be able to add their own apps but Google will control the OS and will be able to update it remotely. That means Google will be much less vulnerable to hardware driven weirdness and will be able to fix problems without relying on the handset guys cooperation.

Seen in the wider context of emerging markets it makes a lot of sense. Much of the developing world has gone straight to wireless without ever touching large scale copper wire. The addition of lower price high quality handsets and very affordable data plans means the the next billion Android users may be a lot closer than we may have thought.

Although this isn’t necessarily an immediate and massive cash win for Google, taking what amounts to global control of the user experience for what will amount to perhaps 30% of humanity is compelling. It will be Google Apps, search and thus ads which will become the global default. You have to admire the long term thinking.

Oh Apple….Really?

 

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I tried really hard to listen live to the Apple announcement today.  The live feed started 6 minutes late and was apparently being simultaneously translated into Japanese….which I could hear much better than the English language version. The feed stopped, broke and stuttered …so I gave up. I like many other people live in  world of Apple hardware running mostly Google applications. I don’t think today changed much of that. The lame live streaming was a harbinger of lameness to follow.

Apple hit the most of marks that were strategically leaked. the phones and phone tablets Phablets (Lord I hate that word) are bigger, brighter more powerful as expected….none of the features would make me pay the extra to upgrade but would probably keep me on the brand going forwards. The downside (as always) is going to be cost. There are many very good much cheaper Android phones out there with bigger specs and lower prices.

The payment component is probably more interesting. Near Field technology to allow secure payment by device as opposed to a card or cash is ancient. they were doing it in South Korea when I was there a decade ago. It’s been very slow off the mark in the US but the fact that Apple has done the legwork to launch it with most the major banks and many thousands of retail outlets may finally get this off the ground in the US. It’s been a long time coming…but welcome none the less.

The other much leaked launch is the Apple Watch….interestingly not called the iWatch.  The world of wearable tech has been taking off nicely and this is Apples contribution to the effort. Put simply…it’s horrible. It looks like something dropped by my 2 year old grandson. The tech inside and the UI may be terrific but I would cut my hand off before I’d put this on my wrist. I’m actually kinda shocked that they would go with a watch most people wouldn’t be seen dead wearing. Leave aside the fact that there was no info on battery life and no wireless charging…this just looks awful….and fragile. At nearly $350 it’s not fitbit cheap….but looks worse.

They ended the presentation with a surprise performance by U2. Not sure that was a great message either. They are for sure mega stars…but also blow-hardy showing their age and haven’t innovated much at all in the last few years. Oh….no wait…that was perfect.

Fingers Crossed for Apple Tomorrow… We Need a Cool New Toy

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This Tuesday, Apple launches their highly anticipated live event. Many have speculated what is set to be revealed this year, as Apple has been rumored to make a splash in the wearable technology market with the so-called “iWatch.”

Most analysts believe such a device is coming, releasing a smartwatch now would mirror Apple’s strategy in the MP3-player market, where the company waited for a few smaller players to release devices and then went on to dominate the market with its own higher-end product.

Should Apple announce an iWatch this week, the company will likely also unveil a release date a little later in the year so as to coincide with the holiday shopping season. However some analysts believe Apple may postpone the iWatch announcement altogether, allowing it to stagger its big announcements and keep this week’s focus squarely on its new phones.

Beyond the traditional improvements Apple tends to make with every new generation of hardware, the defining feature of the products expected to be unveiled this week will almost certainly be screen size. The above photo is one of many rumored prototypes of a new iPhone, including a bigger screen than the traditional iPhone size. For years, Apple refused to alter the screen size of its flagship device.

In recent years, top rivals of Apple such as Samsung have proven that there exists a market for phones with larger screens. It is unlikely that Apple will release anything as large as the 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega, or the 7” Galaxy W, but analysts expect Apple to unveil two new types of iPhone – one with a 4.7-inch screen and the other with a 5.5-inch screen. Both would be larger than the most recent, 4-inch iteration of the smartphone.

Since the iPhone morphed from a revolutionary new product into a consumer mainstay several years ago, Apple launch events have largely focused on new tools and services for the hardware, rather than the hardware itself. This week’s event will likely be no exception, as Apple executives are expected to spend a lot of time talking about various cloud-based services – most notably, a new wireless payment standard that will allow iPhone users to make purchases simply by swiping their devices past terminals at the checkout. Many Apple rivals, including BlackBerry, have spent considerable energy on similar wireless payment models, but Apple’s entry is likely to shake up the technology, which has not yet taken off in a big way in North America.

But Apple’s promotion of cloud-based services is likely to prove a little tricky after an embarrassing black eye last week. In a high-profile incident the company has yet to fully explain, numerous celebrities saw their iCloud accounts hacked and intimate photos and other content stolen and distributed across the Internet. The hacking incident reignited a debate about the security of the infrastructure in which Apple users store everything from multimedia to credit-card numbers. As such, Apple executives will now almost certainly have to dedicate some time during this week’s presentation to reassure current and potential customers that their data are safe in the Apple cloud.