Tag Archives: ces2018

Wireless charging is less fussy, but still a work in progress

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One of my goals for CES was to see if wireless charging technology is ready for mainstream consumer adoption. The answer is yes if you’re making contact with a charging pad, but only maybe if you’re not.

Charging pads, of one kind or another, were easy to find at CES. Near field charging – putting a gizmo in direct contact with a wireless charging device – appears to be a maturing technology. Although the Qi standard is gaining – Samsung, LG and Apple support it in some of their models – compatibility is still an issue. There’s no universal solution yet for wirelessly charging your smartphone or wearable device, in the same way that pretty much anything with a wire can plug into a USB outlet. That’s more of an issue for public spaces, though. Consumers can buy what they need to do what they want.

Wireless charging at a distance, though, is more challenging. I saw two companies that claimed to have technology that would allow contactless charging. The most aggressive claim came from Powercast, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company that says its FCC-approved technology can deliver upwards of 100 milliwatts – enough for many wearables, if not for a smartphone – at distances of 1 to 3 feet. Very low power, Internet-of-things devices can be charged up to 80 feet away, according to company staff.

I’m cautious about accepting wireless charging performance claims at face value, mainly because of the second company, Energous. Two years ago, it exhibited a prototype that company executives said would work at distances up to 15 feet. And maybe it would, although I didn’t see them actually do it. It ended up on the scrap heap because the company couldn’t get technical approval from the FCC. It used the same 5 GHz band as WiFi devices, and blasting out multiple watts of radio frequency energy into that spectrum would be sure to interfere with data transmissions.

Energous has backed off from those claims, though. The company recently received FCC approval for technology that also has a 3-foot range. It hasn’t been rolled into a product yet, so there was no demo or prototype on display at CES, but company staff at the show expect that manufacturers will adopt the technology and integrate it into products by the end of the year.

We’ll see.

4K TV will be in half of U.S. homes by end of 2019

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The consumer adoption rate of 4K television sets blew past last year’s expectations, climbing to 25% of U.S. households by January 2018, according to the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). My rough estimate that ultra-high definition 4K sets would be in 20% of U.S. homes by the end of 2017 was low. The adoption rate grew even faster, amidst falling prices, increased content availability and 4K’s status as the default standard for large screen TVs (50 inches and larger).

CTA isn’t releasing a household penetration projection for 2018, but its U.S. Consumer Technology Sales and Forecasts (January 2018) report predicts that 22 million 4K sets will be sold in the U.S. this year and 25 million in 2019 (versus 17 million in 2017). That would imply that the 4K adoption rate will continue to accelerate in 2018 and 2019.

There are 120 million homes with televisions in the U.S. A 25% adoption rate translates to 30 million with at least one 4K set. If all 22 million of projected unit sales ended up in homes without a 4K set, then the adoption rate would climb to 43% by the end of this year. But some of those sets will end up in homes that already have one – as replacements or second (third, fourth…) sets – and in commercial establishments.

Let’s do the same kind of back-of-the-envelope estimating as last year (which turned out to be conservative). Make a wild guess and say a fifth of sets sold will end up in existing 4K homes and another fifth will go to bars, offices and other businesses. That leaves three-fifths to add to the 4K universe, which would result in a 36% adoption rate at year end 2018, and 49% by the end of 2019.

In other words, the number of U.S. homes with 4K viewing capability – and commensurate bandwidth demand – will all but double in two years.

Self driving cars will need wireless broadband, but not for heavy duty computing

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There will be a flood of bits swirling through self driving cars, and virtually all of that data will be processed by onboard computers, even where 5G networks are deployed.

“Autonomous vehicles are software defined”, said Deepu Talla, vice president of autonomous machines at Nvidia, a high end chip maker, speaking at CES. That software will run on onboard computers, and won’t be processed served from the cloud via mobile broadband networks, he said. There are four reasons for that:

  1. Latency. If you’re in a moving car, the round trip for data takes too long.
  2. Bandwidth. Cars will continually generate huge amounts of data, particularly from the many high definition video cameras they’ll use to monitor where they’re going and what’s around them.
  3. Connectivity. It’s not always there, particularly in rural areas, but even in cities there are momentary holes and bottlenecks in network coverage. Not big enough, perhaps, for a human to perceive but enough to delay machine to machine communication for critical milliseconds.
  4. Privacy. Although it’s not as big of a concern for cars as for, say, medical devices, it’s still a limiting factor.

5G won’t solve the problem, Talla said. Latency may decrease but it will still be there and 5G’s greater bandwidth will be eaten up by greater demand. “the amount of data will increase too”, he said.

