CES 2018: Smart City, Smart Home, VR&AR and More

I was fortunate to get a ticket to attend the Consumer Electronics Show 2018 in Las Vegas as a 16-year-old. After two days of tireless walking and watching countless booths and demos, I was Whoa-ed by the innovations and concepts. Despite the rainy weather on the first day (which ruined Google’s booth) and the power outage on the second day, the show successfully showed the latest technological innovation and the trend in the consumer electronics sector. The most prominent highlights of this year’s CES I found are smart city, autonomous driving, 5G communication, smart home appliances and voice assistants, as well as VR and AR hardware.

5G is coming!

4G has been widely applied to our mobile devices, and 5G is coming to take over.

It has only been a few years that 4G existed, but 5G is coming in a matter of years. With the promise of ten or even hundred times faster of data transformation and almost zero response delay time, It will allow new possibilities of services built on quicker and more secure data, and enable the ability of everything to be connected (smart city and vehicles). Before CES, almost all major U.S. carriers agreed on the 5G standards and announced plans deploying 5G. Although there are only concepts at this year’s CES, we should believe that the consumer level hardware will soon come and the adoption will be much faster than from 3G to 4G.

Intel’s massive booth showing its focus on AI and 5G

One possible breakthrough that 5G can probably bring is the distribution of VR contents. It will enable the streaming of VR content possible on mobile and standalone VR headsets, expanding the use of virtual reality to media and sports event.

Intel and Qualcomm’s 5G and VR Experience Booth

The future of City Transportation: Hyperloops, Flying Taxis, Smart City enabled by V2X system

At the central plaza in LVCC, the most eye-catching vehicle was the Hyperloop One from Virgin. It is the first time a fully-functioning hyperloop that was revealed in public. This full-scale hyperloop pod one was one of the XP-1 testing pods at Virgin’s testing facility in Northern Nevada, which reached 310 km/h. It is displayed at mapping company Here, not only to demonstrate the future vehicle of transportation, but also the ultimate method of point of point transportation (combined with other transportation systems such as Lyft for the last miles, demoed in a mobile app). The future of inter-city transportations is very exciting as the pods will probably start running as early as 2021.

Virgin’s Hyper Loop One XP-1

The other players who are trying to disrupt the urban transportations are the flying taxis. Electric drones for passengers set a promise that the future transportations, with several startups working towards viable autonomous flying solutions. Volocopters in partnership with Intel was a star at the opening keynote and made history by being the first flying taxi in the U.S.. There was also the Surefly, a 2-passenger drone that is not yet autonomous. We might see them in the city soon as Intel’s or Uber’s flying taxi initiative will become a reality in a matter of years.

The German Volocopter that took off at Intel’s keynote and Surefly, a two-passenger drone that is aiming towards autonomous flying

Autonomous Driving

The autonomous driving space is as competitive as it always had been. All major semiconductor companies such as Intel, Qualcomm, Nvidia and autonomous driving startups such as AutonomouStuff and Horizons Robotics all showcase their newest self-driving solutions such as their testing vehicles and chips. There are even autonomous BWMs powered by Aptiv and Lyft picking up passengers in Las Vegas!

The progress in the autonomous hardware sector was significantly rapid as self-driving Ubers and Lyfts are becoming a reality really quickly, but this CES showed the impact it can have on smart city is more interesting.

Autonomous vehicle testing platforms by AutonomouStuff and intel; intelligent camera processor developed by Chinese startup Horizons Robotics.

Smart City enabled by Connected Vehicles

At Ford’s CES keynote, Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett envisioned a mobility smart city solution

At Ford’s CES keynote, Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett envisioned a mobility smart city solution. Instead of talking about the autonomous driving technology, Hackett focused on the smart city system that self-driving and connected vehicles will enable, and the new kind of mobility such system can bring. Its Cellular Vehicle to Everything (CV2X) system proposed the possibility of utilizing maximum resources of vehicles, creating a whole new approach to move goods. With the connected data and fully mobilized vehicles , goods and people can be seamlessly connected, making everything arriving at the right time a possibility, and create a whole new business-model based on self-driving.

