The latest technology from CES we can’t stop talking about

Jan 10, 2020

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Each year in January, Las Vegas transforms from entertainment mecca to tech central when the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) descends on the desert casino town.

Equal parts hype, hysteria, vaporware and actual products, regular attendees know that many of the gadgets on display at the various convention halls will never actually become, well, real products.

From prototypes to devices close to appearing on shelves in your local Best Buy, we found plenty of things to talk about after two days at CES. It wasn’t all good, and they weren’t all gadgets. But, we’re talking about all of them.

Delta makes a big splash

The airlines have typically not been a big part of showcasing technology at CES. There are plenty of companies hoping to impress an airline, but the likes of Delta Air Lines have mostly been consumers in January in Las Vegas in recent years.

It started with Ed Bastian, Delta CEO, giving the keynote speech to open the massive tech conference. As the crowds looked on, he talked about evolving the Delta app into your digital travel concierge and about meaningful partnerships with brands like Lyft to help speed travelers to their final destination. And, then, they rolled out the incredible stuff.

Exoskeletons and the unimaginable video board

When TPG tasked me with reviewing what the circus known as CES had to offer, I figured it would involve plenty of phone cases, epic televisions and suitcases with no real useful purpose. I had no idea the two things I would be talking about most wouldn’t be things that you or I could buy (though the idea of an official TPG exoskeleton around the office does sound pretty cool). The Delta booth reminded me CES isn’t always about gadgets and isn’t always what you expect.

Delta has partnered with Sarcos Robotics to test an exoskeleton at one of its facilities. If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “What the heck is an exoskeleton and what does Delta plan to do with it?” Turns out it’s a pretty cool piece of technology that Delta plans to use to help employees do their jobs more safely.

Delta demonstrated two potential uses for the exoskeleton. The first was a simulated maintenance procedure. A representative from Sarcos Robotics strapped into the exoskeleton. After some “robot calisthenics,” he proceeded to demonstrate how the exoskeleton could help lift and remove heavy engine parts that normally require two employees to handle due to the weight and bulk.

He quickly disengaged his hand from the exoskeleton to grab a wrench to finish the simulated procedure. It wasn’t clear exactly how heavy the parts were that he was dealing with, but it was pretty clear they were heavy. The exoskeleton may have slowed down his walking a bit, but it seemed to speed up the overall process significantly. And, it reduced the risk considerably.

The second demonstration involved some help from the audience, namely me! We were given an opportunity to test the arm of the exoskeleton by lifting a 50-pound suitcase. They strapped me into the test platform and asked me to try lifting the suitcase without the lifting assistance engaged. No surprise, it was difficult to do so. After that, the team engaged the exoskeleton to help me lift the suitcase. They cautioned me to be careful lifting it as it would be much easier. I quickly broke the machine.

We got a good chuckle out of me trying to throw a 50-pound suitcase. The team member helping me with the demonstration told me that the effect of the exoskeleton would reduce the weight I was lifting by a ratio of roughly 25:1. Sure enough, it barely felt like I was lifting two pounds. Thankfully, I didn’t break the suitcase the second time.

From exoskeletons, it was time to test what Delta is referring to as Parallel Reality. In partnership with Misapplied Sciences, this one was pretty awesome. It definitely seems like one of those examples of technology where you need to see it in person to understand it. I don’t think video quite does it justice, but I’ll do my best to explain it.

The demonstration was split into two rooms. In the first, the team showed us that we would see different things on the large monitor based on where we stood in the room. Fair enough and not particularly ground-breaking on its surface.

Our guide walked us around to the opposite side of the room to show us, via mirror, that you could see 12 different images based on where you were positioned. They noted that the test monitors later that year would support 100 positions at once.

Prior to the demonstration, we were asked to create some fake boarding passes to test the system, designating our name, where we wanted to travel and what language we spoke (English wasn’t an option for the test). As we were escorted into the second room, we were asked to scan our boarding passes. This is where things got a bit crazy.

As I looked up at the video board, I could see it greet me by name at my “destination” in the language I selected. OK, that’s pretty cool. The guide encouraged us to walk around the space a bit. And, as I did, my information came with me, with different messages cycled through. As they explained, a camera above takes an image of what my shape is, then tags that shape with my data. As I moved, the data moved with me.

When I got close to a colleague who was participating in the demo, I couldn’t see his information, nor could he see mine. The camera couldn’t see a clear shape, so the info faded off the board. Again, tough to explain, but kind of amazing.

When I heard about Parallel Reality, my first thought is that nobody would want their personal information posted on a video board for everyone to see. After testing it, I might be wrong. I take for granted that everyone is a power user with their smartphone like I am. But, the Parallel Reality video board was helpful and easy to use. I could certainly see people who speak various languages enjoying the benefit of detailed directions to their gate or baggage claim area in their native language. While Parallel Reality may not become a reality in an airport near you, it’s a great example of how Delta is trying to leverage technology to improve the travel experience in ways I wouldn’t have imagined.

