31.01.17

Report: The weird and the wonderful at CES 2017

Hydrao’s Smart Shower for measuring water
Hydrao’s Smart Shower measures the water used for showers via coloured LEDs and an app

Last month we promised a look at “the rest of CES”, especially focusing on non-video products at the show. We’ll do just that this month, but in service to the old saying that “laughter is the best medicine” this month’s Letter from America will hopefully bring a smile to your face. In addition to obvious, we will include some of the more off the beaten path products we saw at CES. To their promoters they are clearly serious, while we may chuckle a bit.

There is, however, method to our madness. Yes, some of these IoT devices, sensors and robots might cause you to laugh, but if you find a way to use them to differentiate your installations from competitors’ use of the usual range of kit perhaps that will bring a big smile to your face and that of your accountant!

Unique additions to the wearable market

Let’s start with health and fitness sensors. By now fitness wearables are a huge category, but how about a wearable for the unborn, or should we say expectant parents? Startup firm TinyKicks displayed a prototype continuous fetal monitor that is worn like a small bandage but which senses and measures baby kicks inside the womb, while BabyWatcher is a hand-held ultrasound device and Shell by Bellabeat is an add-on that turns an iPhone into a baby heartbeat listener. In their own ways these devices monitor activity to make sure everything is on track for an upcoming arrival.

Zhortech Shoes stand at CES 2017, las vegasFitness means exercise, and that brings me to the best-named product at CES: “Smart Dumbbells”. Why bother to count how many reps you do when a device can count them for you? Or, how about a “Smartshoe” for running, such as those from Zhor-Tech or Digitsole, that use pressure sensors to measure your stride directly from the shoes.

When your clients are done with their workout, a dip in the pool may be in order. To make certain that the pool’s temperature and water quality are proper and to send any problem issues to an app, Riiot Labs showed “blue”, its “smart pool analyser”. How about a shower instead? “Smart Shower” from Hydrao uses changing colours from LED lights to alert you to how much water is being used, and then reports the results to a smartphone app. Or, with perhaps another product we saw at CES, get dressed after the shower.

Spartan Boxers are definitely not connected. Indeed, they are somewhat “anti-connectivity”. These men’s boxer briefs are woven from a silver fiber material that basically creates a Faraday cage that prevents radiation in a frequency band from 450 MHz to 5 GHz from passing through to, well, places where men might not want them to penetrate. That lead shield that they place over you when you go to the dentist for x-rays? Similar idea.

On one hand, I might be concerned that this could send the wrong message about the safety of all the connected devices you provision. On the other hand, when accompanied by a proper explanation about the safety of WiFi and Bluetooth, it certainly is a conversation piece, if not a laugh-getter. Sorry, ladies, there is no similar product for you - at least not yet.

Expanding the connected kitchen

Of course, connectivity is for more than just fitness and sensors. Once a client has exercised and showered they probably want something to eat. Kitchen connectivity was also a hot topic amongst both the established and startup firms with stands at CES. There were the usual range of connected appliances such as slow-cookers (“crock pots”, to us Americans), coffee makers and scales, but this year we saw a few interesting additions.

Kitchen connectivity was also a hot topic among both the established and startup firms with stands at CES. 

While it doesn’t help one cook, Inirv React will help make a kitchen safer. Pairing a sensor unit with “knob units” that fit over/around the knobs on a range or cooktop, it senses smoke, gas leakage and can control the level of the burners and turn them off in the event of a problem. Timers let the homeowner make sure the range is turned off after a set period, while a motion sensor can do the same if there is no activity near the appliance for the given time. The ability to remotely turn the stove off via a smartphone app, when combined with the lock-outs helps make the kitchen safer when children are big enough to reach the range.

Prefer eggs, but not in the mood to deal with the stove? Changhong’s “Smart Eggs Boiler” lets you tell it how you want the eggs done and your wish is its command. (No, we’re afraid it doesn’t scramble them for you…yet). Do the eggs remind you that you need to take some digestive or cholesterol pills? Changhong also has a “Smart Pill Box” that not only reminds you to take a pill, but can also assist in monitoring blood pressure and EKG readings.

Toast with those eggs? How about a connected toaster? No problem, as Griffin’s Connected Toaster not only lets you use an app to start your breakfast and internal sensors that make certain your toast is perfect. Is it fresh or frozen? A bagel or gluten free? Want it lighter or dark? Your app is its command.