Qualcomms’s Cellular CV2X system and Toyota’s e-Palette

The establishment of a system of connected autonomous vehicles means the city will be more and more dynamic. Traffic can be adjusted, and collisions can be prevented; Even the autonomous vehicles themselves can be adjusted to play different roles (shared office, ride shares, delivery), as Toyota’s e-Palette concept demonstrated. Although it will be quite a long time until such a smart city system will be established, it shows the wider social impact of self-driving cars can have on city life.

Samsung and Sony’s concept for interior control system of self-driving cars

Interior designs have also improved with the introduction of voice assistance. Samsung showcased its new Digital Cockpit platform with voice control, haptic feedback, and physical knobs with a single big screen for control and information display. Sony envisioned a complete touchless interaction with gesture recognition. Those concepts might be implemented faster on our everyday vehicles.

The Smart Home Battle Ground

One of the most common themes of CES 2018 is smart home. Ranging from traditional consumer electronic giants such as Samsung, LG, Sony, Haier to startups, almost every single company has its own unique smart home solution. It is a fierce battleground with competitive players who are trying their system’s dominance by allocating as many smart home appliance manufacturers as possible.

Samsung’s booth “Samsung city” and its SmartThings Cloud hardware network

Samsung built a large booth named “the Samsung City.” Its Intelligence of Things consists three components: SmartThings Cloud, SmartThings App, Bixby (Samsung’s voice assistance). SmartThings Cloud connects all Samsung hardware, and you can control them through Bixby or the SmartThings App on TV and your phone.

Samsung’s Smart Fridge

Samsung envisioned the smart fridge (a fridge that has a massive touchscreen to control other smart home applications) to become the family centre/the smart home control centre. They also showcased a full system of smart appliances in kitchen, bedroom, and living room. One of the highlights was the customized multi-device command to reduce steps such as “Bixby, I am going to bed.” which dims the light and turns off appliances.

LG’s ThinQ SmartHome Solution

Similarly, LG demoed its ThinQ AI and connected devices (washing machine, fridge, dishwasher, oven, vacuum cleaner). However, their devices are much more flexible, as it works with both Google Assistant and Alexa.

A number of full smart home solutions demoed by different companies (LG, Huawei, SimpliSafe)

There are sure a lot of unique and innovative hardware, but what really frustrated me was the repetitive nature of most of the hardware; Most of the basic components are the same. Besides, different company’s system uses different ways connecting various appliances: some use Zigbee to connect everything to a hub and then connects the hub to wifi; some directly connect to wifi and pair through apps. It is hardly possible for users to include other smart hardware into a company’s smart home system. Those might be factors discouraging consumers from adopting smart home systems.

Sony’s new Aibo robot dog and iPal child and elder care robot

Besides the connected devices, robots showed a growing role in family’s daily interaction. Sony released its new Aibo robot dog which can mimic almost a real pet dog’s action with its precise motion control; It can recognize family members, blink its eyes, interact with your hand, recognize your voice commands and follow the bone. iPal is a humanoid robot that is designed to accompany children and elders by providing entertainment services as well as security alerts for emergencies. As robots are getting smarter at interacting with humans, they will play a more and more significant role in our families.

Some other robots designed for more active role in family life, for example reading kids story books
The Laundroid Closet

Another example that showing Robotics and AI are becoming is a reality in our home is the Laundroid closet. It is the World’s 1st Laundry Folding Bot and one of the coolest things I have ever seen at CES. It uses image recognition and robotics arms to recognize and fold all kinds of clothes you dumped into it and returned them in perfectly folded and sorted piles inside the closet. It is almost like the dream machine I wish I have.

