I recently had the opportunity to take a trip to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. I was joined by a coworker for 5 days of excellence in electronics in hopes of finding the latest, most innovative offerings coming out in the consumer market that we might be able to study, integrate into, or partner with in the arena of healthcare education - an industry that seems to lag quite a bit in the area of technology. We stayed at the Sahara, a decent hotel that was attractive for the price and it sits at the end of the monorail line - a must for traffic back and forth to the convention center.
Yes, it was company sponsored. Yes, it was warmer there than home. Yes, it was worth it (for the company and me personally). No, I didn't go to the other convention going on at that time. Maybe next time.
OK, so what is CES? I won't even attempt to explain all of the facets of CEA (the association of consumer electronics "folks" that oversee the convention), but I can sum up CES pretty pithily: if it requires electricity, it is probably represented there. Examples (really? you need them?) would include televisions, peripherals for your computer, software, car audio systems, home automation (think: turn my lights off from my iPhone), and even cases for your cell phone. In addition to those categories, we found things there that did not require electricity, but were there because the product likely caters to a similar crowd. A great example of this is the locksmith set - a set of tools and a video (or was it a PC app?) that allows you to open locks. On a side note, the demonstration of this was both fascinating and terrifying.
My coworker and I are still sifting through the marketing materials that we grabbed throughout the 5 days we were there, but it is safe to say there were some things that stood out - both good and bad. We took some funny pictures - like this one of my coworker and a man-panda - but also some shots of cool tech while we were there. A lot of focus was on display technology - some of which was attention-grabbing even though it wasn't necessarily a product. A good example is this leaf-like display that used a mirrored ceiling and "half-leafs" of (presumably) LCD panels to create the illusion of these really tall leaf panels.
Let's just jump right into one of the hottest topics I have seen lately and get it out of the way. Every major television vendor was there and nearly all of them were touting their offerings for bringing the 3D experience that was swept the box offices (if you didn't see Avatar in 3D, why did you bother?). And from what I saw, they should have kept their Research and Development funds. Seriously. The displays (and we tried the range of manufacturers and sizes) reminded us of 3D movies (at the cinema) from like 20 years ago - not the sort of offerings I want to have in front of me when I decide to roll out Avatar at home.
Now, not all was doom and gloom in the 3D arena. My favorite (criteria: worked as advertised) display tech for 3D was from Nvidia! They showed off a 3-panel monitor with Batman: Arkham Asylum. With the glasses on (which worked from every angle I stepped to), I truly felt like I was dodging the butts of bad guys that Batman was kicking. Phenomenal.
Of special note, though it has nothing to do with 3D, is Sharp's Aquos Quad-Pixel television technology. It is of special note because we were extremely disappointed with it. Is it brighter and more vibrant? Sure. Yay. But, and I am talking to you Sharp, what the heck did you guys do to your pixels to make that possible? Whatever it was, it looked like you definitely lost something in translation because the sharp-ness (pun intended, I assure you) was not so hot. For an HD set, the picture looked grainy at 4 feet. Was it just the video they were playing? Surely not - everyone had rolled out their finest of everything as expected. Anyway, I am going to need to see something crazy to change my mind on this one.
Lastly in this realm of discussion is honorable mention of the 152" plasma HD television we saw from Panasonic that we saw. It was breathtaking.
A lot of people have clearly been worked up by the movie Minority Report because it seems that is what everyone has been shooting for since it was released. There were touch screens using various sensing tech (optical, capacitive, etc) of all shapes and sizes. Almost all of these were, well, boring. Why? Touch screens are so ubiquitous that Windows 7 now supports multi-touch natively and you can go to a restaurant that seats above 20 people without seeing one (Waffle House being the exception). To me, that means you have to show me something amazing before I get too excited (quick nod to MIT's presentation of the Sixth Sense at TED last year).
