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.

Google’s 2015 Year-In-Search

google-year-in-search-2014In prior years, nothing gets people Googling quite like the passing of a celebrity. But in 2015, some of the most searched-for deaths in the U.S. weren’t famous people at all, but regular people who died while in police custody.

Google released its annual roundup of what the U.S. searched for this year. They aren’t the top searches by volume, but top “trending” searches, meaning they saw the biggest spikes.

People We Lost

The third most searched for death was Sandra Bland, an African American woman who was found hanging in her jail cell in July, three days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop. Freddie Gray, who died from spinal cord injuries while in police custody, was fourth on the list. The passing of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown’s daughter Bobbi Kristina topped the list, followed by longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott.

Biggest Searches

The most searched for topic overall wasn’t someone who died, though he came close. It was former basketball player and Keeping up with the Kardashians fixture Lamar Odom, who was found unconscious in a brothel in October. Not all searches were morbid. The top trending searchers of the year were mostly on lighter topics:

  1. Lamar Odom
  2. Jurassic World
  3. American Sniper
  4. Caitlyn Jenner
  5. Ronda Rousey

Breaking News

As big news stories unfolded, people went to Google for updates and answers. Google Trends dug into the top global stories this year, with an interactive graphic that looked at how the stories spread around the world and the most pressing questions people had about them.

Google’s biggest news story of the year was Paris. When terrorists attacked the French city on November 13, people around the world asked “What happened in Paris?” “Why did ISIS attack Paris?” and “Is it safe to travel to Paris?” There were more than 897 million searches related to the Paris attack.

Afraid of the Needle?

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Google has filed a patent for a needle-free blood drawing system for people who frequently test their blood levels, of which the device is called “”Needle-Free Blood Draw” and can penetrate the skin without the needle. Such an application might be used to draw a small amount of blood, for example, for a glucose test.

The patent suggests that the device works by firing a microparticle into the skin using a high powered gas barrel. Thanks to the negative pressure, the device is able to collect a small amount of blood from the skin at the point where the microparticle entered – meaning no needles are used in the entire process.

This isn’t the first device Google has been working on that is aimed at the 9% of adults aged 18+ who have diabetes; Google Life Sciences – once a division of Google X until the Alphabet restructuring – is working on contact lenses that can measure a patient’s blood sugar levels by analyzing their tears. They are also making a bandage-sized, cloud-connected sensor to help people monitor their glucose levels.

Create Your Own Virtual Reality with Google Cardboard App

487582-google-cardboard-cameraGoogle is taking its virtual reality efforts to the next level with the launch of a new app called Cardboard Camera, which enables Android users to create their own virtual reality content using the cameras on their phones.

With the app, you can just hold out your phone and movie around you in a circle. Then, when you put your phone in a Google Cardboard viewer, you can experience the photo in virtual reality. The photos are 3D panoramas that provide “slightly different” views for each of your eyes. This makes it so that near things look near and far things look far. You can look around to explore the image in all directions, and even record sound with your photo to hear the moment exactly as it happened. With Cardboard Camera, anyone can create their own VR experience.

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Google+ Surviving by Refocusing Its Use and New Design

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Google+ is still trucking along as a social network, as Google announced a redesign for the site that focuses purely on the social aspects and moves the site from being people-based to focus more on “interests.”

The new design brings a splash of color and more of Google’s Material Design aesthetic to the desktop site. The whole thing looks a lot more like the mobile app. The header has changed from a boring gray to a bright red, and the mobile app’s floating circular button even makes an appearance as the new way to write a post. The “core” of the site looks pretty much the same—text and images inside a scrolling list of cards.

Narrowing the focus of Google+ was probably the best way for Google to salvage the service. It originally started life as a Facebook-style social network for posting links, photos, status updates, and more with your friends. The original big innovation was the concept of dividing the people you followed on Google+ into “circles” and then sharing content with just the relevant groups of people, but it failed to catch on with users. However, there’s no doubt that some good things came out of Google+ as well — particularly the excellent Google Photos project that the company separated out of Google+ back at I/O this year. With the change, Google+ will formally be less about interacting with your friends and more about finding topics that interest you and meeting people across the internet who have those same interests.

