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CES 2023’s Four Wildest—and Catchiest—Gadgets

The best ideas aren’t always big ideas

3 min read
man walking through a convention center with a sign overhead that reads CES

A sign welcomes attendees in the lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES 2023.

Steve Marcus/Reuters/Alamy

The consumer electronics world looks to CES for the next big new technology that’s going to change our daily lives. These, of course, are few and far between. We then seek out dramatic changes in existing technology, a new display, say, that will make our old televisions look dim and drab. Spoiler: There was nothing in either category at CES this year. Rather, this year’s CES was, mostly, a year of tweaks of existing products. For example, LG and Samsung, the Korean consumer electronics giants, were all about putting different—and in LG’s case, electronically changeable—colors on the outside of their refrigerators.

But consumer electronics isn’t just about big companies or world-changing ideas. Smaller companies can come up with products that make sense in a big way—or at least are intriguing enough to make you want to try them out. Here are four small ideas that may have big legs.

Your dog can understand English—so why not help him speak it?

colorful interlocked padding with buttons

FluentPet

At first glance FluentPet seemed completely bonkers to me—a bunch of interlocking pads and buttons designed to allow your dog to communicate with you in the way you’ll understand: words. But then I remembered some of the gear designed for early experiments in ape communication and recent research demonstrating that the average dog can learn to recognize nearly 100 individual human words. So I stopped a moment to chat with founder Leo Trottier. Trottier says he was working on a Ph.D. in cognitive science when he started developing pet-related technology. His previous startup produced CleverPet, a gadget that played with dogs.

FluentPet’s device consists of an expandable set of buttons set into connecting foam pads. The pet owner records a word or phrase for each button, ideally one the dog is familiar with—like “play” or “treat.” The owner then shows the dog that pushing the button generates the sound of the word and triggers the owner to produce the object or perform the action. A dog looking to boss its owner around might pick up on this quickly.

Trottier says that some cats have learned to use the gadget as well, but that’s a dicey proposition, because cats just haven’t evolved to be as interested in communicating with people as dogs are. A US $160 FluentPet set includes the base speaker unit and six buttons.

A turntable your Sonos system will love

In case you missed the memo, vinyl records are officially back in style. I’ve seen evidence of this, with my adult children eyeing my old vinyl albums that are gathering dust in a forgotten cabinet. However, my turntable, amplifier, and speakers have long been abandoned for an easy-to-use multiroom Sonos system, so those albums are stuck in purgatory.

Enter the Victrola Stream turntable, at $599 and $799 (depending on the quality of the stylus and other materials). The company says you just plug the gadget into a power outlet and connection with Sonos is basically seamless. Victrola has me in its target market—those who moved into the Sonos world but couldn’t bear to part with those stacks of vinyl—and I don’t think I’m alone.

Audio in a pearl earring

close up of pearl and gold clip on earring

Nova

One message from CES is that people are getting used to wearing Bluetooth earbuds all day and that this can be a good thing, because these devices can reduce noise, enhance hearing, and connect us to our wearables as well as provide audio for podcasts and phone calls. Those Bluetooth-wearing mavens expect that eventually ubiquity will take away the dork factor.

Nova is looking to make Bluetooth earpieces more unobtrusive sooner rather than later by turning them into audio earrings, available as clip-on or pierced. The Nova H1 Audio Earrings are currently priced in Euros, at €595 for silver and €695 for gold. (The pearls, by the way, are real.) Note that these gadgets do not sit in the ear; that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. The company says it allows for better situational awareness.

Genetically engineered houseplants for air purification

With biotechnology slowly trickling into CES, why not a genetically engineered houseplant on the show floor? Neoplant’s Neo P1 is designed to remove formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene from the air; the company says it purifies air 30 times as well as the best of today’s air-cleaning houseplants.

Neoplant intends to sell live plants in a container engineered to maximize air intake and promises that they aren’t easy to kill. The package of plant and container will list at $179. The company had only seedlings on display; unlike engineers who often work day and night to get a product ready for exhibit, plants don’t do overtime.

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
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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