Way, Way Beyond CES

Forget bigger TVs and smaller tablets. Think exoskeletons and bionic eyes.

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By Tiffany Sparks
This month, the eyes of the electronics industry were literally and figuratively on the Consumer Electronics Show. Reports put attendance for CES at upwards of 150,000 people. Just to put that figure in perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the entire population of cities like Springfield, Mass., or Sioux Falls, S.D. (according to Wikipedia). And that’s actually larger than the population of other cities like Bridgeport, Conn.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Alexandria, Va., or Sunnyvale, Calif.

News articles, product reviews, blogs, and re-caps about the latest and greatest innovations showcased at CES dominated the Internet and our industry’s consciousness this month. With 2,700 exhibitors, it seems everyone (outside of Apple, of course) was there to show the latest products that feature electronics, and a press contingent of roughly 5,000 international journalists were on hand to write about it. It would be interesting to find out how many thousands of articles and blogs were written about products at CES.

I personally read dozens of articles with obligatory mentions of tablets, smart phones, and game consoles. There were write-ups on 55-inch organic LED or OLED HDTV screens. Some articles were on things getting smaller (tablets), while others focused on things getting bigger (does anyone truly need a 100-inch flat screen?) Articles on the automotive sector focused on electronics driving infotainment as well as plug-in and solar technology. Then, there were a few mentions of smart fridges and electronics that are driving functionality in household appliances like stoves and washing machines. Ah, all well and good—devices that should continue to make our lives easier and even more convenient. But, I’ll be honest, it sounded a bit humdrum.

By most accounts, a single gadget didn’t steal the spotlight this year. Annually, most of the CES reporting tends to focus on what I’d call the “sexy” stuff—those things that are extremely attractive to the average consumer with hot brand names. That’s understandable to appeal to the mass market. However, it’s good to also celebrate those innovative products using semiconductor technology that can have a profound effect on individuals outside the mass market.

This month’s edition of IEEE Spectrum featured what is described as “14 life-altering, game-changing advances” in its 2012 Top Tech Special Report. Some of the advances written about already have been making news, such as 3D ICs, extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV) and the proliferation of plug-in cars. But the report also looks at advances that will truly change people’s lives.
The first article is about an exoskeleton walking suit developed by California-based Ekso Bionics, that uses robotics to enable paraplegics to walk. The article talks about how advances in power efficiency enabled weight in the exoskeleton to be redistributed, making the suit less clunky than if it needed to rely on bigger batteries and motors. A new model of Ekso’s exoskeleton will have walking sticks with “motion sensors that communicate with the legs, allowing the user to have complete control.” Wow, how amazing that must be for someone who lost the use of their legs.

Another life-altering advance is the creation of a retinal prosthesis that will allow certain people who are without sight to see again. A system created by Second Sight Medical Products uses a tiny video camera, visual processing unit and an array of electrodes implanted in each eye. Bionic vision—how cool is that, especially to the roughly 200,000 people in the United States and Europe that could benefit from the system, according to the article.

The sheer size and scope of CES on its own has a certain “Wow” factor. However, incessant news about more power-efficient and application-rich smart phones and tablets loses some of the sizzle in the vortex that is CES. With so much coverage and focus, I guess I’m getting numb to that. But IEEE Spectrum’s coverage on impressive advances like an exoskeleton walking suit and bionic vision have me once again marveling at the power of semiconductor chips and the life-altering impact they truly can have. Wow, indeed.

–Tiffany Sparks is senior director of corporate marketing at Atrenta.


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