The Nokia Sleep Mattress Pad

Nokia, the declined telecom giant, imaged themselves as an IoT healthcare company at CES. They brought plenty of smart watches and the Nokia Sleep, a mattress pad that analyzes your sleep pattern. The sleep system can also be integrated with temperature and light control to enhance sleep quality.

Google Assistant vs Amazon Alexa vs Other Voice Services

One of the most common hardware were voice-assistance enabled smart devices. Every smart device booth features either Alexa or Google Assistant enabled devices. It was really interesting to see how Alexa and Google Assistant are dividing the market and get different hardware companies to side with them.

Almost every hardware manufacture are making their products compatible for Alexa, Google Assistant, Nest, and Apple Homekit.
Google’s advertisement “Hey Google” on Las Vegas’ Monorail and its massive outdoor booth

Before arriving at the Google booth, I have seen the “Hey Google” advertisement all around Las Vegas on Monorails, Ads board, and even in front of Casinos. Google’s booth was for sure the most noticeable in Central Plaza, but it was unfortunately closed on the first day with the unexpected rain. Featuring a Google Home Mini Donut shop, Assistant enabled device gallery, and an Assistant experience tour (which you need to line up for two hours). Google’s presence not only was in its massive booth, but also virtually everywhere around the smart home exhibitions; You can’t not see a sign with Google Assistant while walking around the show.

Amazon Alexa’s roadshow demoing a variety of Alexa enabled device

Compared to Google’s massive advertisement campaign and booth, Alexa only brought a roadshow cart right opposite to Google’s booth. The roadshow featured a range of Alexa enabled product in work, bedroom, kitchen, and living room settings through interactive demos, and especially multi-device commands (such as go to sleep turns off lights and also lowers the curtain).

Voice assistants enabled a new way to interact with our smart home devices in a more convenient way. The voice services themselves are almost the same quality, what sets them apart was their effort in allocating hardware and smart home service providers on their sides. Google partnered up with LG, Sony, and Lenovo, while Alexa worked with Hisense, Panasonic, Kohler. Alexa and Google assistant tried to integrate their services in most existing Smart hardware such as TVs as well as connect Smart Home applications on their own hardware (Echo and Home). From what I have seen, they seem to split the market equally and it will be interesting to see which one would dominant with more hardware compatibility and service experiences.

LG 4K Smart TV featuring Google Assistance and Nokia’s Health App on Alexa

Because of the voice recognition partnership, many unusual devices are added with Alexa or Google Assistant compatibility. For example, Anker’s ROAV VIVA enabled voice-activated navigation; Electron’s electric wheel allows users to control its activation through voice. It almost seems like everything that uses electricity is now enabled with voice assistants, but do we really need all of them to be smart and voice activated?

Anker’s ROAV VIVA and Electron’s Google Assistance enabled electric bike wheel

Other than the biggest two players, other voice services are surviving because of its own protected ecosystem. Samsung’s Bixby and Baidu’s DUEROS. One of Bixby’s high lighted feature was the seamless control with smart home devices in Samsung’s ecosystem and its ability to tell from different individual’s voice, particularly with the smart fridge, but it still has a long way to catch up with Alexa and Google. Baidu showcased it DuerOS enabled devices, particularly developed for recognizing Mandarin. Siri and Apple Homekit was almost a complete absence at CES and it seems like smart home systems have shifted away from them.

Samsung’s Bixby in demo, Baidu’s DUEROS enabled device

Virtual Reality Hardware

Playstation VR at Sony’s booth

Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of new VR headsets being published at CES, probably because of the hardware limitation. Instead, there are many new devices designed to enhance the VR experience including BCI interface add-ons, haptic feedback and motion tracking, and many demos demonstrating the possibility of immersive VR experiences.

Lenovo published a line of standalone VR/MR headsets, including the long-awaited Daydream standalone VR. The Mirage Solo enables Daydream experiences with 6DOF as well as cameras to allow MR experiences.