Google Allowing Users to Control Public Information

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There is a lot of talk regarding privacy and more people are concerned about their searchable online data. Aware of this change in the behavior of its users, Google has recently released a new tool to help control online privacy, called “About me”.

Users can adjust their personal and work contact information, education and employment history as well as the places they have lived. It is also possible to control who sees gender, birthday, occupation, personal websites and social network URLs.

Google explains that all the content on the About Me page is “information that people explicitly provided to Google.” Also noting that “people have control over what information is here and on the About Me page, they can control what others see about them across Google Services.”

Google’s Machine Learning TensorFlow Is Now Open-Sourced

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Machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence that employs software to interpret and make predictions from large sets of data, is in popular demand in Silicon Valley. Some of the largest of those companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple have thrown their hat into the ring. But it was Google that started the trend, and in order to remain innovative, Google needed to keep looking like the cutting-edge leader.

Hence TensorFlow, a machine-learning system that Google has used internally for a few years. Today, Google is taking it open source, releasing the software parameters to fellow engineers, academics and hacks with enough coding skills. There is no denying that learning systems have made it possible to create and improve apps when it comes to speech and image recognition technologies.

For example, Google Photos have benefitted from their own machine learning system, called DisBelief. Developed in 2011, DisBelief has helped Google build large neural networks, but it has its limitations, including difficult configurations and its inability to share code externally. As a result, the company has open-sourced TensorFlow, which was designed to fix the shortcomings of DisBelief. However, it’s important to note that it only allows for part of the AI engine to be open-sourced.

By releasing TensorFlow, Google aims to make the software it built to develop and run its own AI systems a part of the standard toolset used by researchers. It may also help Google identify potential talent for the future.

Respond Quickly to E-mail Using Smart Replies

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Not every e-mail that you get in your inbox deserves a well thought out reply, which is why Google is using the power of machine learning to make email triage a little bit faster.

Google announced the new “Smart Replies” feature for its Inbox email client, which gives users of its service up to three quick options to send back in reply to emails based on a machine learning analysis of the message’s content. People can use the short replies as either a way to quickly respond, or a way to start a longer message. This could prove to be especially useful for mobile users who would rather reply with a quick response, rather than type out a whole e-mail on their phone. This is the latest example of Google’s effort to teach machines how to take over some of the tasks typically handled by humans.

The new feature is available to all consumers who use the free version of Inbox, as well as the more than 2 million businesses who pay for Google’s suite of applications designed for work.

Google Relying on “RankBrain” to Enhance Search Results

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On average, there are more than 3.5 billion Google searches every day, and a small percentage of these are requests that have never been made before. In an attempt to handle these obscure and hard-to-find searches, Google has developed an artificial intelligence system called RankBrain. According to Google, RankBrain tackles a “very large fraction” of all the total number of Google searches, which are about 15% of the millions of queries it receives every second.

Google searches are ranked based on ‘hundreds’ of signals including location, key words, the site’s ranking and more. Its current technology relies on discoveries and insights that people in information retrieval have had. RankBrain instead uses AI to turn words into so-called ‘vectors’ the computer can understand more easily. If it sees a word it doesn’t recognize, it takes an educated guess at what it could mean, based on other words and phrases that may have a similar meaning.

The system then filters the results and presents the most appropriate links to the person making the search. Every time it makes these guesses, it monitors how the person making the searches responds to the results and can adjust its filtering process accordingly.

Google says it’s only used RankBrain to handle this massive search load for the past few months, but Google says RankBrain is actually better at predicting top search results than their own search engineers.

Facebook Digging Further Into Search

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The search feature on Facebook has always been good for tracking down an old friend or a page to follow, but usually Google was the better search engine for keeping up with news or finding a story from a year back. Facebook hopes to remedy that with a new, expanded search that sifts through its 2 trillion posts from all over the world — not just those from your friends and followed pages.

Now, for example, if you were to type “Mets World Series” into the search tool on Facebook, you would be hit with top post results from the Wall Street Journal and CBS Sportsline, followed by several posts made by your friends or public groups about the Mets.

The search was updated by Facebook in hopes to spark public conversations with strangers around the world about shared topics or news stories of interest. Seeing what your circle of friends has to say is one thing, but seeing what the world is saying is another.