The rest of the tech

The Consumer Electronics Show can be a bit intimidating if you don’t know your way around. I’ve been attending for years and have a pretty good lay of the land. This year, I kept waiting for certain companies to pop up while walking down the aisles. When the dust settled, I would still be waiting. Google and Samsung were joined by other giant displays from BMW and Sony. But, some of the smaller innovative companies, like Anker, weren’t out there showing consumers what’s next.

There were a few items I’m still talking about after leaving the show. They’re not all great, and the talk isn’t all good. But, they’re what caught my eye.

Translation in your hand

Lack of ability to communicate in foreign countries is a common fear among many travelers. Plenty of companies are trying to bridge this gap. And, you might think that Google Translate is good enough to solve all your issues.

The folks at Pocketalk think there’s a better solution in the form of its handheld translation device. In my tests of the product, it worked quickly and effectively each time. The translations also appeared accurate. On top of a quick voice translation, Pocketalk also has the ability to snap a picture and translate words on signs or papers.

It’s a single-use device for the most part, which may deter some. The device comes with a two-year 4G data plan to do cloud translations virtually anywhere worldwide. The Pocketalk folks pointed out that using their device doesn’t drain your smartphone battery or chew up your data. And, you’re unlikely to hand a $1,000 smartphone to a stranger so they can use the microphone to record translatable text.

Those reasons all ring true to me. However, the suggested $299 price point strikes me as high by at least $100 for the average traveler. And, folks who are used to just carrying their smartphone for all their needs may struggle to add another device to the mix. Still, Pocketalk intrigued me. They’ve sold almost one million units in Asia and plan to have the device ready to ship to U.S. customers by March.

Translation in your ear

If you don’t want to carry a separate device for translation and you’re open to switching your headphones/earbuds, the Mymanu CLIK S might be a fit for you. It works like a standard set of Bluetooth earbuds with the added plus of translation built-in to the device. Their representatives told me there’s about a five-second delay on live translation. I didn’t get a chance to demo that, but I imagine the delay could be a bit annoying. Still, the CLIK S rings in at $199, which might make it cheap enough to try this dual-purpose device for your next international trip.

Related: Best translation apps for traveling

A ticket to ride for little travelers

I’ve seen ride-on suitcases for years, even big versions for adults. Those stretch into the thousands of dollars While it doesn’t strike me as a huge market, another player seems to be launching a riding suitcase aimed at kids. The Lil Flyer has the tagline “Family Travel Made Easy.” As a parent of two traveling kids, it’ll take more than a suitcase to make family travel easy. But, your little one might enjoy the fun of a padded seat on your suitcase as you zip through the airport. Lil Flyer representatives say that you’ll be able to get the regular and motorcycle version with light-up wheels for roughly $150 later this year.

Related: Best luggage for kids who travel

Did you lose your luggage?

Can’t find your suitcase? Samsara aims to solve that problem with a “smart” suitcase. It doubles as a desk and a Wi-Fi hotspot, two things I rarely need from a suitcase. But, if you’re concerned about where your bag is and who’s opening it when you check it for a flight, the Samsara will send you a notification when it’s out of your sight and someone tries to open it.

Starting at about $300, the suitcases look nice but don’t seem terribly rugged. Instead of relying on GPS to find my bag, I think I’ll continue to carry-on my dumb suitcase.

Related: What to do when your luggage is delayed or lost by an airline

Tech for the traveling (and nursing) mom

We covered some pretty big breakthroughs in nursing technology for moms at last year’s CES. Two companies, Willow and Elvie, announced portable, comfortable nursing units at last year’s show. A year later, there are some small innovations in the products. But, the bigger news is that both are selling and delivering their units to happy moms in multiple countries.

As a dad, I may not have quite the perspective a nursing mom has. However, I watched my wife struggle with this raising both of our children. Airports are certainly getting better at providing safe, comfortable spaces for nursing moms, but there’s a long way to go in that effort. Willow and Elvie give moms more control and a bit more freedom over nursing when they’re on the go.

Starting at around $500, the only drawback I see is that you still may have trouble getting your insurance company to reimburse you for these. Let’s hope more insurers come to their senses soon. In the interim, Elvie took a very direct approach at CES to draw attention to its product, offering milk storage services for nursing moms at the show, as well as a video that should turn an eye or two in a different way than veteran CES-goers might expect.

Related: The best airline seats, suites, lactation rooms and lounges when breastfeeding

The perfect Uber or Lyft car?