Continental, a German automotive technology company, plans to scale up in-car local area networks to 10 Gbps to handle that load. Most of it will be video streams from high resolution cameras – 8 megapixels – that have to processed and analysed in real time. Each car will have at least four cameras, and possibly more. Plus radar and lidar, and video streams transmitted directly from cars up ahead.

Mobile broadband will still play a role. Live connections to the cloud are yet another source of data, particularly for error detection, debugging and instant repair. Connectivity will be required for cars to reach Level 5, the top level of autonomous operation, according to Continental staff who briefed industry analysts during CES. At that level, the car does everything, everywhere, without the need for human monitors. That’s the point where you can take a nap in the back seat while driving to work.

Santa Cruz techies get to CES the hard, fun way

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Four thousand companies brought their products to CES last month, but only one was brought by its product. A five person team from Santa Cruz – Jane Campbell, Elai Dankner, Nicola Hopwood, Cade Vlacos and Christian Shaw – rode 300 miles from Palm Springs to Las Vegas on a Onewheel+ XR, the new, extended range version of Future Motion’s single wheel, electric powered board.

“It was the most epic journey I’ve ever done”, said Campbell. “You feel so free. The first thing you want to do is call your mom”. And she and her teammates did, calling friends and family from the road as they glided through the Mojave desert.

It took them four days to make the trek, arriving in Las Vegas yesterday in a rain storm. Campbell kept on rolling, right into Future Motion’s booth at the Showstoppers media showcase last night, where she went to work demonstrating the XR with energy and enthusiasm to spare.

The team did the trip as a relay, swapping off riders and boards every 10 to 15 miles. They rode during the day, and pitched tents in the desert at night. It was a remarkably smooth run with no physical or mechanical problems, except for the diesel support van, which temporarily broke down after gasoline was mistakenly pumped into it.

There was a point – besides the sheer joy of it – to what Mudd calls “the longest recorded Onewheel ride”. It was a proof of performance for the XR, which has a range of 12 to 18 miles, more than double the range of the original Onewheel+. That makes it a plausible alternative to a car, said company spokesman Jack Mudd, who also took a turn riding with the team.

Future Motion is headquartered on the west side of Santa Cruz. It was founded in 2013 and initially funded via $630,000 Kickstarter campaign.

You can see the video of the trip here:

Governors agree scrapping net neutrality was wrong, but differ on role of states

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The end of network neutrality and broadband’s status as a common carrier service doesn’t sit well with a pair of western governors. Speaking during the National Governors Association summit held alongside CES in Las Vegas last week, Nevada governor Brian Sandoval and Montana governor Steve Bullock both thought it was a bad decision by the Federal Communications Commission, but had different views on whether net neutrality is something that can be addressed at the state level.

“I’m concerned about the decision. I don’t support the decision but the exclusive regulation of that issue is within the FCC”, said Sandoval, republican. "The danger, in my mind, is having 50 different sets of rules and regulations associated with that, particularly with something as ubiquitous as the Internet.

“It took us all a little by surprise, that we would repeal something that seemed to be working pretty darn well”, said Bullock, a democrat. “If congress doesn’t act, we’ll see if there’s something states can do”.

Sandoval chairs the association and brought it to Las Vegas for the first time. Proximity didn’t seem to be a selling point for California governor Jerry Brown, who skipped the conference. The hot topic was technology and transportation. “We had 26 states with us this week, and the focus was on transportation, particularly autonomous vehicles”, Sandoval said. He sees self driving car policy as a responsibility that states share with the federal government, and coordination is necessary.

Bullock agreed. “We need to help provide an environment and a regulatory framework that supports innovation”, he said. “I don’t think it’s government’s role to prop up businesses that can’t compete, but where we can facilitate the opportunities for technologies…most governor work in concert with private companies”.

Energy innovation and infrastructure was also high on their list.

“None of these developments can happen without equal advancements in energy”, Sandoval said. “While states are driving innovation, the burden of modernising and maintaining the nation’s transportation and energy network is a shared obligation. State, federal and local governments must partner to invest in quality infrastructure and meet our nation’s needs”.

It’s a pressing problem, Bullock said. “One of the most antiquated technologies in the western United States is the electric grid”.

Old tech gets a hot new makeover at CES

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It seemed you couldn’t walk down an aisle at CES without seeing an electric bicycle, or an electronic accessory for the human powered kind. Like the Wink Bar, which took top honors at the Showstoppers LaunchIt pitchfest, held the day before the show formally opened.


