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CES 2014 Trends: Everybody's Making Fitness Trackers and Smart Watches, But Who Will Succeed?

Misfit Shine [top], Jaybird Reign [bottom]
Petbit [top], Ibitz [bottom]

This is the CES of the wearable gadget. And, while there are all sorts of technologies you can wear—after all, earbuds are wearable—the big explosion is in fitness trackers. The first wave of these small gadgets, worn on a wrist, clipped on waistband, or tucked into a pocket, came from a handful of companies including Nike, Jawbone, and Fitbit. This year, dozens more companies, including big and established hardware manufacturers like Epson and LG  and small startups alike, jumped into the fitness tracker fray. At their most basic, these sensors track steps; most also do some kind of sleep tracking. More sophisticated models include heart rate sensors for quick pulse checks or connect wirelessly to pulse monitors worn on the chest. Some can tell the difference between swimming, biking, walking and running.

Garmin Vivofit [top], Epson Pulsesense models [middle, bottom]

With so many entries, there’s a surprisingly narrow range of prices and form factors; most are bands, and a few also clip on. The vast majority of the fitness trackers retail for US $100. On the lower end, I spotted the LifeTrak band at $60. (Although, on the very, very low end, Fitbit has developed a free app to take advantage of the built-in motion processor of the iPhone 5 to track motion from your pocket, with no band at all.) Misfit’s $120 Shine is a little metal button, not a band; it’s meant to be both subtle and ornamental. On the high end, the $200 Reign band from JayBird, coming out in May, has a touch sensor for spot checks of heart rate, and can tell the difference between running, swimming, and walking. I saw a tracker for dogs, the Petbit, and one designed for young children to clip on a sneaker, the Ibitz (at a kid-friendly price of $35).

In this blur of fitness bands displayed at CES, it’s hard to pick a favorite without trying them all. I liked the functionality and styling of the $130 Garmin Vivofit; it’s a little bigger than the Fitbit Flex I reviewed last year. That’s a negative for me, but it adds a few nice features: a one-year battery (it’s easy to forget to recharge the more standard 5-day battery), a display (which means you don’t have to wear a watch as wel)l, and an inactivity monitor to nag you when you’ve been sitting too long (I definitely need that). Epson’s Pulsesense ($130 without display, $200 with a display; I preferred the styling on the one without a display) includes a heart rate monitor in the band. JayBird’s Reign could give me more credit for swimming than simply assuming I took a walk in the pool, as the Fitbit does; that’s appealing, and it looks pretty sharp. LG’s Lifeband Touch is attractive with its OLED display, and the pulse-counting wireless headphones are a nice touch.

Beyond Trackers

I haven’t actually tried any of these yet. I haven’t even looked at the related apps, which in some cases aren’t even developed. And that's a problem. The tracker is just one part of the package, and it’s usefulness depends in large part upon the app that lets you review and analyze the data gathered. And most companies don’t even bother to mention what’s under the hood—the algorithms that turn motion into step counts, figure out when you’re sleeping, and figure out the difference between sitting in a chair and moving your mouse around or gesturing during a conversation and actually moving. Says Michael Yang from Comcast Ventures, “algorithms are the unsung heroes of fitness.”

While fitness trackers are certainly the fastest growing product category at CES, the fact that there are so many fitness trackers out there make this type of wearable technology seem, well, ordinary. And indeed, says Sonny Vu, CEO of Misfit, “Fitness trackers are the low hanging fruit of wearables. There are so many use cases for wearables beyond fitness tracker.”

Vu thinks the killer use case for wearables still hasn’t been uncovered yet. “Wearable identity could be interesting, I'm not sure it’s killer. If I had a sensor that could predict a heart attach 4 hours ahead, I won’t say killer, but it would be life changing.”

Smart Watches

Burg [top], Kreyos Meteor [bottom]

Also plentiful this year, but getting less buzz, are the smart watches, with at least a dozen companies showing some kind of model at CES. These aren’t as appealing as the fitness bands to me, because they are still just too big, and I don’t have a huge desire to control my phone from my wrist. But there's obviously at least some consumer interest in being able to do so.

Smart watches come in three basic flavors. There’s the smart phone peripheral, which doesn’t actually connect to a wireless network itself, but acts as a remote control for a phone. There’s the sports watch, with a GPS to help map your run, connections to a chest band to track pulse, and coaching features to help set a pace, like the $320 Wellograph or the $400 Adidas Micoach Smartrun. And finally there’s the watch/phone, like the $160 Burg and the $335 Neptune Pine, with their own SIM cards and cellular connections. This last category perhaps seems more useful, but they suffer from their even larger size. Of the watches at CES, the Kreyos Meteor was, to me, the most attractive peripheral version with a display.

