Nation & World

Wrapping up CES 2020 - anxiety, fear and cats

Tech's largest annual show featured innovative, odd new products

The Homhompet is a dryer for small wet pets who are OK being confined in small places for five minutes. (Washington Post
The Homhompet is a dryer for small wet pets who are OK being confined in small places for five minutes. (Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — Wandering through the miles of International Consumer Electronics Show exhibitors this year was the usual mix of inspiring, confusing and hilarious.

The consumer tech industry’s biggest annual showcase combined lofty visions of the future, including electric self-driving cars and exoskeletons for baggage handlers, with smaller and much weirder ideas, like an exercise machine for cats.

CES is huge — 2.9 million square feet, to be exact — but it’s no longer where the most influential tech products launch. Tech giants such as Apple, Google and Amazon save the real stuff for their own events in the spring and fall.

Still, consumers and buyers walk miles at CES each year to hunt for emerging ideas, practical new gadgets, adorable robots and you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it tech.

This year, even the politicians flocked to CES, including White House adviser Ivanka Trump, who was a keynote speaker Tuesday.

A few trends got us excited. Laptops are getting interesting again, thanks to new “foldable” technology that lets OLED screens bend and hinge.

TVs are getting the ability to fix their own darned picture settings, finally. Fake meat is branching out in new directions.

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So are “artificial humans” — virtual avatars with whom we’re supposed to interact as if they were the real thing.

CES also is useful for tracking progress on long-promised but still nascent technologies, including self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and augmented-reality glasses. The TV industry, the single largest exhibitor at the show, is pushing ahead into its latest reason to get you to upgrade — 8K TVs, which have four times as many pixels as ultra-HD 4K TVs.

There also are trends we hope go away, such as companies using fear to sell dubious security and health gadgets, and casually integrating surveillance into everyday things. We’re also not a fan of “privacy-washing” — when tech companies market privacy features but continue gobbling up our data.

Our CES favorites are usually the products that make you go “hmmm.” Seeing what problems we’re trying to solve with tech reveals as much about us as it does the state of the art.

Here are some of our finds for the best, most noteworthy and weirdest products of CES 2020:

• Surveillance takes off — Sunflower home-security drone

This year’s CES was littered with “smart” home-surveillance cameras. Companies from around the world showed up to shill internet-connected cameras for outside houses, on doorbells, inside living rooms and kitchens, above sleeping babies and on the ground to watch pets.

For the person with an entire estate to protect, there’s Sunflower, a home-security system that can fly a drone around the property and capture intruders on camera. The system starts at $10,000 and uses outdoor lamps outfitted with motion sensors to detect people, animals or cars around a home.

It sends a smartphone alert to the homeowner, who can then tap a button on their phone to launch Bee, the autonomous outdoor drone that will go to the trouble area and livestream any action. The drone will not film the neighbors and does not offer any offensive measures, like weapons or loud noises.

The chief executive of Sunflower Labs, the company that makes the device, says Bee can also double as a party photographer for outdoor bashes.

$10,000 and up, available for preorder now and shipping this summer.

• Pet ownership gets weird: Homhompet dry room

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The Homhompet dry room is designed to be minimally stressful — it’s quiet, doesn’t blow air too hard and includes soothing colorful lights inside. The version shown at CES is only big enough for one of those small dogs that fit in a tote bag, or an extremely docile and trusting cat.

It was not the only odd pet tech at CES. There was the Little Cat giant golden hamster wheel for cats, designed to get overweight kitties into shape. The Inupathy dog vest collects information about your pet’s heart rate and then tells you if he or she is feeling relaxed, happy, stressed or excited.

Homhompet will cost $1,400 and be available later this year.

• AI to fix everything: Delta’s problem-solving software

Delta is an airline, not a technology company. That didn’t stop it from having a huge presence at CES this year, where it announced a number of tech-related products and experiments.

It’s testing exoskeletons to help baggage handlers lift heavy bags and beefing up its in-flight entertainment with recommendations based on what passengers watched previously. But a brand isn’t truly in tech until it dabbles in artificial intelligence, so Delta announced a machine-learning platform that it will use to help make decisions when things go wrong.

Instead of human employees trying to reroute planes or change schedules in bad weather, the system will suggest the best solutions based on years of data Delta has accumulated from past delays and disruptive events, such as volcano eruptions.

Tons of other companies at the show touted adding AI to their products, too. The Lioness smart vibrator claims to track and quantify orgasms over time using AI, Oral-B says its new internet-connected iO toothbrush uses AI to improve brushing, and makers of the YogiFi yoga mat say it uses AI as part of its tracking and training.

Delta will launch its AI tool this spring.

• More realistic bots: NEON avatars

Samsung’s independent Star Labs division claims it has built an “artificial human” called NEON, which is one of the bigger marketing stretches at CES. NEON appears to be a computer-generated animation that looks like a person in the same way video game characters look like people.

It includes Alexa-like conversational skills, and the company says NEON avatars will be able to “sympathize” as a real person does. The technology could be used by companies who want to do things such as replace their customer service representatives with computerized versions.

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The group says NEON avatars can also be used as virtual health care providers, concierges and, eventually, television anchors or movie stars.

No price yet, available in the “near future.”