Wink Bar.

The Wink Bar, developed and sold by Velco, a Paris-based start up, was declared the best of the twelve new products pitched in rapid fire succession to a panel of four judges with deep experience in venture capital and entrepreneurial enterprises. It’s a high tech handlebar that links to your smartphone and guides you through unfamiliar cities with simple flashing lights that cue you to start and stop, and go right and left. It’s sold through bike shops for $279.

It’s more than simple route planning, though. It’s also a platform for tourism and bike sharing services – Velco’s partners use it to create tour routes through cities. Customers can ride safely and quickly with their eyes on the road, and not on a map or smartphone screen. The company sold 70,000 Wink Bars last year and is targeting 14 million units in annual sales by 2021.

The rest of the field was…

  • Athom – hub that controls home automation and entertainment technology.
  • Big Boy Systems – headset that records 3D video and audio, just as a human would.
  • Cardiomo Care – wearable analytical device for heart disease prevention.
  • Cinema Snowglobes – another old-into-new transformation, with the venerable snow globe reimagined as a video snack (pictured above).
  • Cubomania – interactive, educational cubes for kids.
  • Pebby Corp. – a networked, robotic ball that lets you play with your dog while he’s at home and you’re at work.
  • Picoo – wands that kids use to play elaborate games of tag.
  • Robomart – self driving store for grocery retailers.
  • SolarGaps – solar cells.
  • Stream – internationally roaming WiFi hotspots.
  • Zhor-Tech – smart shoes that analyse your gait and tell you, among other things, if you’re drunk.

Big brother, small ball and connected cars at CES

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CES 2018 marked a turning point in the consumer electronics business. For the first time, the big companies talked more about services than products. This shift has been long in the making – it’s why the organisers no longer refer to it as the Consumer Electronics Show – and 2018 was the tipping point. It was all about connected home products, with long neglected categories like kitchen appliances and washers and dryers suddenly taking center stage. The products themselves are increasingly generic, with differentiation coming from the voice recognition and artificial intelligence services that manufacturers bundle in.

The thought of my refrigerator or garage door opener constantly analysing my actions and predicting what I’ll want next seems spooky, even unsettling, to me, but conventional wisdom is that what older consumers perceive as surveillance state products, younger ones embrace as high level service. Plenty of innovation was on display, but it came from cloud-delivered services, and not from a box.

Small and medium sized companies were not the place to look for breakout products this year. I checked out the evening showcases, which cater mostly to smaller and newer exhibitors. The first, CES Unveiled, didn’t have much under the veil. Most of the exhibitors were small companies with, at best, incrementally innovative products. The lineups at Showstoppers and Pepcom’s Digital Experience were better, but aside from a 300-mile marathon trek on a Onewheel electric board, there weren’t many wow moments. Same for Eureka Park, the now huge section of the CES show floor dedicated to start up companies. There were plenty of toys, and lots of me-too products and barely discernible upgrades to existing products.

Looking ahead, one path for startup success will be through the big AI platform operators, either the generic ones like Amazon or Google, or the in house systems developed by the big boys.

This year will also be remembered as the year when cars became a consumer electronics product. The north hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center looked like a car show. Automakers have exhibited in past years, but there were more of them, and more with marketing messages crafted around connected services. Even ones that you wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the automotive market, such as health monitoring.

Carmakers also have extensive AI projects underway, as the rush towards self driving cars picks up speed. If cars are just another consumer electronics platform, then the big auto companies will also be players in the consumer AI game.

Far from collapsing, the consumer electronics industry on display at CES was expanding into new services and new sectors, all of them linked by live data streams.

Connected, automated homes are the new frontier for big consumer electronics companies

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Home automation, powered by cloud-based artificial intelligence, is now a mainstream product category, taking center stage at the major consumer electronics companies’ booths at CES. The huge 4K and 8K screens that dominated Samsung’s display the past few years were stuck in a back corner, while the main aisles were lined with home appliances with voice recognition systems and driven by artificial intelligence.

LG led its press conference with artificial intelligence, via both its in-house platform and Google Assistant. Its flag bearer is CLOi, a smart speaker shaped like a cute little robot with expressive eyes that’s “capable of physical and emotional interaction”, according to marketing VP David VanderWaal.

Yes. It is.

He asked “what’s for dinner”? CLOi just blinked and stared at him. “CLOi, are you talking to me yet? What recipes can I make with chicken?” More blinks and stares. Instead of a virtual June Cleaver, VanderWaal was dancing with Peg Bundy. Sorry guys, AI won’t be a wormhole back to the 50s.