But it wasn’t until I saw the $200 Filip that I saw a watch-phone that made a lot of sense—at least for one demographic.

Looxcie 3 [top], Quardio EKG sensor [middle], Moxy muscle oxygen monitor [bottom]

Filip is designed as a watch-phone for kids, and comes with unlimited voice and data for $10 a month. It can only make and receive calls from five numbers, and a parent sets those through an app. The app also allows the parent to track the child’s location on a map. It’s aimed at kids aged five through 12—the age of a kid that, around me, typically convinces parents to provide a cell phone “so I’ll be safe and so I can call and tell you where I am” and then promptly turns into a text-monster. As I said, brilliant.

…and More

Not every wearable at CES is a fitness tracker or a watch. There are wearable cameras that stream your life to social media, like the $100 Looxcie 3. There is a wearable EKG sensor from Quardio, and a muscle oxygen monitor from Moxy, and the June sun radiation sensor.

Lumo back monitor

Lumo has a new sensor to monitor the position of the upper back and neck, which is supposed to be available this summer for under $100; the company was already producing a monitor for the lower back. Company founder Andrew Chang said he is surprised by the entire wearables category, but it is likely going to help Lumo’s sales. “We didn’t plan on building a wearable, we just wanted to solve back pain. But people are telling me it’s a wearable, so…” he said with a shrug.

Epson's Moverio BT-200

Epson announced augmented reality glasses, apparently their answer to Google Glass. The Moverio BT-200 Smart Glasses use LCD projection technology to position the data on the field of view, though Epson indicated it could easily show the projection in the corner of one eye if needed. The glasses aren’t intended for constant wear, but for use in situations where augmented reality is helpful (in a work environment, involving assembly, perhaps, or identifying objects in a warehouse), or fun (for gaming). I find that they solve one major annoyance of Google Glass for people around the glass wearer—Google Glass draws your eye to the module in the corner of the glasses, making it hard to look at people when you’re talking to them, Epson’s straight on display didn’t cause that distraction.

While this CES represented only the beginning of the wearables boom, some are already looking to the future. Said Mooly Eden, general manager for perceptual computing at Intel: “It won’t stop here. Not far away, we’ll see implantable devices; it is inevitable. We’ll use our thumbs as our credit cards, get constant information about our health, interfacing directly with our brains. I believe I’ll live to see this.”

For more from CES, check out our complete coverage.

A correction to the name of the pet tracker was made on 15 January 2014.

Light-Activated Glue Can Heal Broken Hearts

Patching up holes in blood vessels and the heart's walls may become easier with a new light-activated glue. This adhesive, described in the journal Science Translational Medicine, sets in seconds when exposed to UV light. 

The new adhesive could offer an alternative to surgeons who are dissatisfied with current methods for repairing cardiac fissures, all of which have drawbacks. The sutures and staples often used can damage fragile tissue, and they don't immediately form a watertight seal. What's more, most existing surgical glues don't adhere well to wet tissue and can't withstand the pressure that a beating heart exerts on the heart chambers' walls and blood vessels; some are even rendered ineffectual if they react chemically with blood.   

The researchers who devised the new material write that they were inspired by nature: They studied the viscous secretions of slugs and sandcastle worms to determine how they were able to form stable bonds underwater. Eventually they came up with a nontoxic polymer that doesn't mix with water, sets quickly when exposed to UV light, and remains elastic so that it can flex with the cardiac tissue. They demonstrated the effectiveness of their glue by coating patches with the glue and using them to mend holes in four pigs' carotid arteries and heart chamber walls—while the hearts were still beating. 

While more animal studies are necessary before the adhesive can be tried out in humans, the researchers say their material could lead to more minimally invasive cardiac surgeries, since both the glue and the light can be delivered by thin tools. See below for an artist's rendering of an in vivo procedure. 

Images: Randal McKensie

3-D TV is Officially Dead (For Now) and This is Why it Failed

As 3-D printing proudly enters the front door at CES 2014, 3-D TV is quietly being ushered out the back. The technology is still offered as a feature in most lines of high-end sets that already have it, but after years of relentless promotion and product releases from TV manufacturers, stereoscopic displays have been dropped from headlining most presentations and exhibitions (with the notable exception of LG, which has repeated its giant 3-D video wall from last year at its booth.)  And at least one major manufacturer appears to be abandoning it entirely, with Vizio dropping support for 3-D in its latest products.

