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CES 2021: My Top 3 Gadgets of the Show—and 3 of the Weirdest

Some ideas for new consumer products introduced at CES 2021 get five stars, others get five question marks

4 min read
Wayzn's smart sliding door adapter, opened so a dog can enter
Photo: Wayzn

CES 2021, the all-digital show I attended through a computer screen this week, had some 1900 virtual booths, several peripheral product showcases, and kept my email inbox jammed with a constant stream of product announcements. It had new TV displays, robots promising to be your best friend, and gadgets aimed at making life in the pandemic world a little easier.

And among all that were a few concepts for new products that, in my eyes, showcased each their own touch of genius. Of course, genius varies in the eyes of the consumer. A great product, after all, is not only unique and clever, but it also fills a real need. And needs are personal. With that caveat—and with the reminder that I have yet to try out or even touch any of these products personally—here are the CES products that most lit up my world this week, in no particular order, along with three that I found unique in a different way.

First, in the “why didn’t someone think of this before” category:

JLab’s JBuds Frames Wireless Audio

JLab's JBuds Frames Wireless AudioImage: JLab Audio

Audio “buds” for your glasses instead of your ears? Why haven’t I seen this before? I have yet to find an earbud, wireless or otherwise, that I find truly comfortable and that stays on when I’m doing my daily walk. And over-the-ear headphones are too much of everything. A few years ago I was excited by the launch of Aftershokz headphones that go behind instead of in or over the ear, but found that the vibrations going through my head tended to make me queasy.

So JBuds Frames—tiny Bluetooth speakers with microphones that clip onto the frame of your glasses instead of tucking into your ears—got my attention. These days, I wear glasses everywhere, though often switch out to sunglasses for that walk. JLab’s press release says the speakers come with an assortment of silicon sleeves that will let them adjust to a variety of glasses frames. A spokesperson I queried said that at 11.7 grams each, they are light enough to not change the feel or fit of my glasses noticeably. The company promises eight hours of playtime and 100 hours of standby time on a two-hour charge. JBuds Frames are also water resistant. JLabs says the Frames will start shipping to customers in the spring, priced at around $50. I’m looking forward to trying them, and I’m hopeful that I won’t be disappointed when I do.

Samsung’s Galaxy Upcycling at Home

Samsung announced plans to release a line of software designed to encourage consumers to repurpose smart phones as IoT devices instead of tossing them into a drawer or the trash.  The software, to be released under a program it calls Galaxy Upcycling at Home, will allow old phones to be used as baby monitors, light controllers, and other smart home gadgets. DIY’ers have been repurposing phones this way for a long time, but making it simple for everyday consumers to do so is game-changing.

Wazyn’s smart sliding door adapter

I’ve had traditional flap-style pet doors in the past, and I know that raccoons aren’t frustrated by electronically-controlled locks. The creatures just pry them open. Plus, you also have to cut a hole in your door to install the things. So I was intrigued by Wazyn’s demo of its $400 gadget that turns a sliding door into an automatic or remotely controlled door. The device, the company says, is never permanently installed and doesn’t involve cutting a hole in anything. It can be controlled by a motion sensor that detects the arrival of a pet and lets it in automatically (that can be turned off to keep those racoons out at night) or controlled by a phone or smart speaker, with motion sensor alerts going to your phone. So I’ve got sliding doors, I’ve got Alexa… all I need is a new cat.

And in the “hmmmm, who exactly would want this?” category:

Incipio’s Organicore phone cases

I know it’s tough for phone case manufacturers to distinguish themselves. You can make these gadget covers stronger and more colorful and branded by famous designers, but it’s still hard to make one line of phone cases stand out from all the other ones. So you can imagine the designers at Incipio in a Zoom brainstorming session, during a time when many of us are at home literally watching our grass grow, coming up with the company’s latest twist on a phone case. “Let’s make it compostable!” suggested someone, leading to Incipio’s $40 Organicore phone case. The company advises that composting in a residential bin will take two to three years, I can’t imagine pushing aside an old phone case every time I turn my compost for that long.

Neuvana’s Xen vagus nerve stimulating earbuds

These are stressful times to be sure, times when all of us are looking for ways to reduce our anxiety. But I’m not convinced that zapping my ears with electrical signals is going to make me happier than pandemic baking.

Neuvana is hoping that at least some of us are looking to try new stress-reduction technology. The company says its $330 Xen earbuds send an electrical signal through the ear to the vagus nerve, “bringing on feelings of calm, boosted mood, and better sleep.” I’m not questioning the power of vagus nerve stimulation—there’s a lot of research underway involving treatments for epilepsy and depression—just whether this is something I would actually want to do at home.

Ninu’s AI-guided perfume customizer

“Embark on a perfume fusion journey guided by AI perfume master Pierre,” stated Ninu’s press release. It took me back…back to Disneyland, where, as a teenager, I paid a few dollars for the thrill of having a parfumier with a bad French accent create a custom scent just for me. So I get that the idea of a custom scent can capture the imagination. But do I really need a perfume system that uses an app and AI and can “change the scent with every spray”? Pricing for Ninu’s cartridge-based system is not yet available.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Vertical
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford
Blue

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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