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 Possibility of Pliable Electronics

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Panasonic has recently developed a soft, flexible, and stretchable polymer resin insulating film which stretches 2.5 times its length and returns to its original shape. It can be folded and adapts to varying free-form surfaces, as to reducing existing design constraints.

The possibilities for this type of technology could be endless! For an example, it would enable the construction of soft and stretchable electronic devices that are adaptable to various forms such as clothing and the body. This would open the window to many wearable technologies, and make clothing “smart” clothing.

Overcoming the Numerous Challenges

Polyurethane and rubber materials need to overcome challenges associated with adhesion, heat resistance, and the fact that they are brittle. Panasonic’s insulating material, made of thermosetting resin, is, both flexible and stretchable.

Devices implemented on clothing or worn on the body should be made of materials that withstand repeated use and allow no change in mechanical properties even after repeated deformation. In normal circumstances, materials subjected to repeated stretch and restore would tend to degrade in mechanical strength and recovery performance. Going beyond simple softening, Panasonic employed a unique resin design technology that makes optimal use of the characteristic three-dimensional cross-linked structure of thermosetting resin. By relaxing internal stresses arising from stretch, the newly developed insulating material returns to its original shape and withstands repeated use

Usually, copper or other metal wiring would break when its base material stretches or contracts. Due to this problem, it is not easy to use metal wiring to form complex circuits. Furthermore, metal fatigue resulting from deformation makes it difficult to achieve metal wiring that withstands repeated stretch. Panasonic has developed a technology to combine a stretchable resin as a binder with a silver filler. The result is conductive paste that retains a conductive path, hence conductivity, even after stretch and restore.

It will be interesting to see where this technology’s future lies, and how it will evolve over time.

The Internet of Things in 2016

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For 2015, it seemed as though the world around us got a whole lot smarter. We are now experiencing “smarter” homes, cars, and things we use every day. What will 2016 bring?

Market demand shifts from consumer to enterprise

The IoT reached everyone’s consciousness in 2015 a little more than it did in 2014. For the coming year, many industries will want to get ahold of these IoT. Away from the slightly gimmicky consumer applications such as smart homes and intelligent vehicles, connected technology has the potential to truly reinvent a wide number of industries, which can benefit from a huge range of advantages provided by IoT technology.

“While the Internet of Things hype reached its peak in the consumer markets this past year, 2016 will be the year of IoT in the enterprise market. Currently, we are seeing a slump in sales for the once buzz worthy, consumer IoT devices, such as fitness trackers, whereas just the opposite is happening for commercial IoT products,” explains Jason Shepherd, director of IoT strategy and partnerships at Dell.

He continues: “As companies begin understanding the value of IoT, commercial IoT solutions will gain traction and the enterprise will emerge as the largest market for IoT adoption.”

The importance of security

All of these things, and all of the data they produce, will need to be secured, and safely stored, in order to ensure both businesses and customers stay protected. The new connected IoT world will also need to ensure that consumers have the information they need to make educated decisions about the products they purchase, including the level of security offered by new products and solutions.

Big Data will become more profitable, and even bigger

More and more data is being produced by the increasing number of devices connected to the IoT. Now the challenge is to determine what to do with it. It has been forecasted that there will be 6.4 billion connected ‘things’ used worldwide in 2016, which means there is a huge amount of ‘big data’ being created each day, all of which needs to be analyzed and stored.

This explosion is also creating a need for further investment in IoT infrastructure, as more bandwidth and power is needed to cope with all the information.

The communication between technology and humans

Wearable technology offers the most direct way for us to interact with the IoT, providing a wealth of useful information that can then be uploaded and analyzed.

Wearable technology can play a big part in industry, allowing workers to quickly visualize and analyze situations without the need to be in danger or at risk. Heads Up Displays (HUD), smart gloves, and wearable cameras all have the possibility to revolutionize working in a wide range of industries.

The evolution towards the “Internet of Everything”

The IoT could soon be directly affecting every point of our lives. From health to work to travel to entertainment, the possibilities are truly endless.

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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Can You Imagine the Possibilities of Affective Computing?

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We all know that computers are very fast, and precise about doing calculations, but what if they could also sense the emotional state of the person using the technology? This field is called affective computing, and soon it will be an important factor in the way people and computers communicate with each other. This theme is explored in the 2015 television series “Humans.”

Computers will interpret your body language to determine how you are feeling and then tailor its response intuitively, just as we do with each other. What makes it even more applicable, is that it is far more intuitive than the keyboard, mouse and touch screen as an input method.

Non-verbal communication is still the principal way that we get information from each other, with around 70% of a message’s content being conveyed by body language, about 20% by tone of voice and only 10% by words. Affective computing allows humans and computers to go beyond keyboards and use these rich, non-verbal channels of communication to good effect.

Emotions can be read by much the same process that humans do. It begins by connecting an array of sensors (cameras, microphones, skin conductivity devices) to a computer that gathers varied information about facial expression, posture, gesture, tone of voice and more. Software then processes the data, and by referencing a database of known patterns it is able to categorize different emotions from the sensors.

Can you imagine the possibilities from this type of technology? It will be interesting to see how this develops into the future, and how broad of a range it can become implemented in technologies that already exist!

Is the “iRing” On Its Way?

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With increasing pressure to diversify its products, Apple seems to be doing just that as evidence of a patent application has been spotted recently.

Of course, it is important to note that Apple issues patents on a regular basis, and some of the most publicized and plausible of these patents have never been included in any form of Apple technology. So this latest patent shouldn’t be seen as stone evidence that Apple is about to release a Smart Ring in the foreseeable future, but it does indicate that the company has at least considered the possibility.