BMW was back at CES in a big way. While there was plenty to see, one small car caught my attention: the BMW i3 Urban Suite. It looks uber comfortable (pun intended) for rideshare, but I’m not sure how functional it would be for a driver who can’t get more than one or two riders in. Still, it’s clear big companies are thinking about the future in different ways.

Uber copter is coming

Uber has had some fun with helicopters in the past, including at CES with its Uber Copter service. It’s been more “fun” than “product.” In previous years, Bell showed off a prototype of what the company believes will be the copter/hovercraft of the future in partnership with Uber. This year, Bell was back with a bigger prototype. But, the Uber logo wasn’t anywhere on the prototype that I could see. A few aisles over, Hyundai was showing off an equally massive (maybe bigger) version of a copter/hovercraft. There are conflicting reports about the fact that Uber still has a partnership with Bell. What’s clear is Uber continues to want to push the envelope on developing an air taxi. Could this be the way my grandkids get to the mall, if malls even still exist?

Your very own sea scooter

Sea scooters have been around in a variety of shapes and forms for a while. However, this year at CES seemed to indicate a bigger focus. I found at least four companies offering multiple underwater scooters at different price points for consumers. These strike me as too big to fit in a suitcase for your next trip. Unless you live at the beach, you’ll probably have to hope your next trip to a tropical destination features a resort that invested in these fun creations.

No longer a thing of James Bond movies, $500 can get you the entry-level sea scooter at Sublue. And, it made for an interesting contract assignment for at least one swimmer.

Fold your phone

Who knew folding your phone was a thing? CES featured more than one foldable cellphone. I took a few minutes to spend some time with the new Samsung Galaxy Fold. The phone functions in “folded” mode like any normal phone. And, apps quickly transition to the bigger screen size when you unfold the phone. It’s not as heavy as I was expected.

The phone is about 10 ounces, which is less than 2 ounces heavier than the iPhone Pro Max. The screen quality is great, I enjoyed watching a Boeing 777 taxi around the screen. It also has the ability to manage a whole slew of windows at the same time when the phone is unfolded.

This phone isn’t for the faint of heart, and not because of the design. It sports a retail price around $2,000. That’s a pretty steep price for something that really doesn’t offer much beyond a larger screen in your pocket with a better form factor.

Everyone has an electric car, even Sony

I knew there would be electric cars at CES, but even I was taken aback at how many. I lost track, but I definitely would have needed to take off my shoes and use some of my toes when I ran out of fingers to count. It started with the Mach-E, which I liked a lot more than I was expecting to (still a bit odd to think of a Mustang SUV). Audi, Fiskars, Mercedes and so many others were there as expected.

But, Sony was by far the most surprising entry into the electric car displays. While representatives were coy about Sony’s plans to turn the stylish new prototype into a production vehicle, it’s a good indication of how many companies are taking the future of electric cars pretty seriously.

One side note that I noticed across the electric cars: many have two individual, contoured seats in the back of the car as opposed to bench seats. From a family perspective, I’m not sure I want to give up that real estate in exchange for comfort.

Televisions on your ceiling?

It really wouldn’t be CES without incredible televisions. Most of these are TVs I’ll never buy, but this year’s display really did emphasize how TVs will be more flexible than ever in the future. Thinner and more flexibility means being able to mount a TV pretty much anywhere. So, why not the ceiling?

Oh, about those suitcases that follow you

Suitcases that follow you around were the next wave of “smart” suitcases. While there were some suitcases on the main floor of the show this year, the hype behind new, bleeding-edge suitcase technology seems to have toned down a bit. This was one of those categories I kept expecting to stumble across as I walked down the endless aisles in Las Vegas.

I needed to enlist the help of some CES staff and finally found a tent in a parking lot (a new addition to the ever-growing conference) that was supposed to be the location for the Ovis by ForwardX. Ovis is supposed to follow you around the airport, leaving your hands free. I finally found the booth, in the very far back of the tent. And, while there was a suitcase in the booth, there was no demo area like last year. As a matter of fact, there weren’t any company representatives to answer my questions. Showing up to CES one year with a big splash and being absent from the show the following year is usually a sure sign of imminent doom. Hard to say what having a booth but no actual representatives says about the future of your product. I’d probably hold off on any future IndieGoGo campaigns they launch.

bottom line

The Consumer Electronics Show felt more like an evolution than a revolution this year. There were faster phones, laptops and tablets. Unreal TVs looked incredible, and I’m sure they’re incredibly expensive. Electric cars seem to be the area of most consequential growth, as well as the increased attention on drones and air taxis. We may not know when our first air taxi ride will be. But, judging by the rest of the show, we’ll have great technology for the flight! Now, will there be enough charging ports in my air taxi to recharge my phone and my suitcase? Or, will we already be well into the age of over-the-air charging? It might seem incredible, but it’s coming.

All images, including the featured image, are by the author.

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