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CES 2014 Trends: TV’s Future is Curvy, Smart, and 4K

Photo: Tekla Perry
One of Samsung’s new curved TVs

Press day, the day before the official opening of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), always brings new product and technology announcements from the large TV manufacturers—LG, Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, Samsung, and, a more recent entry into the pre-CES fray, Hisense. With so many companies strutting their latest stuff in just a few hours, trends quickly emerge.

My biggest takeaway from yesterday is that 2014 is just not going to be the year of the TV. Several of the big TV manufacturers actually spent much of their announcement time on wearables (more on that trend later in the week) or their entries into what we used to call home automation, but now call the Internet of Things. It’s clear that even the TV manufacturers think consumers will be spending their money on these gadgets, not on a new TV. And that makes sense—according to the Consumer Electronics Association, 98%, of American households have a TV, and the average household has 2.9 of them. The vast majority of us have flat HDTVs that are as large as we really can fit in our homes, and have all sorts of smarts we don’t even use; we won’t be rushing out to replace them anytime soon.

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Seagate Crams 500 GB of Storage into Prototype Tablet

Flash memory is fantastic stuff. It's small, it's fast, and it's robust. It's also absurdly expensive if you want a lot of it, which is at odds with our evolving media-hungry mobile lifestyle. Google, Apple, and Amazon would like us to store everything in the cloud. But hard disk drive manufactures have other ideas.

For a few years now, Seagate has offered wireless traditional hard drives to give mobile devices a storage boost, but at CES this year, they're showing off a prototype tablet that skips the peripheral completely. And somehow, it does so without many compromises.

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OLEDs Could Control Light to Boost Li-Fi Bandwidth

Getting better control of the light emitted from organic LEDs (OLEDs) could lead to faster links between the Internet and mobile devices, according to a Scottish researcher.

Anyone who’s tried to use the Wi-Fi on a crowded airplane or a packed hotel conference room knows it can be maddeningly slow; there usually isn’t enough bandwidth to go around. Some researchers, notably Harold Haas, head of the mobile communications group at the University of Edinburgh, have proposed an alternate system—Li-Fi—which rapidly flickers room lighting to send signals. To get even more bandwidth out of such a system, it would help if there were an easy way to break the light up into different colors, using individual wavelengths to send different signals.

“We’re running out of radio frequency bandwidth, with WiFi, computers, and all our phones,” says Ifor Samuel, who heads the organic semiconductor optoelectronics group at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He described a method his team has developed for making patterned OLEDs for a LiFi system at the fall meeting of the Materials Research Society (MRS) in Boston in December.

Samuel, along with Haas and other colleagues from Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Strathclyde, are pursuing what they call ultra-parallel visible light communications, under a four-year, 4.6 million grant from the UK government. The idea, he explained to the MRS audience, is that the signal would be created by high-speed CMOS chips that alter the blue light coming from an array of small, nitride-based LEDs. OLEDs on top of the LEDs would act as a color conversion layer, multiplexing the signals into other colors.

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CES 2014 First Impressions: Mobile-enabled Hardware, Haptic Sensors, and New Robots

Two days before the main show floor opens, and a day before the round of press conferences from major players in the consumer electronics industry, on Sunday evening the CES Unveiled event crowds bleary, travel-worn, journalists into a giant ball room to give them their first taste of what the rest of the week will have to offer.

Events like CES Unveiled (two more product zoos will take place on Monday and Tuesday nights) are an unreliable barometer for big news—very significant product launches usually get their own event—but sometimes there can be breakout hits that define a category, like Parrot’s original AR drone a few year’s back, or Lego’s Mindstorms EV3 last year.  And even though I didn’t spot a product Sunday that seemed to have the potential for such influence, CES Unveiled is still a good sampling of the general zeitgeist.

In recent years, for example, mobile apps had been two-a-penny, while now mobile-enabled hardware is very much to the fore, especially in the areas of digital health, home automation, and entertainment robotics. Interesting new technologies were also on display, like Novasentis’ haptics sensors and actuators (we expect to have more on Novasentis later this week.) And 3D printing is making a play for the bigger time.

And, psychologically speaking, after several years in which exhibitors maintained determinedly, sometimes aggressively, cheery attitudes in the face of a challenging economic environment, people seemed a little more relaxed this year—although that may change as results from the 2013 holiday shopping season are analyzed and digested for winners and losers. 