Galaxy VR Experience Zone, with VR cinema, VR skiing, and VR roller coaster

Many of the traditional VR hardware companies all showcased applications with VR headsets, with additional hardware in mostly entertainment and fitness. Samsung has a large amusement-park-like set up in the centre of LVCC, giving immersive VR experiences with moving mechanisms (2DOF chairs, skiing simulator, and adjustable cinema seats). There are plenty of people lining up and you can always hear screamings from the users. Whereas Huawei’s VR combined an exercise bike with an FPV shooting game, and DJI using its headset for Drone training.

Huawei’s VR 2 with an exercise bike to control a tank shooting game. DJI’s VR flying experience set up for virtual drone racing.

The more stunning and creative products are the VR accessories. Most of those accessories focused on convenient user experience that adds new layers of input and feedback in an immersive VR experience. For example, Manus VR Gloves enable seamless control through hand gestures and Taclim can enable haptic feedback by simulating textures (sand, grass, stone) of different ground.

Manus VR gloves that tracks hand and gesture movement. Taclim shoes enable haptic feedback by simulating textures of different ground.

Other new kinds of VR add-ons use biosignals to change the VR environment, such as Interaxon’s VR add-on. Compatible with HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR, the add-on enables multi-channel EEG and EOG data collection to make mind-controlled VR environment a reality.

Interaxon’s EEG and EOG signal add-on for VR headsets.

VR content has been one of the focus in this field. There are many 360 cameras at CES such as 360fly and Samsung Gear 360. Sony’s tiny RXO cameras, which can be assembled in a round formation, can be used to shoot 4K VR video in complicated weather with its shock, dust, and waterproof feature.

Sony’s tiny RXO cameras in different formations

Augmented Reality Hardware

SSurprisingly there are many AR glasses and headsets at CES, especially by startups. Learned from Google glass’s failure, the newer glasses are trying to integrate or project content onto the glasses themselves and making them more like a pair of typical glasses. I found two of them particularly interesting: LingXi’s AR glasses enable content to be projected on glasses directly while looking really similar to normal glasses; Seengene’s AR headset is surprisingly lightweight and with high resolution. However, not many applications, especially applications utilizing the AR feature, are developed on either headset — in fact, most of the new AR headsets at CES.

LingXi’s AR glasses and Seengene’s AR headset

Perhaps one of the most useful functions of AR glasses would be allowing more interactions between users and sources of entertainment. Panasonic’s AR sports concept showed such an example as it represented a football game scenario. It envisioned a future where fans can view player profile and sports analytics real time and involve in a range of new activities such as predicting attack formations.

Panasonic AR Sports Experience Concept

One eye-catching demo was HYPERVSN’s projection setup. It consists of many units of cross-shaped fans equipped with LED strips spinning at high speed, assembling 3D video content with holographic effect. The 3D effect is really powerful, and the resolution and colour are extremely clear.

HYPERVSN Display

Display Technologies

Traditional television manufacturers such as LG, Sony, Samsung all demonstrated their latest technologies in displays: OLED, intelligent processor, laser projection, and 8K.

LG OLED Canyon, Assembled with 246 OLED TVs

LG OLED
LG assembled a tunnel with 246 concave and convex installations of 4K OLEDs, showing the natural wonders. This shows OLED’s flexibility and accurate colour even from wide viewing angle, and the possibility of using OLED TVs to create immersive surrounding environments.

Sony and LG’s intelligent processor

Intelligent Processors

In addition to screen hardware innovation, LG and Sony showed their intelligent processor that uses AI to analyze objects in content video real time and enhance colour. The contrast of displays using this technology was quite noticeable, and the resultant colour looks a lot richer.

LG’s thin 4K display and LG’s HU80KA 4K projector

It seems like that LG has mastered the 4K technology. There was one installation of a 4K TV in the middle of a glass panel, and it almost seems like the TV was a painting in mid-air. It is hard to tell TVs from paintings now with its rich colour and it can fits in the living room without being too noticeable. In addition, LG also brought the compact HU80KA 4K projector, which can project a 150-inch 4K video as clear as 4K TVs but with very little space.

