Silly No More: Crazy CES Ideas That Hit
A decade ago, self-driving cars, e-mailing refrigerators and robots made of Legos would've seemed like props out of the latest sci-fi blockbuster. Even just a few years ago, saying "phablet" made you sound like a wannabe hip-hop mogul. But these far-out ideas are a reality, coming soon to a lifestyle near you.
This year, CES was, by many accounts, dull -- watered down with devices with senseless enhancements. But the trade show also hinted that outlandish, seemingly silly trends -- ranging from autonomous vehicles to tech for kids -- are coming into their own. Some, like phablets and smart homes, loom on the horizon, while others will take their time to come to the forefront. Want to live in a sci-fi movie like "Minority Report" or "I, Robot"? Well, your dreams will soon come true.
Rise of the Phablets: Cut Down the Dork Factor
It happens when you watch old movies. Whether it's "Clueless" or some Bruce Willis movie, the story chugs along until a character needs to make a phone call. Then they pull out a phone -- and it's the size of a brick. You laugh and look at your movie-viewing companion as they check e-mail and check Twitter on a slender iPhone or Galaxy. We live in a mobile era where devices are getting thinner by the millimeter. But that's changing.
With the rise of so-called "phablets," the smartphone-tablet hybrids are having an unexpected renaissance at CES. And while they won't be brick-sized, the once-mocked devices are gaining traction. Chinese makers -- like ZTE and Huawei -- unveiled phablets at CES in hopes of riding the surprise wave that Samsung's Galaxy Note 2 spearheaded. Why the popularity? A few factors, really -- the foremost being the larger screen. Consumers prefer big displays because mobile content is increasingly video. Plenty of phones have large screens, but phablets feature the largest displays of all --outside of traditional tablets. If you use your phone more than your PC, to check e-mail, browse the Internet and surf YouTube, phablets' offer a more appealing and robust alternative.
The decline of voice calls also contributes to the rise of phablets. Small phones were of paramount importance when you used your phone to make calls. Frankly, you look dorky holding a fat phone to your ear. But if you're like most, you rarely make calls now, instead preferring to text. That cuts down on the dork factor. Combining the stronger computing power of a tablet with the ease and convenience of a smartphone is helping phablets gain ground in emerging Asian markets like India and Indonesia, where mobile growth is exploding. In these markets, where consumers don't often have a computer, the phone-tablet form allows them to "piggyback" over the need to own both. As these markets -- along with China and Brazil, among others -- become more important to phone makers, they'll start flooding stores with larger devices. As a result, phablets are coming to the fore, and those brick-sized handsets from years past won't seem so odd -- they'll just still be a bit dorky.
In 2012, Google's self-driving cars grabbed headlines, but what seemed like an outlier idea actually picked up steam with automakers, who introduced their own take on the outlandish idea at CES. Toyota, for example, showed off a Lexus sedan souped-up with sensors and cameras that can detect what's going on around it, but it stopped short of being fully automated. "It has the ability to drive itself, but we won't allow it," said Jim Pisz, Toyota's corporate manager. Instead, the technology is being used to develop safety features, such as collision prevention systems and other driver programs.
Meanwhile, Audi demoed a simulator for a driverless vehicle. Engineers are working on an "on-off switch" you can use in traffic jams, allowing you to create ad-hoc motorcades and travel at the same speed to prevent stop-and-starts, save gas and relieve driver boredom. The German company said fully autonomous cars are possible, but it'll take a while to become mainstream because of legal and regulatory issues. Still, lawmakers are laying the groundwork. California, for example, signed a bill that allows self-driving cars on highways. But politicians are nervous about the idea, so you won't be sitting in a moving car while reading a newspaper and sip hot coffee anytime soon. The technology is nearly there, but cultural and social acceptance lags.
Still, that's not stopping car makers from turning their vehicles into "rolling computers," Wolfgang Duerheimer, Bentley Motors CEO, said at CES. Ford, for instance, restarted its driverless car program, after halting it for years after the "far out" idea didn't justify a large team. After Google's interest in cars, Ford changed its tune, and the slow thaw of the legal landscape, along with software powers like Microsoft, will push the development of self-driving cars into the future. With a record eight car makers at the showcase and a number of smaller businesses showing off safety and driving features using sensors, smart cars are ever closer to reality -- even if you still have to put two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road.
Kids Growing Up on Tech
As you wander the halls of CES, you forget the innovations for children unveiled at the show. Kids will soon have their own aisle at Best Buy and one of several "innovation stores" designed specifically with them in mind. This year, CES even organized an exhibition, called "Kids at Play," to allow software developers and hardware makers to meet educators and policy makers to collaborate on gadgets for children.
One such product: Lego's Mindstorms EV3, which retails for $350, connects to iPhones and iPads over Bluetooth. Kids ages 10 and up can create simple programs, sent to a robot snake robot. They can control it remotely to sense if someone is nearby to strike. The digital facelift gives Lego builders capabilities beyond what they'd have a generation ago. Another kid-friendly product: the Animation Snug, a line of soft, durable, plush toys with front pockets designed for the iPhone. The colorful stuffed animals give kids an interactive way to listen to music or watch videos. Today's kids, who naturally "swipe" and "pinch" interactive screens and are more familiar with tablets than magazines. These products join the bigger opportunities for kids to bridge the gap between the classroom and the playground, like summer technology camps and toys, like dollhouses, that incorporate tech.
That early and repeated exposure is increasing kids to apps. That's the case with Clipped, a program created by 15-year-old Tanay Tandon. The high school student developed his own algorithm to scan news stories to help him research and prepare as a member of his school's debate team.
Smart Homes are Coming
If CES is any indication, this year, the much-hyped smart home innovations truly comes home. The range of products -- from the simple light switches to complete home systems -- give a snapshot of an industry that gives homes a technological makeover. Lowe's, for example, developed a line of motion sensors, called "Iris Care" with compatible keypads, responsive plugs, thermostats and more. It's all controlled by a central hub the size of a Kleenex box. Once it's set up, alerts and alarms will keep an eye on your house and let you know of any suspicious activity. The company hopes that some of the features -- like the ability to send an e-mail to family members when an older relative doesn't get out of bed at the normal time -- will appeal for reasons beyond convenience.
Beyond the range of tasks, Lowe's is aiming to appeal to simplicity. Home management systems are rolling out in hundreds of stores this year, each with an emphasis on connections that don't need hard-wiring -- perfect for DIYers. The components are designed to easily pair with products from partners like Yale Locks, Verizon, Honeywell and Whirlpool -- so you can just buy it and plug it in. Other companies like LG are hoping to take the difficulty out of connecting smart homes by releasing a line of appliances with controls that can connect to your smartphone with just a touch. Just tap the phone to the refrigerator, for example, to get a list of contents inside as you run to the grocery store. Or remotely start a vacuum to clean the house, using NFC wireless technology.
Regardless of how crazy the ideas at CES seem, more often than not, they're grounded on practicality. Whether it's self-driving cars, programmable toys or sensing smart homes, in a few years, you'll wonder how you lived without them -- and they won't seem as crazy as you originally thought.
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Categories: Gadgets & Gear