CES 2018: On the Hunt for Tiny Treasures in the CES Aisles

These gadgets being launched at CES aren’t going to change the world, but I’m still eager to check them out

4 min read
Silhouetted people walk in front of a large logo that spells out CES
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CES 2018 starts Tuesday for most of the industry, Monday for the press corps. So I will be spending five days being wowed by the biggest and thinnest TV displays ever, new networking and wireless power technology, impressive wearables, and lots more that I’ll be reporting on all week. You can keep up with it all, along with all the other reporting from my colleagues at IEEE Spectrum, on our dedicated landing page.

But as I planned my schedule to make sure I attend all the most important tech industry announcements, and tried to figure out which new gadget will be the must-have item in 2018’s zeitgeist, I also put together a very short list of personal must-sees. The criteria? It must be something I actually might want to own; something that I just think would be fun to try; or something whose existence makes me want to ask the developers: What were you thinking? Hunting for these little gold nuggets can get me down an aisle or two of the endless CES show floors that I might pass up otherwise, so it’s the list that I’ll take out when I need a little energy boost.

In no particular order, here are the shiny bits of treasure I pulled from the deluge of hundreds of pre-CES press releases and related news feeds:

Ovie Smarterware. I’m sure most of the major appliance manufacturers will be touting their latest and every smarter intelligent refrigerator. This year, startup Ovie will be demonstrating a set of what they call Smarterware—food storage containers, bag clips, vegetable tags, and other gizmos that track how long your food has been in your fridge and remind you to use it before it goes bad.

These gadgets solve a major challenge that faces smart fridges—knowing what’s gotten shoved in the back of the shelves or buried in the bins, particularly things like fruits, vegetables, and leftovers, which don’t have bar codes. And Ovie promises that the starter set of the gadgets will retail for less than $90.

Do I actually want Smarterware? Probably not. It’s unlikely that I’ll be willing to tag my carrots and Brussels sprouts when I get home from the grocery store and am hurriedly shoving things into the vegetable bins so I can just be done with shopping. And, frankly, I feel guilty enough about ordering takeout when I know that the green beans have been sitting there for a while without an app reminding me. But I love the idea that a $90 set of gadgets can beat a $4,000 smart fridge at the intelligence game.

Reliefband 2.0. Two years ago the first generation of the Reliefband, a wearable that treats motion sickness, changed my life. I still carry it with me everywhere and use it often. But nobody ever denied that the first-generation Reliefband is a clunky and not particularly attractive gadget. The company has been promising a redesign for a while, one that looks better and does a better job of transmitting the right amount of electricity to the right spot on the wrist (I confess I sometimes end up holding version one to make sure it doesn’t lose contact during situations in which I’d be particularly susceptible to motion sickness.) So I can’t wait to try out version 2.0.

E Ink’s Prism Dress. An outfit based on the color-changing technology previously found in e-readers’ displays? No, I don’t want one. But I do want to see this mutable garment, if only for its viral photo possibilities—remember the white-gold/blue-black dress debate?

Helite’s Hip’Air.Helite, a startup from Fontaine-lès-Dijon, France, is promising live demos of a wearable airbag. The gadget looks a bit like a fanny pack—or two—and contains sensors that detect a fall in progress and deploy airbags to prevent hip breaks on impact. Given my elderly relatives won’t even wear alert pendants, I don’t see this flying off store shelves. But points for finding a new way to jump on the sensors/wearables/senior tech trends.  

Cauldryn’s Fyre Smart Bottle. Cauldryn, based in St Charles, Mo., started their pitch with “What if you could talk to your water bottle, ask it to brew coffee…,” so they pretty much had me at hello. I usually carry a water bottle and yes, there are times when I’ve stared at it and wished it were coffee. Cauldryn is promising an Aladdin’s lamp of a water bottle—one that will boil water and, with upgrades coming in 2018, grind coffee beans, charge my phone, and act as a speaker. The company touts that the gadget is also remotely accessible, though I have a hard time seeing the point of that. What’s the downside? I’m guessing it’ll weigh as much as my fully loaded CES bag, and that will be a deal breaker, but yes, I want a look.

Samsung’s In-Folding Smartphones. Samsung may be bringing back the flip phone, or something like it. The company hasn’t specifically said that these gadgets will be at CES, but a few months ago announced that they will be released in 2018, so I’m hoping for a CES unveiling, at least as a concept product.

Why foldable? The obvious reason is that it lets the company fit a much bigger display into a pocket-sized gadget. For me, though, there are some things about a flip phone that I still miss—for example, not worrying about scratching the display when I tossed it from my pocket and that a device that could be closed up seemed a lot easier to ignore.

Cambridge Consultants’ Vincent. Product development firm Cambridge Consultants is planning to show off their AI chops at CES. One promised demo is Vincent, what the company calls “a breakthrough in machine learning that is capable of interpreting what a human is drawing and then completing the piece for them in real time.” I’m a persistent but not particularly talented art hobbyist who is really slow at completing anything—so I am eager to see what Vincent does with my attempts at sketching.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.