Again, there were some winners in my book. The offering from Light Blue Optics called the Light Touch was pretty darn cool. This little device sits on a counter (or other flat surface) and projects out onto it while also reading your "touch" of the projected image and reacting accordingly. Very cool! Right now it has fixed application, but they are actively seeking partners to create new uses for this technology (which is programmed in Flash Lite, if I recall correctly) and I think this is something worth looking into.
A simple winner for me was, of all things, a projector screen material that was made with aluminum, What made it cool was that it was brilliantly lit up when using only mid-grade projectors (lower lumens), but as a twist it showed equally well on the opposite side of the surface (mirrored, of course). So it isn't the most "techy" thing we saw, but was definitely cool to see and has great applicability in everything from death-by-powerpoint presentations to exhibit booths. I believe the one we specifically saw was from Mocomtech.
Once again we were exposed to some booths that were using the Surface technology from Microsoft. I agree that this isn't new technology at all and it was only used in conjunction with new product offerings and the Surface tech was not the subject of the exhibit, but it still continues to draw a crowd. I really need one of these.
We saw some cool multi-panel plasma displays from Orion PDP. I was amazed at how thin and versatile their MPDP offering was. If you are looking for dust and vibration resistant displays that really stand out and get attention, I would look them up. You can configure the display to sit nearly any way you can dream up.
Intel's Info Cube was cool to see at CES and drew a heck of a crowd and you can see some video I shot on my iPhone and posted to YouTube for reference. While not a product itself, the goal was to show off this giant cube that was pulling in thousands of streams of music, video, and news topics from their aggregator and displaying each entity as a spinning cube within the pool of all cubes and that it was being ran off of a single i7 chip from Intel. Touching on a spinning cube created a pop-up window that gave a bit more detail. It was definitely hard to walk away from this thing.
In short, if it can be dimmed, dampened, turned up (or down), switched, or checked on, there is a home automation solution for it. Since this wasn't top on our list to visit, we only perused as we were passing by (or through) on the way to other things. The good news is that the convergence of mobile (phones and apps) with home automation will probably make a lot of what we saw the new standard in 5 years. Mix laziness with energy savings and add a dash of anytime control over my house? I'm all in.
Home Theatre and Car Audio
Again, not something we were really focused on, but the short version goes something like this: they can turn anything into a speaker, send the signal wirelessly (more on that in a sec), blow your eardrums out faster than before, and still draw your attention with "booth babes". About that whole wireless audio thing: when you can send the power wirelessly as well, talk to me. Until then, one cord might as well be two.
Speaking of cords, I really liked the cabling from Kwang Sung Electronics called Wiretape. Although I couldn't find it on their web site (come on people!) or even on Google, I saw it with my own eyes. What is it? Exactly what it sounds like - take any type of cable (audio, video, etc) and make the length of it a very thin, flat run just like shipping tape. It is nice for home theater installs as you can more easily mask the connections and may not even have to run an in-wall channel to hide them. Very cool.
While the Nexus One from Google was shown (and we somehow missed it!) at CES, I wasn't real impressed by anything on the mobile front... except maybe the x-ray screen offered by the same vendor who had the locksmith sets. This little thing claims to make thin fabric and such "invisible" when applied over your cell phone's camera lens. We tried the demo he had there (already on a phone) and it worked as advertised, but I want to see that thing work on an iPhone specifically before I buy. I mean, I have a buddy who wants it.
You may have seen the commercials for the new phone from LG that has a companion mini-projector that shows whatever is on your phone's screen. Pretty nifty, but let's be honest - why? I really tried to think of good reasons for this, but the truth is that it is underpowered (unless you pair with one of those aluminum dual-sided screens maybe...) and low quality. The best example of how to use this is in the commercial - showing off some crappy video you want others to see. That's not so bad, right? Well, did you notice the small print at the bottom of the commercial? Something about the screen being "simulated"? Yeah, because it's too bright in an office to see what the heck is being projected like that. Yeah, I am done.