Cooking something but not certain if it smells right, or concerned that there is something off in the fridge? Arryballe Technologies’ NeOse turns a smartphone into a portable odor detection device. Paired with that concept, there were air quality detection and monitoring products such as Enerbee and too many app-controlled air filtering devices at CES to mention here.

Finally, when the cooking is done, have you used enough of something that it needs to go on the grocery shopping list? Yes, there is an IoT device and app for that, as well. This is one of those ideas that sits between seeming silly at first glance, and “If I’m so smart why didn’t I think of it?”. The folks at GeniCan did think of it and brought the camera that clips on the trash can, scans a bar code as you throw an empty into the bin, and then uses that to build the shopping list.

Dirty clothes from exercise or stains from cooking? All the major appliance brands showed “Smart Washers” and “Connected Dryers” at CES, but what does one do with the clothes when the laundry is done? No problem, FoldMate and Laundroid take the contents of the laundry basket and fold, and in the case of Laundriod, sort them. Ah, all that’s missing is the robot to take the laundry out to the dryer. Perhaps at CES next year.

Giving voice to devices

Lenovo for Alexa Voice Service

Finally, as was the case back in September at CEDIA, and as one suspects you will see at ISE, voice control was a major product and application category at CES 2017. To date, the native “Alexa” products from Amazon, Google Home and iOS products to activate Siri were all you could use. That was one of the changes on display at CES. Linkplay Technology, Naxa and even Lenovo had products that integrated Alexa Voice Service, as did Nulceus with a voice service enabled control point with a video screen and camera. Combining it all, LG’s flagship “Door-in-Door” refrigerator not only has voice service but also sports a transparent touch display that not only provides what are becoming standard search and display features, but it connects with cameras inside the fridge that lets the user tag certain items to remind the user of their expiration date. Even better, the remote app lets one “call” the fridge while out shopping to see if you have enough milk or eggs. Again, this might get a laugh at first mention, but this is the direction that integrated products are going and we all must figure out how to integrate them.

Before concluding, two notes are in order. First, as always, some of the products mentioned here are not available in all regions. Some are, at least initially, US only, or only presently available in certain European countries, or continental Europe.

Secondly, some of the products mentioned here are still in the crowd-sourcing process. Before recommending something to a client I urge you to check that the backer’s funding is in place and that there is a definite delivery date. We’re all for start-up and innovation, but always confirm that what you put in a bid is both real, and as is best possible to determine, going to be around with support.

Final thoughts

Yes, the goal this month was to present a view of the products that may not have made the popular press’s radar and to have a bit of fun by hopefully making you chuckle a bit. However, look beyond any single product mentioned here and take a higher altitude view. For the most part, many of them may and will be available for sale directly to consumers. Perhaps using the same online communication that we provision for clients and use to order products, services and content for ourselves. Anyone can, and many will purchase them, and that is understandably a concern to many in our community.

Even worse the fear has also been expressed in many quarters that open consumer distribution of IoT products, often at discounted prices, will kill our ability to make money on hardware. Perhaps that is true, but increasingly the profit will come from services and labour, not from products, themselves. Rather, the play in all of this is your ability and skills that make it possible to tie these disparate devices together into a unified home.

There are different apps for every device even when a unifying OS-based app such as Home Kit or Google Home is used. There are often walled gardens that sometimes seem impenetrable, a variety of different communications protocols, physical layers and operating systems, any number of different control systems and beyond that the fact that in many cases the apps will not talk to each other despite the desire of the consumer to do that.

Yes, some of these products may sound funny, perhaps even silly. You may want to use them even though you are fighting mass distribution and limited profit margin. What is not funny, but very serious is how you market the fact that what you do is not just sell “stuff”, but that you are the expert in knitting it all together, make certain that the communication links are both robust enough and have proper QoS, and that everything interacts properly with everything else.

I like the cool and often silly stuff as much as the next person. That’s one of the reasons I just returned from my 45th CES and hopefully will go for many more. That said, the most important takeaway from CES, or any trade show, be it ISE, CEDIA, or the local distributor’s open house, is to take it all in and then build a unified systems approach to present to your clients and prospects. The bid you will win and the profits you will make are what is really the most fun!

Michael Heiss is a technology consultant and journalist, CEDIA Fellow, CEDIA ESC 2 Certified, and US correspondent for HiddenWires magazine. You can contact Michael via the HiddenWires LinkedIn Group. Follow him on Twitter: @captnvid