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CES 2020 Preview: A Haptic Phone Display, Scrunchable Battery, and Cooler That Makes Water From Air

But does your frying pan, litter box, and cat bowl really need to be on the Internet of Things?

4 min read
Jenax's J.Flex “scrunchable” batteries
Jenax's “scrunchable” lithium-ion batteries will be on display at CES 2020 along with countless other new consumer gadgets.
Photo: Jenax

CES 2020, which kicks off on Tuesday, will be full of Internet of Things (IoT) devices made smarter than ever by artificial intelligence, TVs and home appliances that beg you to converse with them, and wearables that tell you more about yourself than you likely want to know. 

But the best part of CES is the moment you spot a tiny treasure—that little gadget that is absolutely useful, and perfectly designed. Some tiny treasures are tucked into an array of gear from major manufacturers, and some are the sole products of new companies betting their bank accounts on a CES launch. There’s also joy—or at least entertainment value—in trying out a product that has automated something that really doesn’t need to be automated. 

The treasure hunt starts with the teaser announcements and invites that have been hitting my email box since late November. It will continue on the show floor, as I check these products out and stumble across (I hope) additional gems. Here, in no particular order, are the gadgets and technologies on my CES 2020 treasure map so far. Pricing, for the most part, has not yet been announced. I will update as prices become available:

Hap2U’s Hap2Phone haptic display

Hap2U's demo devicePhoto: Hap2U

French company Hap2U plans to demonstrate a full-screen piezoelectric layer for smartphone displays, which will allow people to feel individual letters on keypads as well as a variety of other sensations and textures. If it works, it could be a big help to people with low or no vision, and helpful to most of us. Of course, if it catches on, it could allow kids to text without taking their phones out of their pockets, to the frustration of teachers.

Jenax’s J.Flex “scrunchable” batteries

Batteries often limit the form factor of gadgets designed for consumers. South Korea’s Jenax is touting ultra-flexible—indeed, the company says, “scrunchable”—lithium-ion batteries that use non-flammable liquid electrolytes.

LynQ’s “People Compass”  

At the right price point, LynQ’s gadget could be a winner. The handheld device lets you track people in a crowd from up to three miles away, showing their direction and distance. Sure, you could just text someone to ask where they are. But in a noisy, crowded place, texting can be frustrating: “I’m over by the entrance. Oh, no, not that entrance, I guess there’s another entrance. Do you see the big tree, next to the other big tree…” During the product’s development, the company offered various packages on Indiegogo that priced each unit at about US $100, which is probably a little high for something that will only get situational use. Pricing for the commercial release has yet to be announced.

Genny and Solar Genny from Watergen

Israeli startup Watergen says its stand-alone water coolers generate water from air. I’ve seen the technology before—Zero Mass Waterin 2018 introduced rooftop solar-water generation systems at CES. But as far as I know, Watergen’s is the first attempt to market a consumer appliance that uses the technology. The system can generate up to eight gallons of water a day—and it acts as a dehumidifier.

The AC Baseball Cap

Yes, I’ve seen those novelty hats with built-in fans, but they really don’t do much. Hawaii-based Feher Research says its cooling cap truly chills, has no moving parts, and can run all day using thermoelectric technology.

The latest new pinball game from Stern, whatever it is

In my mind, pinball never went out of style. But it did seem to plateau for a while. At recent CES events, the new games from Stern Pinball have been impressive little playgrounds of mechanical and electrical engineering—so I’ll be sure to check out this year’s title, yet to be announced.

SmartyPans smart frying pan

OK, the name is very clever. But as Silicon Valley-based SmartyPans came up with a cute name for this sensor-laden, app-controlled, Fitbit-connected, AI-enabled, $229 frying pan, did the company ever ask itself why a frying pan should join the Internet of Things? That said, I do like the low-tech lift-out center for serving.

CookingPal’s Julia countertop “chef”

This is another smart appliance I’m pretty sure won’t be the next Instapot, but given the size of that market, you can’t fault a company for trying. CookingPal’s gadget suggests meals, fetches recipes, chops, stirs, and steams ingredients, and then cleans up after itself. No word whether or not Julia places her own grocery orders.

Heatbox

And one more in the cooking category—Heatbox. This portable gadget isn’t nearly as smart as the home cooking gadgets, but has a more obvious market—people who pack a lunch and don’t have a place to heat it. The company says the device takes about eight minutes to steam cook its contents on demand. My only concern—does it truly approach the size and weight of a lunchbox? Or is it so clunky that nobody would actually want to lug around? And why (at least in the photos I’ve seen) does it not have a carrying handle?

iKuddle

Cat in front of iKuddle's integrated kitty litter box.Photo: iKuddle

Another set of questionable additions to the Internet of Things: iKuddle’s connected kitty litter box, water fountain, and automatic cat feeder. The devices can wirelessly communicate with one another—so as the litter box collects data on a cat’s health, it can automatically suggest changes to a feline’s food portions and hydration. (Given so many cats prefer to drink from anything besides their cat bowl, it’s hard to imagine how this will work, but props to the company for IoT creativity.)

That’s my CES short list, or most of it. A few new products that I’m quite excited about, including new motion-sickness-prevention wearables from Reliefband and some truly bizarre bathroom technologies, are still under embargo, so more on those in a future post.

You can also follow me through the CES halls on Twitter at @TeklaPerry.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

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

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.

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