Some of my gadget pals came away from CES “disappointed” because there was no brand new, drop-dead product that they’d never seen before – nothing on the wow spectrum of, say, the first ultra flat TV screens or voice-activated smart speakers or mind-blowing self driving cars. Products all in abundance this year.
Splashing more water on the fire, fellow tech chroniclers expressed particular dismay at the “fall” of the traditional big players at the show – LG, Samsung, Panasonic and Sony – though the Big Four again lit up the largest booths in the Central Hall (except when the power went out for a couple hours Wednesday in a post-rain transformer-zapping apocalypse). “All the really cool stuff was at the Sands (convention center) in the Eureka Park (startups) zone,” we heard several times.
But the naysayers missed the shifts in focus that the majors were showcasing this year – touting innovations that were more inside the case, microprocessor and software driven. Exploitations of “machine learning” artificial intelligence, robotics and cloud services that would alter not just the way we interact with the products but also how the devices react with us. Giving the gizmos a new skill set to predict and prepare for our next move, maybe even before it had crossed our mind.
Life Is Good and getting better at one of two Korean CE behemoths. LG laid out the company’s near future vision particularly coherently, hanging it on a new global Artificial Intelligence brand and platform. LG’s ThinQ AI scheme “will change the way we use products” by “learning from the user to provide intelligent services, not the other way around.” So touted LG president and chief technology officer, I.P. Park.
Coming in products this year, the onboard sensors and cameras won’t just detect when you’re coming or going. The products will know who you are and respond accordingly. Say to adjust the air conditioner, lights and music to your favorite “coming home” settings, or call out the robot vacuum to instantly sweep up food spills (if you’re a neat freak). Also promised are automatic settings for your LG clothes washer, dryer and LG Styler (a garment de-wrinkling steamer closet) triggered by the radio frequency emitting RFID tags sewn into the garments. A great alternative to reading those itty bitty care instructions on clothes labels, presuming the product developers can get a tag format standardized.
LG Home products are already 100 percent “Wi-Fi ready,” now with full integration with AI and voice activation coming next. Google Assistant is being built into many LG devices this year starting with TVs and smart speakers “to create a conversational experience.” So without changing a TV or audio channel, you’ll be able to ask “What’s the score of the Eagles game?” “What’s my schedule tomorrow?” or “Will I need a raincoat in Beijing?”
Oh, and lest I forget, LG also had perhaps the most stunning televisions at the show.
While LG’s “soon coming” screen-faced personal assistant CLOi was presented as an appealing smart home interface and potential companion, the cute thing failed to operate at LG’s press conference. That gave the often catty (and instant gratification-seeking) press corps some ammunition to dismiss the whole scheme. Jerks. LG already has fully functional service robots offering guide services at Seoul’s Incheon Airport. They can fix this. We’ve seen product demos from the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs fail on stage. This was no biggie but fun to watch:
SmartThings from Samsung: 90 percent of Samsung’s appliances in this year’s lineup are Internet-of-Things ready, said Samsung North America President and CEO Tim Baxter. And by 2020 all Samsung devices will not only be IoT ready but also “intelligent” and interfacing with one another. That is, voice or screen-activated with seamless connectivity through a single SmartThings app (actually launching this Spring) and single cloud-based AI managed platform “that will understand you and tailor an experience just for you.” And because Samsung’s SmartThings platform and hub recognize the popular Zigbee and Z-Wave protocols, the maker’s grand interoperability scheme also embraces smart products from 300+ other partners participating in the Open Connection Foundation.
Meanwhile, Samsung’s 2017 acquisition of Harman Industries now also lends SmartThings access to the world of car-tronics. While driving home, you’ll be able to call your screen and camera-equipped Samsung Family Hub refrigerator (a line expanding to 14 different models this year) and have it report back if you’re in need of milk or veggies for dinner. OK, so maybe that brainstorm ain’t all that. But I do like how users will also be able to remotely post a nudging message on the Family Hub refrigerator’s big LCD screen: “Will be home to cook at 6:30, do your homework now!”
Oh, and yes, Samsung too has stunning connected televisions.