The “iRing” is based around a finger-mounted gadget packed with motion sensors, microphones, cameras and a tiny display. With Apple having releasing the first Apple Watch earlier this year, they are likely expected to update the smartwatch next year. And if the Apple Watch never sees the success that Apple was hoping for, it has still come to almost completely dominate the smartwatch market.

An Apple Smart Ring may seem to be pretty limited in terms of its capabilities, but it certainly seems that Apple is considering such a gadget. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published the application for what appears to be such a device, and the title of the patent provided a further clue into Apple’s thinking on the subject. Titled “Devices and methods for a ring computing device,” it seems certain that Apple is thus considering an Apple Smart Ring at some point in the future.

Virtual Reality Becoming More Mainstream

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Virtual reality is taking a few steps closer to the mainstream with Samsung unveiling a headset that brings the technology to its latest smartphones at half the price of its previous model, Facebook launching support for 360-degree video, and online video services like Netflix and Hulu jumping into the format.

Samsung said its new virtual reality headset will be 22% lighter and cost $99, half the price of its previous model. The Gear VR requires users to insert the latest version of a Samsung smartphone into the headset, and will ship in November.

Netflix content is available to be viewed in Oculus or Samsung headsets now, while Hulu said it would also bring its app to the Oculus platform where users can stream 2-D content. Meanwhile, Oculus said it would begin a certification program so consumers can look for a sticker that will identify which computers support its Oculus Rift headset, which is due to come out early next year.

 

VR Goes Hard Core

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I’ve been touting the importance of Virtual Reality for a long time now. It is, I firmly believe, the next big thing to hit all of us. There is a growing band of hardware producers coming out with headsets of differing sophistication, the games guys are charging ahead and there have been some interesting applications emerging recently. The killer app for VR just showed up, and, as predicted, it’s porn.

The adult industry has always driven the online world. Pretty much every innovation you could come up with, from online payment to HD streaming, was brought to us in good part by porn. The latest wave is starting to break over VR, and like it or not, it’s going to be a major driver for this industry.

The poster children for this innovation are a sex toy manufacturer called Lovense and an online VR porn studio called Virtual Real Porn. Neither gets major points for naming, but the product combination is fascinating. I haven’t tried either, and likely won’t, but the story is compelling.

The Porn studio dreamed up its own tech to film convincing VR porn, and the sex toy guys came up with devices that guys (ahem) plug into which generate physical sensations that coordinate with the visuals. Supposedly, the combined impact is remarkable. Why bother? Well, traditional porn relies on the point of view of the director. You simply see what the camera sees. In a VR deployment, you are essentially watching the action and can (to some extent) move around it to catch the action at different angles. What makes VR different is the fact that it generates “presence.” It fools the mind into thinking that you are actually there. Apparently, even in this early iteration, the impact is real.

Neither of these companies is making mainstream news, but then when was the last time you heard a story about the traditional porn industry (short of condom use and HIV scares). Globally, the adult biz is worth about $100Bn annually with the US contributing about $13Bn (that’s just a touch under what the magazine industry is worth). Those are huge markets, and especially given that the customers of this industry skew heavily male (and maybe geeky?), I’d expect adoption rates to be through the roof pretty quickly.

There’s a Brit TV comedy from the late 80’s called Red Dwarf. It’s a brilliant (if patchy) SciFi spoof, and one of its more compelling story-lines involves the Better than Life VR system. Essentially, you plug it in and you can be anything you want. You can date Marilyn Monroe, climb Everest, fly to the moon; all you need is enough credits on your system.  The unexpected side effect is that people become addicted to BTL more quickly and permanently than crack cocaine, leading to societal collapse. A recent survey of young men concluded that in many cases, guys would rather play games and watch online porn than actually put the effort into forming relationships with real women. Oh, dear. This may not end well.

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Glass 2.0?

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Really? Are we still talking about Google Glass? Apparently, we are. It looks like Google is planning an extensive re-launch of what is arguably its most divisive product, this time focused on the “Enterprise Edition.”

Just in case you missed my earlier four hundred rants about this product, Google Glass is the wearable tech that evolved the term “Glassholes” to characterize its users. Nothing says, “I’m white, entitled and I know somebody with juice in Silicon Valley” like wearing Google Glass. I tried it on a couple of times, and was reasonably underwhelmed by what it could actually do. However, the substantial product shortcomings never really got a fair hearing in comparison to the avalanche of deserved contempt the “ambassadors” wearing the product generated.

Glass became totemic for everything we hate about “those people.” The harder Google pushed, the more stories emerged about boorish Glass usage. Some of the stories are doubtless urban legend but there were enough of them to lead Google to eventually pull the plug on Glass as a consumer device.

Glass’ upcoming rebirth in the technical and medical fields makes a lot of sense. In the same way a surveyor or doctor might pick up their allocated equipment for each shift, so I can readily see Glass as a useful enterprise tool. The ability to show a distant colleague exactly what’s happening on the job at that point or recall data real-time without having to manipulate a device by hand is a great idea whose time has come.

It’s unlikely that Google will sell anywhere near as many items as they would had they conquered the consumer market as planned, but the numbers they do sell will likely be more robust, have longer battery lives and boast larger, more useful screens. They will also get the public more used to eye-wearables in general. Perhaps after we have gotten used to seeing our doctors or auto mechanics wearing Glass, we will become less bothered by the application as a whole.