From smart baby clothes to TVs that learn what you like to watch, the gadgets at this year's tech fest were truly mind-blowing.
LAS VEGAS — I'm not leaving Las Vegas in a car that drives itself. But I can imagine doing so some day, coming out of International CES.
The latest tech fest featured demonstrations of "autonomous cars" that take over the driving, truly mind-blowing virtual reality, and other showy technologies that promise to change the way we move, work, workout and, naturally, watch television.
Start with the Oculus Rift virtual reality 3-D goggles. They're still only a prototype and the initial appeal will be among video gamers. But there are all sorts of possible applications in architecture, real estate, medicine and other forms of entertainment. You get a true sense of "presence."
No official word on availability, but Oculus has opened up the device to developers and wants to price it for the consumer. "We believe it will blow open the virtual reality category," says co-founder and CEO Brendan Iribe. Having tried them out myself, I agree. Iribe says you'll be able to take a virtual reality vacation. "Imagine putting a 360-camera with audio as well on the top of Mount Everest or a beach in Barcelona."
At the Intel booth, a start-up called Mimo showed off infant onesies that are embedded with machine-washable sensors — these pajamas were on a baby doll. Via Bluetooth, the sensors communicate with a turtle-shaped wireless monitor and lily-pad-shaped base station. Mimo can monitor your baby's respiration and skin temperature in real time, which you can track on an iPhone. The $199.99 cost includes three onesies (available in 0-3 months, 3-6 months, and 6-12 months sizes, with additional packs of two in each size).
Indeed, wearable computers were everywhere. The tiny $59 to $79 Lumo Lift trackers are coming out this spring. You can wear them like jewelry on your lapel or clasp them unseen onto a bra or undershirt. As with some other wearables, Lumo Lift can count your steps and the calories you've burned. But it can also analyze your body position and posture.
Speaking of posture, you might find your TV bending one of these days. At least that's the case with the breathtaking and bendable 85-inch 4K TV that Samsung was showing off. Press a button on the remote control, and a hidden motor bends the TV into one that is curvy. It's only a prototype at this point, and Samsung won't say when such a TV might be coming out, not to mention how much you'll have to mortgage to afford one. "What we wanted to showcase was the future of flexible displays," says Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America.
REALITY CHECK: THE FUTURE OF TV
While it's easy to get seduced by buzz-worthy tech in a major trade show environment, it isn't long before reality hits and you understand that some of what you see will barely if ever make a dent in the market, while other innovations almost certainly will but take much longer to get there.
As with last year's CES, the major push this time around surrounds the massive 4K televisions that you can't miss while patrolling the main halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The TVs boast four times the resolution of high definition and represent the industry's next great hope for jazzing up sagging profits.
Three or four years ago, CES was all about 3-D televisions, but we know how that movie played out. Even as 3-D becomes a standard feature in current TVs, consumers barely seem to care — not when they still must wear those annoying 3-D glasses.
It remains to be seen what kind of ending 4K has, but I don't get the sense that consumers satisfied with the cheap high-def sets they've purchased recently are clamoring for these latest TVs, good as they look. Don't get me wrong. I'd love to own one and I expect 4K to become a norm eventually. But the average TV viewer may not see enough of a difference between HD and 4K to spend a lot of loot on one. Not yet, anyway. Sony CEO Kaz Hirai told reporters that it might take five to seven years before 4K goes mainstream.
Manufacturers aren't entirely giving up on 3-D, either. At the Sharp booth, you could watch scenes in 3-D from Life of Pi or Frozen on an 85-inch 8K — yes, 8K — TV. It's a pretty impressive demo of what glasses-free 3-D could be eventually.
And what of those curved televisions? Samsung's Baxter says curved TVs create "a really immersive experience that puts you in the best seats in the house." Certainly the ones I've seen here are sweet.
You have to manually press a remote control button on Samsung's bendable prototype to make it go from flat to curved. Might such a TV eventually change from flat to curved automatically, depending on what you are watching?
There are other ways we'll be able to watch, too. The Sony Ultra Short Throw Projector uses lasers to embed a 147-inch 4K image onto the wall just above it. It's coming to the U.S. this summer, but don't start making room for it unless you have the $30,000 to $40,000 it will cost to own it.
Panasonic was showing off TVs that make suggestions on what you might want to watch based on prior viewing habits.
Fred Graver, who heads Twitter TV, says that in the next few years the TV (and relevant programming) will find you, rather than you finding what to watch through an electronic programming guide.
WHAT ELSE IS AHEAD: CARS, SENSORS AND MORE
Switching gears, there were various biometric security devices on display. The one that caught my eye — literally — is the EyeLock Myris. When you gaze into it, the hockey puck-shaped device authenticates your identity by recognizing the irises in each of your eyes — letting you log in to a PC or Mac, or secure website. Only DNA authentication is more accurate, the company claims.
I was a passenger in a Ford Taurus checking out various vehicle-to-vehicle (v2v) tests Ford was running. The demo showed how vibrating motors on the back of seats and LED lights triggered by radar sensors can appear on a windshield to help warn drivers to avoid possible collisions. Brake support is also integrated.
I'm intrigued by the possibility of a car that drives itself, at least a good portion of the time, as the human driver would have to be at the ready just in case. How soon might this happen in a big way? "Nobody knows, to be quite honest," says Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer at Ford. "Obviously, the handoff between the driver and the vehicle and the vehicle and the driver is a key part of the development," he says.
The ultimate benefit of an autonomous vehicle — Mascarenas doesn't like the term "driverless" — is to provide safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles that may also help reduce traffic congestion. Of course, there are lots of technical and legal hurdles that must be overcome throughout the decade and beyond, not least of which is societal acceptance.
Werner Huber, who heads BMW's research efforts in this area, says you have to keep driverless driving in controlled situations at first. That is already starting to happen in some vehicles through the self-parking feature. And the car must behave like human beings and then some — being able to anticipate another vehicle or pedestrian getting in the way.
Werner says the other big benefit is the time you get back for yourself when the car is driving for you — letting you catch up on e-mail, work or relaxation. Just don't expect to watch a big-screen TV while you're waiting for the vehicle to put you back in control.
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