How I Survived CES

And still managed to find some hidden gems and unanswered questions along the way.

popularity

To come away from the annual Consumer Electronics Show with a shred of sanity, you need to focus on what matters.

It’s easy not to. The minute you step foot into the crush of any exhibit floor you’re dragged into a massive undertow of technology that’s hard to swim from. The hype is palpable, the noise deafening, the products endless. Because of this sensory overload, it’s easy to lash out at how much “me-too” design you see, easy to dismiss as incremental much of the innovation.

For example, I ventured to the Sands Expo Hall on Tuesday, where much of the IoT, wearables and 3D printing technologies resided. It was a crush of people—even by CES standards. But many of the products—particularly in the wearables space—are similar: body-monitoring devices, portable communicators/speakers, home automation systems for HVAC, lighting, security and the like.

I spent some time at Netatmo’s booth to get a sense for the French company’s technology. At CES, the three-year-old company introduced an Android-based video-monitoring system that seemed like many of the existing technologies on the market today (think Dropcam).

The Netatmo twist is a facial-recognition algorithm that tells the user, via the Netatmo app, precisely who has passed in front of the camera (the babysitter, your teenage daughter, your husband, etc.). Clever, more useful than more passive monitoring systems—a software enhancement when you get right down to it.

Still, it’s a great example of what some are calling IoT 1.2.

I saw battery-powered roller skates (and I think a pack of tort lawyers watching the demonstration with stars in their eyes); I saw a Bluetooth-enabled flower-pot-watering system from the wireless firm Parrot; I saw a squadron full of drone copters.

There are real stories hidden in the CES haystack every year. And this year the hidden stories were twofold:

  1. What’s the hub?
  2. How do we deal with power when the Internet of Things applications require essentially always-on capabilities to be useful?

In story No. 1, the hub is the prime market battleground in the coming years. At this point, the playing field remains wide open, for startups and companies like Siemens and GE alike. I thought about this when the Parrot representative acknowledged that the Bluetooth-enabled plant-watering system is a simple point-to-point architecture. Your mobile device has to command each pot separately; there is as yet no dashboard for controlling a network of pots from your mobile device. No doubt that’s in the works already.

This coalescence of technologies, from an industry perspective, is a little way off. So the big story at CES was power, specifically always-on power. We will demand always aware technologies but are hyper sensitive to power consumption. This balancing act is starting to emerge front and center in electronics design.

Think about Google and Siri. The applications need to be on to trigger any action. The algorithms run on the apps processor and drain the battery at a healthy rate. From a usability standpoint, a better mode is to simply say a voice command to your device and have it come to life and act on it. (Feel free to insert jokes about the Clapper light).

At CES, I spent some time with Realtek Semiconductor, which was running a Cadence Tensilica HiFi Mini DSP core on its wake-on-voice, always-on, always-listening processors. The devices run at ultra-low power states until triggered by sound in the voice band and even then run at comparatively low power consumption rates. In certain configurations and usage models, it means 100 days of battery life even while in always on, always listening mode, Realtek Marketing Manager Ty Kingsmore told me.

This is part and parcel of the move to IoT 1.2 or even 2.0, when sound or motion and image recognition triggers a device’s action without us having to punch a button or turn a device on.

It sounds simple and iterative, and in some ways it is, but this type of technology I think really propels IoT systems to new heights, the way accelerometers and gyroscopes took smart phones to a different level.