Small-scale tech creativity is alive and kicking

Five years ago I gave up on the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual week-long Las Vegas technology binge, the latest of which ended last week.

My breaking point in 2013 was a Montreal company touting an insulated beer can holder to which you could stream music by Bluetooth, allowing you to listen to sounds while drinking cold beer. All I could say to the guy on the stand was that at least it belied the notion that Canadians were boring.

Countless other start-up-type companies seemed to be thrashing around with gimmickry. The big-tech manufacturers, meanwhile, seemed to be re-solving problems — TVs, smartphones and the like — already fixed to most people’s satisfaction. Many see no reason to upgrade their already amazing 4k screen televisions and phones from five years ago. Apple released the iPhone 5 in 2012 — it is still popular.

Innovation and inventiveness on the scale of breakthroughs such as broadband, digital photography, WiFi, digitally delivered music and drones is rare. Yet not every new product needs to be truly innovative. Creativity based on existing technology — so long as it creates something useful or desirable — does me fine as a tech fan.

So having decided to give CES a go again this year to find out more about big developments in artificial intelligence, 5G mobile and other emerging technologies from big players like Qualcomm and Intel, I was not expecting much from technology’s minnows.

However, after days slogging round the massive convention centre and satellite venues across the city, I can report that modest, intriguing creativity is in fine fettle.

Bear in mind that any CES round-up has to be a little random. No one person, or even a team, can assess more than 4,000 exhibitors spread across a city centre, plus thousands of others not officially exhibiting, yet in town showing their wares in hotel rooms and coffee shops.

Here are some of the exciting, inventive products I encountered. Some readers may say they are solutions in search of problems, but I think they show promise:

Robomart A Silicon Valley-based Londoner, Ali Ahmed, was promoting a 4.2m-long self-driving fruit and vegetable store, designed to prowl vast US housing estates with roads wide enough to stop anywhere. Run out of onions or carrots in the middle of a recipe? No need to jump in the gas guzzler when you can open an app and summon the shop to your door.

Lancey A young team in Grenoble headed by 29-year-old Dr Raphaël Meyer has reinvented electric storage heaters for the modern age. Instead of storing off-peak heat in breeze blocks, as domestic storage heaters did in their 1970s heyday, the smart, AI-packed Lancey uses a specially designed battery and claims to be environmentally friendly.

Phibot MPcognitivos, a start-up in Ciudad Obregón, Mexico, offered this personal organiser app, which it says goes beyond AI by using “human-like intelligence”. “We have built-in coding to learn and make decisions using common sense, which we believe is a first,” the saleswoman said.

GrowPods Taiwanese urban farming company Opcom Farm had this fruit and vegetable-growing tent designed to fit neatly in a parking space, for city dwellers who value fresh produce over a car. It comes with lighting, air conditioning and heating, and could supply a small family with year-round salad crops, grown vertically in four layers.

Ledger Nano S A Franco-US start-up previewed this keyfob-sized, 16g electronic “wallet” which can securely store your data for a variety of cryptocurrencies. The device, with several safety features and an embedded screen, is on pre-order at €79.

MAD Gaze Despite the crazy name, the is Hong Kong start-up may have a solid idea. MAD Gaze is a “re-imagination”, as we say in tech, of the doomed Google Glass internet spectacles. But the young team have been sensible enough to make their hands-free wearable computer a B2B product, rather than something to make you look like an idiot in the pub. It is designed for such applications as logistics and warehousing, construction and medicine.

Hypervsn Remember how holograms were going to be huge? Well holography might now break through, thanks to south London company Kino-mo, backed by Sir Richard Branson and US entrepreneur Mark Cuban. The latest version of their Hypervsn system, which projects realistic 3D holograms into thin air, made a splash at CES. Earlier versions have been used for promotions by Red Bull, BMW, McDonald’s and Dell.

Nanoscent We have seen voice and face recognition flourish. Now Nanoscent Labs, a start-up based in Israel, is developing smell recognition, using a new form of chip developed with the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Nanoscent’s proposed uses include disease detection in humans and agriculture. The company says its odour sensor can identify cow pregnancy before a vet can.

jonathan.margolis@ft.com

@TheFutureCritic

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