4G seems to reach its limit, and 8K is coming

8K

While 4K is still becoming adapted to most homes, LG, Samsung, Sony and Huawei are already pushing the 8K products, with four times resolution of 4K. From direct comparison with 4K displays, the 8K prototypes look much crisper, brighter, and much more realistic. Although there are not many 8K media available, Samsung is trying to use AI to convert the lower resolution contents to 8K standards.

Startups

Aside from the tech giants, Eureka Park featured plenty of startups from all over the world. I didn’t have the chance to spend too much time walking around, but the overall impression was that it was a crowded but creative area. Startup booths are organized in their accelerators or crowdfunding platforms (Indiegogo, Kickstarter, French Tech, TechStars, Hax, etc.). However, the area is very noisy and crowded, and there is very little space for each startup to showcase their product, and sometimes I could not recognize the product when I walked past the booth.

The massive Eureka Park Startup Area
TechStar’s Pitch competition and Kickstarter’s product gallery

One of the reasons I found startups coming to CES is to show their products to a more tech-focused audience and get feedback. Many of the products have been on Kickstarter before, but only revealed or tested in such a large audiences (such as Embr Wave, Hyper Hub). I got to try Embr’s Wave for the first time, a wearable that can cool and heat your body, and destroyed doubt I held previously on the effeteness of the product. It was also interesting to see competitions of latest innovations, such as self-following suitcases; ForwardX’s suitcase was several booths away from travelMate. Compared to the tech giants, Eureka park featured viable and functioning consumer-level prototypes or products rather than concepts; it was an excellent way to see the latest existing and sometimes the less widely-known innovation.

Embr Lab’s Embr Wave in action, Hyper’s Macbook USB-C adaptor hub, FowardX’s self-following Suitcase

Other Cool Things

Intel Drone Shows

During the Intel’s opening keynote, drones played the piano with the band Algorithm and Blue, achieving a Guinness World Record of most single-computer controlled drones indoor. Additionally, 250 drones flew over the Strip’s Bellagio Fountains assembling stunning shapes with Kygo’s Stargazing, controlled by only two operators.

Intel’s indoor drone used in the Keynote and the Guinness certificate
Intel Drone Show over the Bellagio Fountains

IBM Q

IBM brought its 50 cubit quantum computer (without the cooling system of course) to the show. With several units running around New York, the system is already taking commercial orders to analyze complex chemical compounds with its groundbreaking computing power.

IBM Q’s 50 cubits quantum computer

Furrion’s Prosthesis

A massive exoskeleton with the capability of running as fast as 32 mph. Perhaps mech-racing will become a reality with those exoskeletons?

Furrion’s 4m tall Prosthesis exoskeleton

ZTE’s Axon M

Just like a normal smartphone, but with a foldable second screen, it enables multitasking or larger screen view.

ZTE’s Axon M in Multi-tasks mode

Kodak’s KashMiner

When I walked by Kodak’s booth, I thought it would just be instant-printing cameras. However, surprisingly Kodak seems to transfer to ride the cryptocurrency wave with its $3,400 KashMineer Bitcoin Mining machine, “the magic money making machine”. It was a surprising sign of the old tech giants transferring to catch the latest trends.

Kodak’s booth and its Kashminer Bitcoin mining machine

Omron Ping Pong Robot

Omron’s AI Ping Pong robot was one of the coolest robots. Not only because it uses tracking and AI to rally with human players with its insanely high accuracy, it can also recognize the human player’s facial expression to sense the player’s level and gradually increase the game’s difficulty.

Omron’s Ping Pong robot in action

Segway’s Loomo

Loomo is not only a hoverboard that you can ride, but also your little robot buddy that can follow you and carry goods, controlled with voice control and image recognition.

