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?
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
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.
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Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.