Electronics show flashy but evolutionary

Lumus Ltd. exhibitor Ari Grobman (left) wears DK40 smart glasses while talking with Darren Kitchen wearing Google Glass glasses, not shown but seen everywhere, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Lumus Ltd. exhibitor Ari Grobman (left) wears DK40 smart glasses while talking with Darren Kitchen wearing Google Glass glasses, not shown but seen everywhere, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (PATRICK T. FALLON / Bloomberg)
Posted: January 13, 2014

LAS VEGAS - Miniature toy drones that can fly and crawl across the ceiling but steer clear of stratospheric prices. Wearable fitness sensors that can track your steps, stairs, calorie use, even your heart rate and sleep patterns. Three-dimensional printers for under $1,000 that can bring your creation to life.

Every January during the Consumer Electronics Show, Sin City briefly turns into a technologist's imaginarium - a place to show off innovations, make connections, and catch a glimpse of everybody else's dreams.

Some years, a handful of inventions stir big buzz. This year? You might say that if the industry were wearing a Fitbit activity tracker - one of last year's high-profile gizmos that's now fighting off dozens of competitors - its performance wouldn't exactly blow anyone away.

But there was still an amazing array of invention, even if it was more evolutionary than revolutionary. Here are five products or categories that drew one show-goer's gaze:

Interconnected devices. Call it the "Internet of things" or, as the networking giant Cisco Systems prefers, the "Internet of Everything." The idea is the same: The Web doesn't just connect people anymore. Our inventions now talk to each other, too.

Those conversations promise truly revolutionary innovations in the years ahead, such as automated cars and highways, or wearable monitors that can anticipate and respond to a health crisis. Meanwhile, CES showed off baby steps in those and similar directions - even if Google's driverless car was nowhere to be seen.

Bosch and Valeo, for instance, showed off cars that can find a parking place and then maneuver into it autonomously. Ford showed a system of vehicle-to-vehicle communications, known as V2V, that enables nearby cars to warn each other - or, in the demonstration, warn another car's driver - of an imminent collision.

France's Induct demonstrated its Navia electric driverless van, which has been tested on campuses in places such as Switzerland and Singapore and may be the first driverless vehicle sold for U.S. roads.

The Navia has its limitations - just semi-enclosed, it looks a bit like an overgrown golf cart, and it tops out at 12.5 m.p.h. But with laser guidance, it carries up to eight passengers on a designated route or when summoned by a smartphone, stopping if something crosses its path or slowing while trailing a bicycle. When not in use, it parks - and plugs itself in.

"It's essentially a robot," said Induct's Adrian Sussman. An enclosed version is in the works, but Induct expects the current model to make its U.S. debut this year, with a $250,000 price that makes it competitive with, say, a university shuttle plus a day-and-night staff of drivers.

Fitness and health wearables. Fitbit CEO James Park had trouble drawing attention at his first CES two years ago for his first activity monitor. Now his company claims two-thirds of a rapidly growing market.

The new $130 Fitbit Force uses an altimeter to count floors climbed, includes a sharp OLED display, and plans to add iPhone call notification next month. Other wearables promise to also monitor your sleep and your heart rate sans chest strap, either continuously from wrist sensors (such as the $179 Basis Science B1) or with a three- to eight-second press of a button (the $99 LifeTrak Zone C410).

Are they reliable? Some experts warn that movement can create too much electronic noise to make continuous monitoring accurate. "During vigorous exercise, they really struggle to get data," said David Schie, CEO of LinearDimensions Semiconductor of San Jose, Calif., who said most of today's activity monitors "are like pedometers on steroids."

Some sensors offer clear advances, such as Reebok's $150 CheckLight, wearable headgear with an accelerometer that can gauge the force of a head impact during sports.

And then there's the Voyce, a collar for canines that, if it arrives this summer as promised, will be able to track a dog's vital signs, including heart and respiratory rates, along with its activity level.

It won't come cheap - it's expected to cost $299, plus a $15 monthly fee to make sense of the data for your particular breed. But its developer, Jeff Noce, insists it's not about getting Fido up off the couch - he bristles at hearing it called "Fitbit for dogs."

As the owner of a English mastiff that died at age 4, Noce wanted a way to peer inside a pet that can't tell of its aches and pains. So he invented one.

Home automation. You've heard all the "smart home" hype, and maybe you've considered a full-fledged system that automates your lights, thermostat, even your oven or window shades. Or maybe you've thought that was all just too much.

While some companies are promoting do-anything home controls, others see benefits in thinking small. And a common entry point is, well, automating your front door.

Both the $219 Kwikset Kevo and the Okidokeys (preordering for March shipping at $179) allow you to control a dead bolt via a smartphone, enabling you to provide access remotely to contractors and other visitors.

Just want to know who's ringing? Consider the $199 SkyBell, which uses WiFi to offer a video view of the doorway on your smartphone. "Answering the door is a very simple thing, but it can be an anxiety-producing event," said Andrew Thomas, 29, SkyBell's cofounder.

Heads-up displays. Google wasn't showing off its $1,500 Google Glass spectacles at CES 2014 - at least not officially. But they were everywhere on the heads of exhibitors and show-goers. Some said they were working on applications. Others were probably just showing off.

But some said they liked them for an almost mundane reason: The Glass' heads-up display is great - far better than a tiny screen on or below a dashboard - for navigation and other tasks where data can augment reality.

That insight is driving a wave of innovation - even into swimming pools, where the $149 Instabeat, promised for delivery by this spring, offers a heads-up heart-rate display on its swimming goggle.

Mother. You didn't think she'd be automated now, too, did you? Well, that's the conceit of a French company that puts its computer brains into a form that's half Russian doll, half upside-down lightbulb. And Sen.se's Mother can be a bit of of nudge, just like the real thing.

Promised this spring for $222, Mother uses sensor-equipped "cookies" that can attach to items such as a toothbrush to make sure your children are doing their daily duty - or perhaps to monitor your own as well and make it into a contest.

Convinced they've learned? Move the cookie on to another task that can be analyzed against a computer model. Sen.se has identified a dozen to start. But just like a mother's love, there are no limits.


jgelles@phillynews.com215-854-2776

@jeffgelles www.inquirer.com/consumer

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