The CES trade show is powering up again in Vegas. Most of the biggest names in tech and stacks of start-ups you’ve never heard of will compete for attention over the next week.
Some products may launch new categories – past events presented a first look at video cassette recorders (VCRs), organic light-emitting diode (OLED) TVs and Android tablets. But many more will flop or never even make it to market.
AI assistants and smart living
One of the biggest developments at the last few CES expos has been Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant’s rival efforts to extend their reach in the home and beyond.
Last year things peaked with an Alexa-activated toilet flush, but over the past 12 months manufacturers have developed voice-controlled “skills” or “actions” for more products, and in some cases embedded one of the virtual assistants outright.
For 2019, we’re being promised tags that will let smart speakers tell you where your pet or TV remote is hiding, as well as Alexa/Google Assistant-controlled pianos, heart rate monitors, lawnmowers, motorcycle helmets and meditation lamps.
That’s not to say others aren’t trying to muscle in.
Samsung is rumoured to be revealing a fresh Galaxy Home speaker powered by its smart assistant Bixby, and German start-up Autolabs will demo Chris – a virtual helper designed for use in cars.
Several firms will also urge developers to get behind “open source” alternatives, in which neither of the two tech giants act as gatekeeper to the apps on offer.
For example, Volareo will show progress on a crowdfunded smart speaker that lets you buy Bitcoin and stream any video to your TV.
Others will be pitching ways to drive the category forward.
So, for example, Elliptic Labs will demo a radar-like system that lets smart speakers detect their owners’ approach. It suggests the tech could be used to trigger diary reminders or to make the speakers adjust their volume according to how close the person is.
Taking things one step further, Smart IoT Labs has Miranda – a kind of smart assistant for smart assistants that issues commands on your behalf to Alexa or Google based on your past behaviour, which sounds a bit bonkers.
And for consumers still wary about talking to their tech, Mui Lab has a “calmer” alternative.
At first sight its product looks like a plank of wood, but when touched it lights up to provide a way to control Google’s Assistant with swipes and presses rather than barked commands.
Food and drink
Nespresso has a lot to answer for.
The success of its pod-based coffee machines has inspired several start-ups to take the capsule-based concept and extend it to other kitchen gadgets.
Lecker Labs has Yomee – to which you add milk and the pod of your choosing to create yoghurt.
Mitte has a machine that passes water through a choice of cartridges to add rock minerals to it and avoid the need to buy bottles of the stuff.
And even LG is getting in on the act with HomeBrew, a product that makes beer from single-use capsules containing malt, yeast, and hop oil. It’s presumably targeted at drinkers who think “craft brewing” extends to a button push.
Meanwhile, Capsulier is back at CES with a production version of its DIY coffee and tea pods-maker, after recently starting shipments to its Kickstarter backers.
Switching tack, other intriguing foodie developments include gadgets that claim to help you improve your diet by analysing your breath.
Lumen says it will have a working prototype of its “hack your metabolism” device, which determines the proportion of carbs and fats being burnt for energy from the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air you exhale.
It then makes food recommendations based on the result.
By contrast, FoodMarble’s Aire measures the hydrogen in your breath and combines this with a log of what you have eaten, to warn you of foods you should avoid and possible substitutions.
There’s always fancy new fridges at the show, but it’s doubtful they have yet advanced to the point they can tell you when you need to eat each item by – the holy grail of kitchen tech.
But Ovie has an interim solution.
It will show off SmartTags that you’re supposed to attach to each foodstuff and identify to Alexa as you do so.
Their colour then changes as the food goes off, while an app suggests recipes to make from near-expired items.
TVs have been at the heart of CES ever since it started 52 years ago.
This year, the hot rumour is that LG will reveal a commercial version of a roll-up concept it previously demoed, meaning families can have a giant screen without sacrificing one of their walls.
Samsung may also have a rival set if a patent, sneaked out on Christmas Day, is anything to go by. Its design appears to open up horizontally rather than vertically.
Failing that, it’s likely to have more to say on its modular MicroLED tech, in which lots of small panels are clipped together to form a screen. Last year it showed off a 146in (371cm) 4K display, but it needs to create smaller versions for the innovation to be practical in the living room.
Expect lots of talk about 8K too, with sets featuring four times as many pixels as today’s 4K standard.
Japan’s recent switch-on of the world’s first “super high-definition” channel means there’s now an audience for the feature, even if content elsewhere is in short supply.
Although stores already stock 8K models, existing units lack HDMI 2.1 ports. The new cable standard is required to provide enough bandwidth to send a 60 frames-per-second 8K signal over a single connection, as well as having other benefits.
LG has already confirmed it will debut the technology and other brands are likely to do likewise.
The other development to watch out for is TVs featuring far-field microphones – the tech found in smart speakers that lets them be commanded from across a room.
This could free owners from having to use a remote control.
Toshiba has already announced one such model for Europe featuring Alexa. A wider roll-out could give Amazon and Google’s smart assistants another gateway into people’s homes.
Robot-makers at CES typically promise much, but their inventions often struggle to justify their existence. Worse – if you remember Clio last year – they can have a tendency to misbehave.
But the lead developer of one of the category’s rare success stories – Softbank’s Pepper – is at CES this year with a droid that he believes has the capacity to “touch hearts”.
Kaname Hayashi will be demoing Lovot, a chick-like bot with large expressive eyes, flapping arms, wheels, and a wardrobe of clothes to cover its soft shell.
A camera protrudes from its head, allowing it to map rooms and act as a child monitor or home surveillance device.
But Mr Hayashi has said the purpose of Lovot is not to be helpful or entertaining, but rather to engender joy, love and other positive emotions that might help owners reach their true potential.
He’s not the only one suggesting the time has come to welcome companion bots into our homes.
There’s Kiki, a “pet robot” designed by two former Google engineers, whose personality evolves according to how its owners treat it.
And Liku, a humanoid bot that promises to express “desires and emotions” driven by what’s going on in its surroundings.
Others, however, remain focused on addressing more practical problems.
Coral will show off what it says is the first robot vacuum to feature a detachable handheld unit.
Occo has a new version of its photo-taking model that interacts with guests at events before getting them to pose for automated snaps.
And Cowarobot follows up an earlier self-driving suitcase with ShopPal – a unit designed for use in stores to follow customers about, drawing their attention to promotions and offering to recharge their mobile devices.