Some people like to sneer at gadgets as the trivial amusements of a decadent society. But many technologies that later came to be considered essential parts of modern life began their life as unnecessary technical baubles. For example, in 1970, the first consumer VCR prototype was unveiled at CES, a technology previously only needed by television studios. The home VCR then started the home-viewing and -recording revolution, leading to a critical U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding copyright, and laying the groundwork for YouTube and Netflix. Even when a technology goes nowhere—3D TV glasses anyone?—looking at widgets, gizmos, and novelties can still provide a unique window into larger technological and cultural trends.
So I defend the gadget as a worthy object of inquiry, and consequently have spent the last week at CES scouring the halls looking for interesting examples, particularly from smaller companies and startups. CES is so big that no such survey could hope to be comprehensive. Even so, here are my personal nominations for this year’s weird and wonderful, in no particular order.
Winner of the “gadget that looks most like a prop from a dystopian science fiction movie” award, the Hushme is designed to solve a problem endemic to today’s crowded spaces and open offices—having to listen to people’s phone conversations (or conversely, having other people eavesdropping on your private conversation). The HushMe is an ear-phone-equipped mask that you snap around your mouth. A microphone inside the mask transmits your voice to your phone, while the mask blocks the sound of your voice from being overheard by those nearby. It’s going into mass production in April, but you can preorder it now for US $179.
For better sleep, take a robot to bed. That’s the pitch made by the makers of the Somnox, a bean-shaped pillow. The Somnox pulses gently, as if it was slowly breathing, and the makers claim this movement encourages users to relax and slow their own breathing. The Somnox can also play music or an audio book, automatically turning off when it detects their user has fallen asleep. The $500 robot is expected to start shipping in September.
This product from Planet Computers should never exist, according to conventional wisdom. It has two strikes against it: First, it is a PDA, a product category long since swallowed up by smartphones. Second, it has a clamshell design, an approach largely discarded in the touch-screen era. But the Gemini has proved surprisingly popular among a certain set of techies who like it for two main reasons: They want to be able to use a real keyboard without having to carry a separate item, and they also appreciate that the PDA can dual boot into either Android or Linux, which lets them use it as an actual computer, not just a locked-down interface for apps or websites. The Gemini was wildly popular when it launched on Indiegogo, and it will go on sale to the general public early this year at $500 for a Wi-Fi-only version and $600 for a 4G-enabled version.
One of the most-loved characters from Terry Pratchett’s satirical Discworld novels is The Luggage, a sentient magical chest that follows and protects its owner with homicidal devotion. ForwardX Robotics hasn’t done the lethal protector part, but they’ve got the following-the-owner bit down pat with their CX-1 autonomous carry-on luggage. (It’s a carry-on because you can’t put something with big lithium batteries in the cargo compartment of a plane.) The CX-1 has motorized wheels and uses a camera to recognize you and avoid obstacles (a wristband helps with tracking if you go out of view and can alert you if someone tries to make off with your traveling companion behind your back). Currently, it’s only available in prototype form with a price to be determined, but hopefully will be released sometime in the next 12 months.
This is definitely a product that sounds absolutely crazy at first blush, but then it turns out it embodies some worthy goals. The Hip’Air from Helite is a belt equipped with airbags that inflate if the wearer falls. It’s intended to protect seniors from broken hips, an injury that significantly increases their mortality rate and is expensive to treat. Will the Hip’Air really be the answer to this problem? We’ll start finding out in Europe, where the belt will go on sale in March for $800.
The FoldiMate is a refrigerator-size machine that folds clothes. And that’s it. But it was enough to make it—by far—the most popular item I tweeted about at CES, with opinion running toward the “shut up and take my money” point of view, although a significant fraction of responders thought rather that it represented the ultimate in laziness. The version demoed at the show was a partially working prototype, but the FoldiMate crew hopes to start shipping units in late 2019 for $980.
Most of us don’t have to really worry about being dogged by drones, but it’s a burgeoning problem for people running, say, sports stadiums or airports. One potential solution is to train eagles to take out the intruders. Another is Fortem’s DroneHunter system. This is an anti-drone drone that uses a radar module to autonomously spot and pursue aerial invaders. Once it closes in on its target, the DroneHunter fires a net to enmesh the luckless drone. The DroneHunter can then either release its prey to fall to the ground (with a parachute to slow its descent) or tow the netted drone home. It costs around $20,000, depending on various options.
Percept and Me.mum
There were a number of fertility-related products at the show, of which two caught my eye in particular. Percept from Earlysense is a $200 contact-free fertility monitor. You stick it under your mattress and it detects the motions and vibrations produced by a sleeping body—it’s sensitive enough to pick up your heartbeat and breathing rate. From this data, algorithmic magic can determine a six-day fertility window in each month.
Me.mum is a smartphone accessory that uses a more direct, but still noninvasive approach. You place a drop of saliva inside a lipstick-size device that attaches to your phone’s camera. When the saliva dries, any luteinizing hormone—which is associated with ovulation—crystallizes out. Light is shone through the sample, and if the hormone is present, its unique diffraction pattern can be identified by the camera. Me.mum should be on the market in six months, priced somewhere between $80 and $100.
M1 Fetus Camera
If the Percept or me.mum helped you conceive, perhaps you might be interested in the M1 for Marvoto. It’s a home ultrasound scanner that can display 2D or 3D images of a fetus on your smartphone (from where you can instantly share it, of course). Marvoto hopes to launch the $2,000 device in March or April in Hong Kong, and then try a U.S. launch later. The scanner’s resolution is good enough to determine gender, so I asked the company if they were worried about contributing to the problem of skewed birth sex ratios in favor of males [PDF] in several Asian countries. The company said they would not pursue sales in problematic countries, and believed it wouldn’t be an issue in places like Hong Kong, Europe, or the United States.
Puffco Peak and Oblend
The ripples from the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in several U.S. states have extended all the way to CES, with companies looking to help out (and turn a profit) when consumers decide to go beyond furtively hand-rolled joints. The Puffco Peak is essentially a superbong aimed at the recreational market: It heats a cannabis concentrate and adjusts its temperature to maintain a consistent release. The price is still being finalized, but it is expected to be released shortly.
The Oblend is a more up-market device that allows the user to create customized blends suitable for vaping or adding to edibles from ingredient cartridges. It’s targeted at medical users, and its makers point out that you don’t have to use it just for weed: You can blend essential oils or other herbal extracts. Recipes are entered via a smartphone app. The company expects to start shipping in June or July at a price of $949.
Okay, this last one is stretching the definition of gadget to the breaking point, but it is still a device intended to be used by an individual, and it was on the CES show floor—albeit looming down over us. Prosthesis is a real-life mech or mecha, a type of giant piloted robot that dominates an entire subgenre of science fiction. The lithium-battery-powered Prosthesis was built by the robotics division of Furrion and is intended to explore the potential of exoskeleton technology (think the power loader seen in Aliens). Furrion hopes that Prosthesis could be used as the basis for a mech racing league, which will sound either utterly awesome or utterly insane to you, depending on your taste in science fiction. So this last entry is up to you—do you think this was the best gadget at CES, or the craziest?
An abridged version of this post appears in the March 2018 print magazine as “The Weird and the Wonderful From CES.”