• A self-balancing people mover: Segway S-Pod

A cross between a comfortable recliner, a scooter and a giant egg, Segway’s new people-moving S-Pod is designed to move people around non-road locations such as malls, airports and theme parks.

The self-balancing pod, which goes up to 24 mph, is controlled by a small knob on the armrest or a panel that can be removed from the pod for remote steering.

When we put a helmet on and tested the S-Pod prototype on the CES show floor Monday, its speed limit had been limited to 7 mph, and there was no seat belt. It felt fast and a little dangerous, more like a La-Z-Boy go kart than futuristic wheelchair.

The pod was just one of many mobility options announced by transportation companies at CES, which is packed with remote-controlled scooters, electric dirt bikes and real cars inching closer to full self-driving status.

No price yet, available in late 2020.

• Translation stations are coming: Google Translate

Last year, Google launched a real-time interpreter mode by sticking it on one of its smart displays and placing it in a hotel near CES. This year, the feature is all grown up and about to start showing up for real lost-in-translation situations via the company’s Google Nest Hub devices.

Google is selling it as a service to businesses such as hotels and banks. It’s starting with information desks in the international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, sports stadiums in Qatar, major hotel chains and Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization that works with refugees.

Google is not the only translation game in town. Companies such as Pocketalk and Waverly Labs also have translation technology at CES. The boom is in part the result of improvements in AI, including natural language processing.

Available now in lobbies near you.

• Smarter smart glasses: Nreal

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We’ve been hearing the future is face computers for nearly a decade. That hasn’t happened, but the technology to bring AR to our glasses is improving.

The Nreal looks almost like a normal pair of sunglasses — except for a slight protrusion from your head and a long cord slithering down to a smartphone that does the processing.

But this Beijing-based start-up has managed to squeeze an awful lot into a comfortable, lightweight 3.1-ounce form, including front-facing cameras that help it locate virtual objects in a room, and an operating system that overlays nearly any Android app on top of the world around you.

It even supports snap-in prescription lenses. The augmented field of view is limited to about 52 degrees, but the images were bright when we gave it a test watching videos and fending off virtual zombies in a game.

$500, available early 2020.

• Privacy dashboard, sort of: Ring’s Control Center

Amazon.com’s Ring finally is starting to hear our concerns about the security and privacy of its products. It announced a new software dashboard that lets you manage the devices and services with access to your connected doorbell and other cameras, as well as let you opt out of letting police request access to your video feed.

We just wish Ring made more substantial changes, such as turning on two-factor account verification by default — or drawing clear lines about not sharing video with police. Instead, Ring continues to put the responsibility for security and privacy onto its users. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Available as a free update in the Ring mobile app later this month.

• Emotional support robot: Bocco Emo

From most talking tech, you expect clear answers to your queries. From this one, you mostly get nonsense.

And that’s entirely the point: Bocco Emo is an emotional support robot. It listens to what you’re saying, and responds with an emotionally appropriate coo, chirp or gurgle. Its mechanical head also bobs up and down with empathy.

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Its Tokyo-based maker Yukai Engineering, also known for a headless robot cat with mechanical wagging tail called Qoobo, thinks robots can play important roles in human emotional lives as we face isolation, especially in aging societies. Bocco Emo also can do a few other more practical tasks, such as turn on and off smart lights.

Price to be determined, shipping in May 2020.

• Simpler wireless charging: Aira FreePower

We were supposed to be living wire-free by now. But wireless charging hasn’t worked nearly as well as we were promised. It requires lining up your gadgets in the exact right spot.

And you can only charge one thing at a time — Apple canceled plans for a multi-device product called AirPower that it was supposed to deliver in 2018.

Now a start-up called Aira says it’s got the solution. Its FreePower tech allows you to charge multiple devices at once without worrying about where they sit on the pad.

The company says it redesigned the wireless power coil matrix to better line up the magnetic fields required for charging. Aira, which had a successful run on the “Shark Tank” TV show, is selling its tech to other companies, starting with a charging pad from a brand called Nomad Goods.

Nomad Base Station Pro with FreePower, no price or shipping date yet.

• ‘Foldable’ laptop: Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold

The folding-screen design trend we first saw in phones is spreading to laptops. After teasing the idea in 2019, Lenovo is ready to start shipping a 13-inch laptop with a seamless screen that closes up like a book.

Lay it flat like a tablet, or prop it up at a right angle like a tiny laptop. You type on a detachable wireless keyboard that stows away inside when it’s closed up. Lenovo says the X1 Fold will appeal to people who need the full power of a Windows 10 Pro computer but hate lugging around a proper laptop.

In our hands, the 2.2-pound X1 Fold felt a little chunkier than your standard writing folio or notebook, but we like where the idea is headed.

Cost is $2,499, available in mid-2020.

• Vertical TV: Samsung Sero

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People keep shooting video while holding their phones vertically. That works fine when you’re watching Instagram or TikTok on your phone, but it looks terrible on a horizontally oriented TV.

No longer: Samsung’s latest TV rotates to switch between horizontal and vertical orientations. You sync the Sero TV to a Samsung Galaxy phone, and it automatically switches orientation to match what you’re watching.

No price yet, available in the United States in early 2020.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.