The Consumer Electronics Show is not the best place for a slow-burning story. The hype machine runs fast in Las Vegas and with tens of thousands of people running around thousands of booths across millions of square feet of exhibition space, there is rarely time to take a considered look at the more complex technologies on show.
This year’s big thing was smart speakers (again) but the organiser of CES, the Consumer Technology Association, predicts that sales of devices such as Amazon Echo will peak as soon as next year. The “next big thing” of years gone by, such as 3D TV, is barely visible today.
So, instead of celebrating the here-today, gone-tomorrow innovations of CES, here are a few long-term trends to watch.
Real health tech
Slowly but surely, wearable technology is turning from a consumer proposition with limited appeal to a compelling medical device. Omron Healthcare showed a preview of its HeartGuide smart watch, which combines the usual fitness tracking and notification functions with a slimmed-down blood pressure monitor in the strap. This will allow for much more consistent and simpler monitoring than traditional blood pressure cuffs. Omron hopes to obtain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration for the wearable device later this year. Omron also showed a home device that can monitor both electrocardiograms (EKG) and blood pressure, sending the data straight to the doctor.
Fitbit, which recently invested $6m in glucose-monitoring start-up Sano, is now seeing its wristbands used in a new programme by UnitedHealthcare and Dexcom to help manage Type 2 diabetes.
Internet of useful things
I wrote before Christmas that the smart home is finally taking off and CES made that even clearer, largely thanks to the relentless march of virtual assistants that make it easier to control connected devices.
It is easy to scoff at the idea of talking to your own reflection, but Kohler’s Alexa-enabled bathroom mirror solves the common problem of not having plugs or a table in the bathroom — which also happens to be one of the places where I use an Echo most often, asking Alexa to play the news, weather and other updates while I shave and shower every morning.
There was also a strange proliferation of internet-connected devices for monitoring leaks and floods at home, such as Flo, which can also shut off the water supply. This strikes me as one of those products that will sell best to those who have already suffered the problem it is designed to prevent. But whatever you think of connected thermostats or lights you can turn on from an app, preventing a flood is a genuinely valuable contribution to the smart home.
Virtual reality is not finished
VR was the unexpected breakout hit of CES in 2014 and expectations were raised even further when Facebook paid $2bn to buy Oculus just a couple of months later. In a classic example of how reality often fails to adhere to the predictions made inside the CES bubble, consumers have been very, very slow to buy VR headsets — even when most are still wowed by one-off demos. The reasons are well documented — price, logistics, looking really nerdy — but that does not mean the companies investing in VR have given up.
I tried Lenovo’s all-in-one Mirage Solo headset, based on Google’s Daydream platform, and while the graphics are unlikely to blow anyone away, going wireless while retaining head-tracking is a good combination. At a vague price of “under $400”, it is probably still too expensive for most consumers, but in a few more years, when the quality of Lenovo’s device meets the $199 price point of the forthcoming Oculus Go, VR could finally become something people want to own.
Truly wireless charging is coming, slowly
As slow-burn innovations go, how about an idea that was first proposed a century ago? Long before he became a posthumous brand ambassador for electric cars, Nikola Tesla was experimenting with wireless charging, at both short and long range.
Fast forward to the end of 2017, and two companies, Energous and Powercast, were given approval from the US Federal Communications Commission for its “power at a distance” system that transmits electricity through the air using radio waves. This is meaningfully different to the inductive charging found in contact-based systems such as Qi, used in the iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S8.
What has happened in the intervening 100 years is a steady improvement in processing power and antenna technology, says Stephen Rizzone, Energous chief executive. He predicts its efficiency will evolve like WiFi — a technology that felt very limited when it was first introduced nearly 20 years ago but is now indispensable.
I saw a demonstration of dummy smartwatches charging from a transmitter embedded in something like an Amazon Echo speaker, and a keyboard and mouse that were topped up by a wireless charger in the frame of a PC monitor. These are hardly earth-shattering applications — a battery-powered keyboard and mouse can last for months today. Critics of this type of wireless charging point out that for both safety and technical reasons, charging speeds will be very slow for a device as large and complex as a smartphone.
On some level, this technology clearly works and the FCC clearance, one would hope, means it must also be safe.
However, too many of my questions about charging speed or the kinds of devices that could usefully be powered over the air were met with the unsatisfactory answer: “It depends.” Energous says its first “far field” wireless charging chips, with a range of some 15ft, will come out next year.
My guess is wireless charging is unlikely to be the big story of CES 2020, but experience suggests it may be premature to write it off for the long term.