IP video phones for the home were another product offering that seems to be picking up more steam (though way to late if you ask me). One that caught my eye was the SVP-5000 from SBNTech that looks more like a digital picture frame with a small camera mounted at the center-top position (it even has a stand like a frame). They even accept an SD card and allow it to be used as a digital frame when not in use. It seems like they really put some thought into this one and it felt complete to me: Bluetooth, WiFi, touchscreen, USB, web browser built-in.
Along those lines, it seems like it is safe to say that Skype video-calling will be the next standard feature for your home television. I don't think there was a television vendor at CES that didn't have one set (or 5) that they were offering immediately. So, be aware that your next television set will likely make you available to the rest of the world in all of your visual glory. Again, I can't help but think this is an area that they are years behind on getting to market, but maybe Skype had to hit a certain level of popularity and ubiquity in other arenas before it could transcend into your living room. At any rate, I have no feeling one way or another about it.
Computers and Peripherals
In the land of cool systems, I was majorly impressed by Lenovo's new combination notebook and tablet dubbed the IdeaPad U1. I love the idea of the keyboard and general notebook "body" really just being a docking station for the tablet. Rather that swiveling or using some of the other techniques to morph laptops and notebooks into a tablet PC, Lenovo truly has a novel approach that sits well with me at least. While $1,000 isn't exactly the stampede inducing price (as seen with some of the cheap netbooks out this last year), it isn't bad as the first offering of this type. Did I mention this thing runs Windows 7's full version? Yeah - pretty sweet.
Some of my predictions came true at CES (which always makes me a happy boy). One of such was the introduction of the evoMouse from Celluon (at this time, not listed on their web site), a peripheral that uses optics to watch your hand gestures on a table (like a normal mouse area), but enables multi-touch. The drawback to seeing this as a "mouse replacement" as it was discussed is that the ergonomics don't work well. Think of holding your hand palm-down but slightly elevated for the same amount of time each day that you use a mouse but without having the actual mouse underneath your hand for support. I am not trying to be overly negative on this, however, because I think this is a great peripheral and a great augmentation of how we work and use our computers. It just isn't a mouse replacement yet. When you put this in the context of Windows 7 and other multi-touch software components, this is exactly what I envisioned would be the first step in the business and consumer driving of this feature. Next stop? I am guessing the transition from the mouse/pen tablet combination to a trifecta of mouse/pen/multi-touch.
As we were walking through, we also took note of Electro Joe's bendi boards. These flexible keyboards have a nice rubbery feel to them, good key snap action, but also feature some cool retro designs that take me back to my stand-up arcade days.
In other news, ST Electronics is offering a product called the DigiSAFE. This line of enclosures takes a standard hard disk drive (used externally) and intercepts the calls to/from it and uses a high-security algorithm to protect the data on the drive. The benefit for an organization is that if a thumbdrive or some other storage media is lost or stolen, it is usually at the mercy of whoever finds/took it. With the DigiSAFE, you can feel assured that the data on the drive will not be accessed without the proper smartcard as well as pin number entered directly into the unit (no risk of keyloggers on the machine intercepting the code). This will work great for us in protecting our data in transit.
Microsoft was there in full force to show off their new version of Office (2010). I have a hard time getting too excited about new Office releases. There was some demonstration of using PowerPoint 2010 in a multi-site scenario where two (or more) people are editing the same slide set. In short, it appears that PowerPoint's tracking and merging of changes with decent conflict resolution is coming of age.
Towards the end of the show, we noticed a guy walking around with a big orange bird head on. His "handlers" that were walking him around were wearing shirts that said something to the effect of "Who is that guy with the big orange head?" which was amazing because I was thinking exactly that. Turns out it was the folks from Cherple, a web-based (but also desktop-based if needed) way to have 2-way texting with any US mobile phone user. It's free (messaging rates apply to the mobile user) and easy to use. To be honest, I don't think this comes up for me very often, but if I ever need something like this, I know where to go.
