CES highlights include smart toilet, VR gym & AI dog

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is held every January in Las Vegas. It’s typically an event dominated by state of the art TVs, concept cars, the latest headphones, and cute robots.

This year’s CES was no exception, but we also saw developments in three other technology categories: voice assistants, virtual reality, and health tracking.

The star of last year’s CES was Amazon’s Alexa, which had been embedded into dozens of products. This year Google Assistant took the limelight. Google’s voice assistant was integrated into many different types of gadgets; including speakers, screens, headphones, pet feeders, infotainment systems, TVs, and a light switch.

It seems the “smart home” is finally becoming a reality.

But why have virtual assistants become the dominant smart home technology? It’s because all these different devices have to be able to communicate with each other, so they need a common software platform. Voice-activated assistants, powered by Artificial Intelligence, are that platform.

Alexa is still the market leader here, with its integration in roughly 4,000 products compared to Google’s 1,500 compatible devices. But according to The Verge, “more people paid attention to Google Assistant this year than ever.”

Many of the products that hook into Alexa or Google Assistant are made by third parties. One that stood out at this year’s CES was the Lenovo Smart Display, which Engadget named its Best Connected-Home Product.

The device looks a bit like a miniature television, with its screen and speaker interface. But it hooks into the Google ecosystem, allowing you to do everything from asking directions, requesting a dinner recipe on YouTube, or checking on your Nest cameras.

Regardless of who leads the voice assistant market, the overall trend is clear: more and more things in our homes are getting connected to the Internet, and the dominant interface is voice. As CNET summed it up, “CES 2018 seemed to mark the beginning of the end of “dumb” household products, with everything from light switches to faucets to mirrors and (yes, really) toilets getting some sort of AI upgrade.”

The smart toilet in question was made by a company called Kohler. According to The Guardian, the toilet is voice-activated and comes with mood lighting, a heated seat, foot warmer and advanced bidet functionality with air dryer. It sounds a little too cozy!

Virtual Reality has been a big story at CES over the past several years, but the VR hype has cooled in recent times. While Facebook’s Oculus was absent from this year’s CES, its main competitor HTC announced a newly redesigned Vive Pro headset. The biggest improvement was the screen resolution, which has been upgraded from 2,160 × 1,200 to 2,880 × 1,600.

Specialist VR blog RoadtoVR called the Vive Pro “a clear upgrade over the original Vive, with greater comfort and better visuals.” It’s also now clearly better than the Oculus Rift, which still has a screen resolution of 2160 x 1200. However, RoadtoVR speculated that the Vive Pro may end up costing twice as much as the Rift.

The other VR product that caught my eye from CES was a startup called Black Box VR, which is building a kind of virtual gym. Engadget explained that Black Box uses the HTC Vive, motion-tracking controllers and “specially designed workout equipment” to create a VR gym experience.

Intrigued, I checked out the Black Box website. The main exercise device is described as an “integrated cable pulley system,” which you use while hooked into the VR game. It looks like one of those stretchy fitness devices you often see on TV infomercials.

Personally, I’ll stick to my local gym. But at least Black Box is creating a new use case for VR, which the industry needs more of going forward.

Lastly let’s check in with health tracking, which has been a regular feature at CES over the past several years. Up till now, it’s been mostly step counters (like Fitbit) and lots of smartwatches. But this year, we saw a number of health tracking devices that address more than exercise. The Verge was particularly taken with the “smart and stylish hearing aids” offered by companies like ReSound, Oticon, and Eargo.

Another health tracker that got attention was L’Oreal’s UV Sense. Engadget described it as “a UV sensor no bigger than a thumbnail that tells you, via your smartphone, how much sun exposure you’ve received each day.” That sounds like something we in New Zealand could use, given our high UV levels.

Of course, being CES, there was a cutesy robot story that captured the attention of many at the show. Sony’s Aibo robot dog, last seen in the mid-2000s, is back. The new generation Aibo is – you guessed it – powered by Artificial Intelligence. It also features OLED panels for eyes and has touch sensors on its head, chin, and back so that you can pet it.

And that was CES for 2018. I expect it’s only a matter of time before your Alexa is ordering your Aibo to stop barking, so as not to disturb your VR workout.