Notes from the Expo Floor - Home
CES 2013 In Retrospect
Brian Kirk
FEB 04, 2013 15:37 PM
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The 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has come and gone, and most of the big stories have been covered rather extensively in the major news outlets. The meta-story from the floor painted a different picture, as businesses and organizations of all shapes and sizes vied for coverage and exposure, creating a cacophony of noise and excitement around the expansive Las Vegas Convention Center. This was my first CES, and while I learned a lot (the most valuable advice that I didn’t take to heart was “wear comfortable shoes”), it took a while for the information to fully process. I felt the need to take a step back, letting the spectacle subside a bit before reflecting on what I saw as some of the most important products at CES.

Without straying too much into a meta-conversation on the size and scope of CES (too big), some of the more interesting things that I saw didn’t get the adequate amount of press coverage, in my humble opinion. There were giant TVs, showing off 4K, “ultra HD” resolutions, but with this being a consumer-facing show, it seemed odd that so many large companies wanted to talk about these expensive boxes. At ~$20,000, it will take some time for these boxes to approach an affordable level for the average consumer. What was fascinating to me was what was inside some of the newer, “regular” HDTVs.

When I say “regular” HDTVs, I mean that fairly tongue-in-cheek, as the existing crop of HDTVs are nowhere near regular. Everyone seems to be interested in Smart TVs, and Imagination Technologies is enabling a new level of technology with the inclusion of their PowerVR Series6 GPUs in high-end LG TVs, as well as PowerVR Series5XT in mid-range products. I had a chance to see the guts of a couple of the TVs with the chips in them, but what really blew my mind was their Caustic R2500 PCI Express card. These cards (which didn’t need their own power plug) efficiently tackle ray tracing in virtually real time, something that I have seen 64-core computers struggle to accomplish. (Don’t take my word for it, though, go see ArsTechnica’s video of the card in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Pv-JaLxz974). Pulling this off without a power-hungry GPU is a fascinating feat, but it says something about the power of algorithms and brilliant people. Imagination Technologies is a fascinating company in its own right, and I think they could’ve probably had their own mini-conference, showcasing some of the intellectually-interesting products that have come out of their work. Keep an eye on those guys and gals…

Continuing the theme of brilliance, I spoke with Cees Links, founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, about the connected home. Sporting an impressive resume (including serving on the IEEE 802.11 standardization committee and the Wi-Fi Alliance), Cees talked about GreenPeak’s approach to the smart and connected home, utilizing the ZigBee standards. They showed off their take on the connected home, using a cable box as a potential home controller (or second network, if you will). This approach allows a secure connection and access point to control and monitor the connected home from outside or inside the house. For me, I can see this technology being instrumental in algorithmic and automated assistance to home monitoring, utilizing the secure connection to send updates and/or asking for assistance in maintenance. While I am particularly uneasy about the possibilities of having my connected home also connected through an outside access point, if it is indeed as secure as possible, it could be interesting to see how this approach continues to develop. I am of the opinion that having automated assistants will be a near-future inevitability, and Greenpeak seems to be on the cusp of enabling this rather easily.

I also had the chance to talk to Nvidia while I was at the show, and while a part of me wanted to bombard them with questions about their Project Shield gaming unit, I had to remind myself that I was there to work, not play video games. I spoke with their automotive division about some of their new takes on in-dash UIs, and I walked away from a noisy demonstration with a freshly blown mind. Not only did they show off a new in-dash UI (customizable, by the way). Don’t like your speedometer in the middle? Change it. Using their UI Composer, Delphi had worked with them on spicing up the display (and I swear, that if that display had been on the inside of a Pinto, I would’ve gladly driven that thing around for the next few years). One of the things that they talked about was using the graphical power of the Tegra chip to ease the cognitive load of the driver. It doesn’t matter how much information that gets displayed while driving; if we can’t safely access the information, then it should be filed under “that which is a distraction.” Another interesting aspect of their automotive presence was how easily the Tegra chip could be removed and replaced. If and when Nvidia upgrades their chips, you can (or your friendly neighborhood automotive technician) simply slide one chip out and place the next one in. Modular brilliance.

Aftershokz had a sizable presence at the show, and they used the opportunity to announce their Bluetooth-enabled line of headphones. If you’re unaware of what makes Aftershokz so special, it’s because they use bone-induction as opposed to speakers to deliver sound. This has interesting uses: joggers in high-traffic urban areas can safely run and listen to music, leaving their ears open for ambient noises and crazy taxi drivers. Personally, I find the technology useful for parents with young children. After putting the baby to sleep, the parent(s) could listen to music while still being able to hear the waking baby cry from the nursery. When I tried out the headphones, I was impressed with the sound quality, but I had to ask the question of “so what?” I was not expecting the answer I received. Bill Kimball, CFO of Aftershokz, said that earlier in the day, a deaf man tried them on and started dancing to the music. And I could only respond, “Sold.” The technology is interesting, and with Google Glass’s FCC filings referring to a “vibrating element,” it seems that this tech is here to stay.

One of my last stops during the chaos of CES was with Sphero to check out their robotic ball, augmented reality combo. Orbotix, the company behind Sphero, created a robotic ball that in and of itself is a pretty cool little gizmo. Add in the incredibly easy smartphone or tablet interface to control it, and I felt like a kid rather quickly, making my little robot ball navigate over the bumps and turns on their obstacle course. What really got me excited, though, was their augmented reality apps. Using the ball as the focal point, the display on the app turned the ball into a little animated beaver that would walk around. I’ve seen plenty of AR stuff before, but the thing that got me was how quickly it re-established the image after it lost, and subsequently regained, line of sight. Normally, there is a period of readjustment, but it seemed like it only took one frame before the beaver popped back up on the screen. Impressive for a consumer gimmick. The team also showed me a zombie-AR game, having the ball run from zombies that continuously came from the ground. It was fun, but with more than 20 apps all ready to go, I can’t help but think that this might be the way families in the future allow simple little robots into their homes: by way of entertainment.

That seems to be the crux of CES: how amazing technological advances will show up in our homes in the not-too-distant future. It doesn’t matter how awesome or innovative some new technology is; if it doesn’t have a measurable consumer-connection, no one will care. Well, maybe not “no one,” but I can’t imagine this many people descending the steps to a convention center to learn about technology for technology’s sake. There has to be that extra step beyond the specs, the step that says and shows almost exactly the way in which the cutting edge will manifest itself in the home.  

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