This is not your father’s Panasonic. Once omnipotent players in consumer electronics, with literally a hundred new things to talk about at each CES, Japan-based Panasonic has clearly been feeling the heat of Korean and Chinese competitors, and now plays its hand quite differently around the world and at the trade show in Las Vegas.
Only a few years ago Panasonic could lay claim to some of the best television sets, with its plasma technology. Then along came OLED and prompted it to all but abandon the space. Now it’s back with a gorgeous new OLED TV model it has “no plans at present” to sell in the intensely competitive U.S. market (but are available in Canada). And there were some other consumer products including a new retro SL series Technics vinyl turntable, a couple UltraHD Blu-ray players (one to be made available here), plus a Google platform-connected home monitoring system akin to the maker’s commercial security gear.
Still, I found Panny’s huge Central Hall booth one of the more interesting at the show, for all the advanced business-to-business and Smart City ventures it showcased. Take, please, airborne Internet and phone connectivity for passengers using a brand new third generation Panasonic powered communications network. Coming this year to partner airlines Southwest and United, the upgrade will offer travelers in-flight bandwidth “up to 20 times greater than was available before.” That “opens up the possibility of Skype and video streaming to your seat,” said Tom Gebhardt, Chairman, and CEO of Panasonic Corporation of North America.
On the smart car front, Panasonic (“#1 global maker of infotainment systems”) announced it is integrating Amazon’s new Alexa on Board voice control system to link with in-vehicle gear and the world beyond. And the company is creating the “first intelligent highway“ in the U.S, a 90 mile Colorado stretch with sensors in the roadbed and communications links to autonomous cars to keep them efficiently and safely spaced at high speeds.
Also impressively showcased was Panasonic’s driverless car cabin of the near future with four inwardly facing seats. This mockup wasn’t road worthy – unlike other prototypes at the show that circled a parking lot. But the Panasonic example was surely the snazziest in suggesting how all on-board will soon be able to enjoy the ride – with ceiling and wall mounted video touch screens that can change personality from write-on whiteboard to a video conference center to an immersive, wraparound movie screen.
Even cooler was Panasonic’s vision of a Smart Stadium for Tomorrowland. Visitors wearing Augmented Reality-enhanced glasses will be able to breeze through the gates without a ticket scan, then be visually pointed to their seats. Glasses wearers will also be able to order food and souvenirs with a blink and watch the game action with AR enhanced multiple angle replays and virtual cheerleaders dancing before your eyes.
Another company that used to lay on LOTS of new products at its CES press event, Sony announced just a handful this time. “We decided to not overwhelm the press at the end of their long conference day,” explained Sony Electronics president Mike Fasulo. Nor was the company asking much from a newly appointed PR team, which failed to hand out product overviews or even just a card with a press kit link! Clearly agitated on hearing this, Fasulo then told me “there are actually two dozen new products at the booth.”
On the bright side – Sony’s second generation 4K OLED sets look terrific and have managed to build all the speakers into and behind the screen for an unmatched integration of sound and picture plus easy wall-mountability.
Their new laser light engine fired Life Space video projector ($30,000) will invite well-heeled consumers to throw a huge, 120-inch 4K picture onto a wall-mounted screen from a handsome coffee table-like stand with integrated speakers, a center that’s positioned just a few inches in front of the wall. (Hisense and Epson are also into this new short throw PJ product pursuit at much lower $10K and $3K prices, respectively, though Epson’s bargain LS100 is “Full HD” resolution not 4K. LG also showed a short throw 4K projector HU80K reportedly running on a DLP engine, price TBA).
The star of the Sony booth was a second generation Aibo home entertainment robot – newly on sale in Japan for about $1,800 to start, then demanding $30 a month for a software updating service to keep teaching the dog new tricks. Offering lots more personality than its predecessor (which Sony sent to the farm in 2006), Aibo gen 2 is animated with OLED screen eyes and 22 actuators wiggling 4,000 parts. It responds to your touch on its head, back and under the chin, has cameras in nose and hind-quarters to identify family members, map your home environment and smartly find its way home to the recharging station.
So no, this pup doesn’t poop batteries.