In-house AI platforms might still be a work in progress, but Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are ready for prime time and are also included in products from major manufacturers. When VanderWaal invoked Google Assistant during his demo, it responded flawlessly.

There was no shortage of third-party home automation hubs on display, many of them claiming AI capabilities and universal compatibility, but the prospects for most are fading. The one bright spot remains vertical markets, such as home security or commercial properties, where professional installation and support makes economic sense.

Consumers don’t want to wrestle with the things they buy – it’s a lot easier to flip a light switch than it is to wrestle with a Z-wave network or hack at automation scripts. When you speak a command and it just works though, it’s a mainstream product.

New broadband top cop talks and walks a narrow beat

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Death threats kept Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai away from CES, but the acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Maureen Ohlhausen, sat down for an interview on Tuesday with Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro. Her agency is responsible for broadband consumer protection enforcement, after the FCC bucked the job over last month. Appropriately, Shapiro opened with a couple of questions about network neutrality.

Ohlhausen said her concern is transparency – service can be pretty much anything so long as terms are disclosed – and the FTC will look at one basic question: whether consumers get what they’re promised. She made vague references to anti-trust laws and the FTC’s reacquired authority over telecoms companies, now that broadband is no longer reckoned to be a common carrier service (although she neglected to mention that her new found authority is under challenge in court). Ohlhausen’s expertise and jurisdiction are clearly not broadband-specific.

Nevertheless, Shapiro tried to draw Ohlhausen out on broadband issues, noting there are “a hundred different telecommunications companies in Europe” that offer lower priced broadband at a variety of speeds, while the U.S. telecoms market is dominated by four players. Ohlhausen said mobile carriers would provide competition in the future, pointing out that they’re now delivering broadband at speeds that consumers would have considered to be adequate a few years ago.

True. But expectations are higher now and will continue to rise. The 5G networks that Ohlhausen is banking on may deliver speeds that consumers likewise consider adequate today. But those upgrades are many years away for most U.S. residents, and their expectations and their bandwidth consumption will continue to rise. Ohlhausen also forgot to mention that the two biggest mobile companies – AT&T and Verizon – belong to Shapiro’s gang of four.

When the FCC and FTC reached a working agreement on how to divvy up broadband responsibilities, Pai called the FTC “our nation’s premier consumer protection cop”. Perhaps. But Ohlhausen shows little enthusiasm for the job.

$351 billion U.S. consumer tech 2018 forecast built on broadband

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Source: Consumer Technology Association, 7 January 2018. Click for the full presentation.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) predicts that connectivity, particularly via mobile networks, will fuel industry growth, with total U.S. retail sales hitting $351 billion in 2018, up 3.9% from last year. .

Traditional consumer hardware categories are flat or declining, while connected devices and services are booming – for example “smart speakers”, which are tied to artificially intelligent, voice recognition services such as Amazon’s Alexa, are predicted to hit $3.8 billion in 2018, a 93% increase.

This forecast was released yesterday at CES, which used to be the Consumer Electronics Show and which is produced by CTA, which used to be the Consumer Electronics Association. Increasingly, the industry is defined by software, content and networks, and not by gadgets and gizmos. Hence the rebranding from electronics to technology. That shift is also showing up in revenue figures.

The $351 billion predicted U.S. industry total includes $20 billion in music and video streaming services, a 35% jump from 2017. If you back out that revenue, the predicted growth in retail revenue in 2018 will only be 2.5%. Hardware growth is probably even lower. Only a few, top line category forecasts were released, and some – arguably all – are a mix of digital bits and physical products.

All eleven of the categories that were broken out rely on broadband connections. Without connectivity, speakers and homes aren’t smart and virtual reality is virtually nothing. So it’s no surprise that CTA analysts spent more time talking about 5G mobile networks than televisions, or even smartphones.

“We’re in the connected era”, said Steve Koenig, senior director of research for CTA. “We understand the importance of connectivity, not just to to the industry but to the global economy”.

Many of the really cool things to come that Koenig talked about will depend on the fast, low latency bandwidth that 5G networks will deliver in urban areas. Without it, the promise of technologies like self driving cars, augmented reality or robotics won’t be fully realised. But it’s important to remember that residential wireline networks will continue to do the unglamorous heavy lifting in a connected, consumer technology-enabled world.

Koenig predicts that five years from now, nearly 800 million “consumer tech connected devices” will be sold annually in the U.S. For that to happen, we need modern networks. Of every kind.