A Trip to a Gadget Nirvana

7:24 minutes

Panasonic's flexible lithium-ion battery, with a thickness of only 0.55mm. Credit: Panasonic
Panasonic’s flexible lithium-ion battery, with a thickness of only 0.55 mm. Credit: Panasonic

The annual Consumer Electronics Show opened this week in Las Vegas, with acres of flat-panel screens, countless keynotes by tech titans, and gadgets ranging in quality from “must-have” to “wait, what?” Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum says that among all the buttons and blinking lights, technologies such as improved voice recognition, eye-tracking for device control, and new types of flexible batteries are some of the true standouts of the exhibition.

Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re into shiny things with blinking lights, this is a good week for you. The annual Consumer Electronics Show, CES, is underway in Las Vegas with plenty of gadgets and gizmos. But it’s also a good week if you’re into less obtrusive devices, like ones you control with your voice, or maybe just with the glance of an eye. Here to tell us about some of the tech news coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show is Amy Nordrum of IEEE Spectrum. She joins us this week by phone from the exhibition. Welcome back, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi, Ira, thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Are you overwhelmed?

AMY NORDRUM: There’s a lot to see here, yes. You know, it’s actually my first time at this show, but this is the show’s 50th anniversary. And they have gone all out for this year, I can tell you that.

IRA FLATOW: I have been to a couple and you can’t cover the whole thing but let’s talk about what you could cover one thing I understand that you saw was a new kind of battery?

AMY NORDRUM: This is a really interesting new battery. It’s developed by Panasonic. It’s a lithium ion battery, so that’s the same kind of battery that’s in your smartphones and tablets. But this is a flexible version, so it can actually bend and twist 1,000 times and still maintain 80% of its capacity. It’s pretty interesting, and this has never really been done before. And the company was able to do it by kind of rethinking the battery design.

So a lot of lithium ion batteries are made of layers of electrodes that are kind of wrapped in a cylindrical cell. And when you twist and bend those, the layers get out of alignment. What they’ve done here is they’ve actually stacked the layers in sort of a flat thin wafer. And it’s a pretty low capacity battery, but they’re able to actually bend and twist and deliver some pretty interesting applications for wearables and IoT devices down the line.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been hearing a lot that Panasonic is becoming a leader in the battery field.

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, they’re really, I think, re-evaluating their strategy and kind of hunkering down on that. It’s been a successful one for them. And I think they’re more interested in focusing on that in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because didn’t they get into a deal with Elon Musk now, to make batteries in a factory?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. The Tesla Gigafactory. And they said that they’re going to be launching production on that factory line actually this year, and very soon, I expect.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about something else you saw. And I know lots of companies seem to be including voice control in their devices. Is the old-fashioned remote control on the way out?

AMY NORDRUM: I think it may be. I’ve heard some speakers here say that the old graphic computer interface that we’re all used to, the touchscreen is probably going to go away and we’re going to be controlling more and more things by our voice. And that’s certainly been the trend here at CES this here. This is all kind of made possible by some really great advances in voice recognition software and programs.

Microsoft recently announced that they’re able to achieve a word error rate of just 5.9% through their voice recognition systems. And this is about on par with what humans would do if they were actually trying to transcribe an interview by listening to it. So for every 100 words, we get about 6 wrong, and that’s what the machines are now capable of doing. So we’re seeing a lot more in-home speakers that are voice activated, of course, the Amazon Echo, the Google Home with Google Assistant. But we’re also now seeing these digital assistants make they’re way into other household devices.

So here at CES, I’ve seen a slow cooker that’s voice activated, a coffee pot. Of course, tons of refrigerators you can now talk to, they can tell you your schedule. And that’s definitely a trend that I think as this voice recognition software has improved, we’re just going to be seeing it all over the place. The question for me is like what will consumers actually want to talk to? What will they actually want to be speaking to? And how much use will those systems actually get?

IRA FLATOW: Question for me is will they be hacked? Going Are we going to have a flash attack of your refrigerator?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. That’s also a very good question. I was at a panel actually with the FCC commissioner yesterday. And he was talking about how important it is that these companies work together with the government. And also, the consumers think hard about IoT security as they’re hooking up more and more of their devices. You know, Wi-Fi enabled everything. That needs to be priority moving foerward for sure.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get some passwords in those things. You also saw devices that would be controlled with just a glance. We look at them?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yesterday, I tried on a headset that is made by a company named FOVE, and they’re the first company to really put out a headset, a VR headset that can use eye tracking software. So they’ve created this system whereby it can track where I’m actually looking within the headset in the VR world. And this is the technology that they hope will be rolled to other VR headsets, and possibly other applications as well.

It’s really interesting, they use infrared sensors. There’s a couple of them around the ring of the eye reflectors that point toward your eye and then cameras that can sense the infrared and use that to evaluate based on pattern recognition and image processing, where you’re actually looking at any given time.

The challenge that they have at FOVE, though, is that I have blue eyes. And they have tested this on a lot of their employees. And they say that they don’t actually have anyone with blue eyes in the database. So they still me to do a little bit more testing and make sure that their headset is serving all people and is accurate for everyone. So it’s kind of an interesting technology that’s developing. And we’ll have to kind of see how much this is really picked up.

IRA FLATOW: We’re getting closer to Minority Report every moment, I think. Every year, there’s a lot of hype over the next TV thing. Like there was one year, there was 3D. And you had curved screens, 4K, what’s this year’s big thing?

AMY NORDRUM: You know, the TV manufacturers are really looking around. They’re kind of trying to answer the same question that you just asked me. I hear a lot about quantum dot technology. That’s the big trend this year and has been for the last couple of years. The TV manufacturers are facing a real dilemma, which is a lot of us just aren’t using TVs as much anymore. Maybe we’re watching everything on our smartphone or using our tablets and laptops more and more for that.

I see a couple of manufacturers that are really emphasizing the artistry of their TV design. They’re trying to make it lean into the aesthetic of someone’s home in a much more appealing, aesthetic way. And so we’ll see if they can make a comeback with consumers. I’m not really sure. It’s something that I think a lot of people have kind of moved away from.

IRA FLATOW: For my last question, you see a lot of stuff there. Give me something really weird that you saw.

AMY NORDRUM: Well, yesterday, I tried on a pair of bone conduction headphones. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried these, Ira, but it was a strange experience. It was a headphone that really kind of goes around the top of your head. It doesn’t cover your ears at all. But then, with transducers based around the edge, it sends sound waves, vibrations down your skull to your inner ear. And so you can actually hear. No one else can hear the music playing around you. You can hear it, but the music is actually not traveling through your outer ear, it’s traveling down through vibrations down your skull into your inner ear.

And it worked. I could feel a little bit of vibration on the side of my head, just kind of an interesting feeling. But it’s by a company, Batband, and that was one of the more strange things I’ve seen.

IRA FLATOW: Well, given the state of my hearing, I’m going to have to try those the next chance I get. Good luck, and have fun, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for checking in with us. Amy Nordrum, who is associate editor with the IEEE Spectrum, reporting from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

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