Segway Loomo in action

DJI Ronin S Stabilizers

DJI published its Ronin S, a stabilizer that can hold most popular Canon and Nikon SLRs. It is the first time that DJI has something for SLRs but it faced serious challenges from competitors already existed in this space (eg. Zhiyun). I tried both stabilizers and to be honest they have quite similar stabilization experiences.

Zhiyun’s stabilizer vs DJI’s new Ronin S revealed at CES

BecDot

There was one booth right next to TechCrunch and Google’s massive booth in the Sands Expo hallway that caught my attention. BecDot is a tool that teaches children braille by assembling different braille texts. The story of the product was really moving: Founder Jacob Lacourse’s daughter unfortunately became deaf and blind. He designed this simple tool for his daughter as a side project and it turns out to help many others. It was not the technological most advanced product, but it does solve an important problem compared to many other niche innovations at CES.

BecDot in action, assembling the braille of the word “horse”

Key Takeaways

  1. Concepts rather than Products. One of the original assumptions before about CES was it showcased only the latest tech products. What surprised me was the number of concepts presented by tech giants. The show not only demonstrated the latest technology, but also revealed the impact of those technologies and the future.
  2. The 5G era is coming. All major telecom and semiconductor companies announced plans for deploying 5G recently and the adoption of 5G will probably come very soon. With its exponential speed, it will blur the difference between WiFi and cellular data, and lay the backbone of future connected devices and smart cities, as well as empower VR and AR to stream video instantly.
  3. Smart City enabled with 5G, IoT, and Autonomous Vehicles. With the more and more mature autonomous driving technologies, the focus at CES has been shifted to what roles those vehicles can play in our society and how they will enable a new form of city life. Autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars, flying taxis, and hyperloop) not only print the future picture of transportation, but also unlock the possibility of new business models on how people and goods will be connected.
  4. Increasing Role of AI even in the hardware sector. AI not only exists in cool Ping-pong playing robot and self-driving cars, but also will be in our everyday device; Intelligent processors for better TV colour, AI-enabled IoT healthcare devices to track wellness, and smarter and more human-friendly smart home devices (robotics dogs). AI will be deployed in our everyday consumer electronics and will continue to shape our interactions with smart devices.
  5. Voice Assistant War. One of the most popular topic at CES was voice assistance, as Amazon Alexa and Google assistant trying their best to allocate smart home device manufacturers to join their sides. It enabled many smart home and IoT devices to be activated in a more consumer-friendly way, and connected under one big software system. Almost everything is built in with voice assistant and it will be interesting to see the two tech giants fighting for dominance in this space.
  6. Virtual Reality hardware. There aren’t so many surprises for VR headsets, except for the final arrival of standalone Daydream VR. More and more innovations are concentrated on creating seamless interaction methods using gesture control, haptic feedback, and even brainwave data.
  7. First World Problem? Although CES 2018 has lots of “Whoas,” sometimes I also have lots of “Hmms.” The countless and repetitive Alexa and Google assistant device covered almost every single appliances you can think of. A lot of products were very niche and just “nice to have.”
  8. Tech Giants vs Startups. Tech giants are dominating and splitting the market of new technologies, such as voice assistance and self-driving cars. Traditional companies such as Ford and Kodak are also shifting focus to catch up with the trend. With increasing requirement for technical components, it seems hardware startups will have a harder time competing against the big ones in the new fields. Many hardware startups chose to partner up with them (Volocopter and Intel) or join their IoT eco-systems.

CES 2018 was an eye-opening experience for me and let me explored the technologies of tomorrow, and gave me a deeper understanding of the consumer electronics sector. I am looking forward to CES Asia and next year’s CES and witness the future of tech.

Accelerating Deep Tech | Robotics, Blockchain, Neurotech | EECS @UCBerkeley | Teaching @CalBlockchain, Director @BB_Xcelerator | prev @hax_co, @SOSV, @Interaxon