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CES 2023 Preview: A Stick-on-the-Wall TV, a COVID Breath Test, and More

Ten hidden treasures I’ll be hunting down on the CES show floor

5 min read
pulled back view of a building front with large windows and cars parked out front

A view of the Las Vegas Convention Center during CES on 5 January 2022.

Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images

I’m traveling today to Las Vegas for the in-person CES 2023. I’ll be joining with an expected 100,000 or so other retailers, journalists, and members of the consumer electronics industry.

After two years of almost pointless virtual shows, I’m excited to get my eyes and hands on real devices. It’s hard to tell a useful gadget from vaporware on a computer screen, and even harder to check out a new display technology when you’re looking at it on an old display technology!

I’m expecting to see AI in places both useful and silly, attempts to make a killer app for the metaverse (likely not quite killer just yet), and TVs with new features that manufacturers hope will get consumers to trade up from their existing sets. I’m booked to see some under-the-hood technologies that their developers hope will make it into consumer products soon. And I hope to find out more about the coming over-the-counter hearing aids, the use of radar technology in consumer products, and devices (beyond new iPhones) that will boast built-in satellite connections.

But, as always, the highlight of CES for me is the hidden treasure—a gadget I didn’t know I needed but is clever, well-designed, and solves a real-world problem. I’ll be hunting for those on the show floor, in booths big and small. And I will be looking for the gadgets on the other end of that spectrum of utility, as in, “This problem really isn’t looking for a tech solution.” (Visiting PreLaunch’s new “Gallery of Flops” is definitely on my agenda.)

I’ve already started my hunt, via the press releases that have been inundating my email inbox for the past month or so. Hinting at a trend, many of these are health related, perhaps no surprise given that we’re coming out of a pandemic with a renewed focus on our health.

In no particular order, here are a few of the gadgets I’m planning to check out in person. At this point, little pricing information is available; I’ll add it as it emerges.

Carbon nanotubes for touch-free presence sensing

Somalytics claims that its paper-based, carbon-nanotube sensors, developed by University of Washington researchers in collaboration with CoMotion, can detect the presence of human tissue up to 20 centimeters away. At CES, Hyundai will be using the technology to demonstrate a gesture-controlled door handle. The technology will also appear in the SomaSleep mask, in which the sensors track eye movements.

A stick-on-the-wall, wireless TV

You have to love Displace’s concept—a lightweight, fully wireless, 55-inch TV that sticks on the wall using built-in vacuum mounts. Who hasn’t wished they could install their flat screen without worrying about cables, mounts, or electrical outlets? The Displace TV is controlled via gesture, touch, or voice, and up to four screens can be snapped together to form a giant display. There is a separate hub that must be plugged in somewhere within the home. I’m just not quite sure if the plan to power the gadget via hot swappable rechargeable batteries is too much of a kludge, though the company says the TV averages a month of battery life when used for about 6 hours a day.

woman holding contraption with tube and green light with child in the backgroundVirawarn

A reusable breath test for COVID, RSV, and the flu

We’ve been waiting for this one for a while—a breath test for COVID and other viruses. Opteev Technologies says its ViraWarn does it all. Those claims have yet to be verified, and the company indicates that clinical trials are ongoing. But I definitely want to check it out. The device uses cartridges that need to be changed only after a positive test or a couple of weeks of daily use and is designed to give results within 60 seconds.

A phone dongle that takes the itch out of insect bites

Heat It has a simple (and, hopefully, inexpensive) gadget that plugs into a smartphone’s charging port when needed to zap away an itch or sting from an insect bite using heat. The company says it’s already sold 250,000 in Europe; CES is its U.S. launch. The idea is valid, as heat has been shown to stop an itch. The gadget is small enough to add to a keychain and will come in Android and iPhone versions.

Fixing speech disorders in real time

I have friends who struggle with essential tremors that can impact their ability to speak, so Whispp’s speech technology got my attention. The company says its mobile app converts whispered speech, vocal-cord impaired speech, and severe stutters into a person’s natural voice in real time.

side by side of man wiping sweat from brow and wearing monitor on arm and a smartphone with information on itEpicore

A sweat-monitoring wearable with a dehydration alarm

I’ve been trackingEpicore Biosystems for some time. The company spun out of John Rogers’s research group at Northwestern University, and has focused on flexible, wearable sensors. Most recently, they’ve been tracking sweat. The company’s first sweat-monitoring patch, the Gx, used microfluidics and color-changing chemicals, along with an app, to monitor hydration and was aimed at athletes. Now Epicore is introducing Connected Hydration, an electronic wearable that senses sweat and electrolyte loss, skin temperature, and motion, and gives dehydration alarms. The company says it is targeting this device at people working in harsh conditions, athletes grappling with extreme heat, and people living through severe heat waves. It claims a two-and-a-half-year battery life with no recharging.

Checking vital signs with a selfie

At least two companies will be demonstrating “useful selfies”—that is, technology that checks vital signs using a cellphone camera. NuraLogix claims its Anura app can take over 30 medical-grade vital-sign measurements via video analysis of facial blood flow. I-Virtual claims its video analysis device currently measures heart rate, breathing rate, stress level, and heart rate variability, and says that more capabilities will be added.

Biometric IDs for cats and dogs

At first glance, Petnow’s plan to establish a pet identification system using biometrics seemed a bit silly. But the under-the-skin invasiveness of the RFID pet identification system and the need to visit an animal clinic visit to get a chip inserted provokes resistance in some pet owners. Petnow aims to use nose prints for dogs and facial recognition for cats as identification methods, with scans done by pet owners using a mobile phone. It’s a long way from developing the tools that capture biometric data to creating a database of pets that’s widespread enough to be useful, but I wish the company luck.

Using ambient light for power

Power has been an ongoing issue with the Internet of Things. Although low-powered devices eke out long lives on batteries, batteries don’t last forever. Dracula Technologies says its extremely thin, organic photovoltaic Layer device can generate electricity in extremely low light—a level comparable to that emitted by an emergency exit sign. And it can be produced in any shape, eliminating the design constraints created by batteries.

view of a toilet with a device inside, and two smartphone screens displaying analysisWithings

In-toilet urinalysis

Withings, the company that pioneered the Internet-connected home scale in 2009, is aiming to get another gadget into the bathroom with its in-toilet, pebble shaped urinalysis device. The company will sell cartridges intended to monitor specific health conditions. The first two will cover general metabolism and menstrual tracking, and cartridges to track other medical conditions are on deck.

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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.