There were a few different vendors on hand at CES to show off their take on telemedecine. The one that really caught my eye was through EasyHealthMD. You pay a subscription fee and for some hardware (a hi-res web cam and a digital blood pressure monitor) that hooks to your PC and you can reach out to a physician at any time over the web. They also offer prescription subscription services and are working on putting in kiosks at various locations throughout the US. Hotels, offices, etc could have a place to offer a consultation with a live physician at any time. Very cool.
The coolest thing I saw with camera technology was Casio's new Exilim EX-H15. This camera offers an interesting twist for on-camera tech: it allows you to take video of a subject, cut them from the environment, and then paste them into some other backdrop. Oh yeah, and it also packs a 10x optical zoom. Now, the demonstration on their television set was a little grainy, but it was due to the way they had the video piped into the set. When I reviewed what we had shot on the camera and PC, it was smooth and sharp. I look for this to become a short-term differentiator for Casio and a long-term standardized function for future cameras.
A company named Iron Will Innovations had something cool they were showing off that took me back to my 8-bit Nintendo days and made me wish I hadn't thrown out my Power Glove a few years back (just kidding, it sucked). Iron Will's glove, called The Peregrine, could be another cool piece of tech for presenters (not just the gamers that the product was designed for). It features over 30 touch points in the glove that can activate, well, anything. Consider that you could move away from a linear PowerPoint show and instead give the presenter flexibility in deciding the path the A/V will go down by simply choosing a different "click" in the glove (think of touching your index finger to your thumb vs. your ring finger to your thumb for simplicity). Right now it is built with special connections to games like World of Warcraft, but it shows up in Windows as a standard HID device (like a keyboard), so any application layer could interpret the signals coming from it and decide the appropriate/intended action in proxy.
My coworker went for a fun ride on EZ-800 electric skateboard from Ezskaters in China and it was responsive and easy to use. I don't think either of us were "skaters" in our past lives, so it was nice to see that a beginner could hop on and get the basics down quite easily. Not sure what the price was on this thing, but it was fun to see the coworker almost crash into a wall and people while partaking in the demonstration.
One company that I want to talk more with is Mind Modulations out of Washington (state). They are doing some neat things with biofeedback that include games, self-improvement exercises (such as memory enhancement), and learning to relax your body more thoroughly. While on the surface this may seem a little strange, I think this could be a great attraction for anyone in just about any setting. For us, I am envisioning an exhibit booth that may focus on neurobiology and we allow healthcare practitioners to play one of the games using this biofeedback device to open their minds more to this sort of therapy. Maybe I am way off, but we already know that Microsoft has filed for some patents recently on electromyography (EMG) monitoring of the body, so I wouldn't be surprised if more companies aren't looking into things like this.
Lastly was something totally unexpected - an open-source plastic object "printing" robot from MakerBot. This thing really had to be seen to be appreciated. Essentially you upload a 3D file to the "printer" and it uses a hunk of ABS plastic to reproduce the object. When we walked by, it was creating a small skull. I believe the dimensions were limited to a 4" x 4" x 6" cubic area, but it was still really cool to watch. This almost made me want to learn more about producing 3D objects on the PC - almost.
The trip to CES was definitely worth it. We were able to peruse several solid exhibits that gave us some hope of more innovative approaches in integrating technology with education. We met some great people and get a feel for how the CE industry operates and networks. We were able to bring back an understanding of great technologies that are on the cusp of bursting forth and offering some incredible game-changing features to our industry and the consumer population at large. Times have been tough lately, but it looks like the rebound is on and I am excited to see what the CE industry has in store for us throughout the rest of the year and CES has in store for us next year.
If you are fascinated by electronics, check out an electrical engineering degree. This is a great way to get off the sidelines of CES (and electronics) and get IN the game. I sincerely admire and appreciate the EEs out there that give me so much more to blog about :-)