CES 2014 Preview

Throughout this week, our reporters will cover the best emerging technology and trends from Las Vegas. Meet the team and see what topics they'll be tracking at the show:

Stephen Cass
Senior Editor, Resources

3-D Printing
Is this the year 3-D manufacturing breaks out of its prototyping and hobbyist niche? For the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show, a zone of the show floor is dedicated to 3-D printing, and there's a track on the official conference schedule. I’ll be looking to see if there’s real momentum behind the emergence of 3-D printing as a force in mass manufacturing. One encouraging sign at Sundays’s pre-show CES Unveiled event: Sculpteo showed off technology that makes it easier to do batch printing of large numbers of 3-D objects (below).

Smart Start-ups
I’m also looking for original and clever innovations in the expanded start-up zones at CES—even though that search will mean wading through a lot of me-too companies trying to leap on various technological band wagons with derivative products. 

Tekla Perry
Senior Editor

Wearables, Wearables, Wearables
This show is going to be all about wearables. I hope to see even one wearable that does something both new and useful, and is also comfortable and attractive to wear. So far, among the small group of companies to show at a Sunday night press event, June, a wearable sun-sensor, stood out as new and somewhat useful [right]. But, to me, a sun sensor by itself is not something I would want to wear, though it would make sense integrated into a fitness band. I’m also expecting to see wearables for pets—but not exactly looking forward to it.

There will also be google glass applications and wannabe google glass competitors, like GlassUp; I’m hoping, but not expecting, to be wow’d by one of these.

TVs and Displays
I want to be convinced that 4K TV is really a lot better than HDTV, even though it will be some time before there’s much of anything available to watch in 4K. Samsung and LG have announced huge 105-inch diagonal 4K screens; I get that the extra resolution helps at that screen size, but I’m not sure it’s going to make a difference in the living room. I'll also be investigating whether curved screens are better than flat and if OLED is going to happen in a big way this year, even though it turned out to be a big ho-hum in 2013. Plus: is 3D TV still the next big thing?

I’m really looking forward to seeing the real-world game GPS/smart phone game “Dust” in action, after seeing the company launch at Haxlr8r. I’ve already had friends volunteer to play with me if I need to test this, which is a sign that this could be really huge. My only reservation about the Dust concept is that game-players might freak out someone with a real gun--I'll be talking to the game designers about that.

I’m sure there will be all sorts of strange and, perhaps, occasionally useful accessories. I already saw, but haven’t yet tried, a weird tablet keyboard called TrewGrip [left]; I’ve heard about false fingernails that act as touch screen styluses—who knows what else is out there?

Evan Ackerman
Senior Writer, Automaton

2014 is my sixth year reporting at CES. By now, I have a reasonable idea of what to expect, including TVs that are slightly larger than they were in 2013, tablets and laptops that are slightly smaller than they were in 2013, and crazy public relations people trying to convince all of us that larger TVs and smaller tablets and laptops are going to somehow change the world. So as it turns out, six years of CES is enough time to get completely jaded on the entire experience, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a few things that I'm expecting to get excited about anyway:

Clever Computer Interaction
The last few years have been all about interacting with computers and devices by touch, and it's time to move beyond that. Voice control is maturing infuriatingly slowly, but I expect to see intuitive gaze control from Tobii successfully make it into the consumer space, while companies like Thalmic Labs harness gestures by tapping directly into our muscles.

Virtual and Augmented Reality
Google Glass has been the most exciting piece of augmented reality hardware to hit the consumer space (or close enough) in years, but augmented reality is capable of so much more. Innovega's iOptik contact lenses are promising an immersive, high resolution augmented reality experience that covers your entire field of view. And if that's not immersive enough, Oculus will be demonstrating the latest prototype of its Rift consumer virtual reality headset.

The Unexpected
The very best part of CES every year is the potential to see something new, amazing, and entirely unexpected. While there are a handful of specific things that I'm excited for, it's the companies doing things that nobody has ever seen or heard of that can make the entire show. I have no idea what we're going to find, but that's part of what manages to keep me coming back.

Celia Gorman
Associate Editor

Video Coverage
I'm planning to shoot a bunch of video at the show. So far we've already seen sneak previews of some fun gadgets: Sphero, which has a new rolling robot out (not revolutionary but nifty), a driverless car, and Parrot, which has two new small bots. I'll be covering the Formula E premier, which we highlighted in our Top Tech 2014 special report. I'm also interested in spending more time with PrioVR's full-body gaming rig.

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