01/11/2019

CES 2019: Robot Companions, Flying Cars, And 5G (Maybe)

12:21 minutes

the logo for CES, large letters on top of three polygons, outside of a convention center
The Consumer Electronics Show logo outside the Las Vegas Convention Center, January 7, 2019. Credit: yvasa, via Shutterstock.

Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, meets in Las Vegas to showcase the latest in consumer tech trends. This year was no different—but what should we expect in tech in 2019? WIRED news editor Brian Barrett was on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center all week and joins Ira to talk about what he saw, including a flying taxi and other concept cars, delivery drones, robot companions, and ‘5G’ products mean without a 5G network.

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Segment Guests

Brian Barrett

Brian Barrett is news editor at Wired. He’s based in Birmingham, Alabama.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Imagine a place in the Nevada desert where you can see taxis fly straight up into the air, robots that are your best friend, and a TV that folds. No, we’re not talking about the latest sci-fi novel. It’s, of course, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. My next guest tried to take it all in and I can tell you, it’s impossible. I’ve been there, tried to do that. But he’s here with some of the latest gadgets and trends crowding the exhibit halls. 

Brian Barrett is news editor for Wired. He’s based out of Birmingham, Alabama. Welcome to Science Friday. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Hi. Thanks so much for having me. 

IRA FLATOW: There were a few very interesting concept cars at the show this year. Tell us about the taxi that flies and the walking car. 

BRIAN BARRETT: That’s right. For the last few years, CES has been as much a car show as anything. That’s where we’re seeing a lot of really interesting innovation. The two that stood out the most this year are probably a few years off if they ever do get here. But as you mentioned, there’s the Bell Nexus, which is a– they call it, I think, a flying taxi. And the goal is it’s this big vertical lift off, basically a mini helicopter that Uber says, by the mid 2020s, we’re going to be riding around instead of actual cars. And it seems fanciful and people have obviously promised flying cars for a long time. 

But you do remember Bell is the same company that makes the Osprey. Their an actual helicopter company. This is their specialty, they know what they’re doing. So that might be a better chance than we’re used to from actually seeing one of these come to fruition. 

IRA FLATOW: Do you know how much noise a helicopter makes? 

[LAUGHING] 

BRIAN BARRETT: I can’t wait to find out in 2025. 

IRA FLATOW: If you have your drone– do you know how much noise a drone makes? Think about that, multiply it by 100, and then 100 again. OK. So they’re not going to be rolling out onto the highway soon. Every year at CES, there’s a very new type of TV. There have been curved TVs and 3D TVs. What’s this about a folding television? 

BRIAN BARRETT: Yeah. So CES is an auto show. Also, one of the technologies that really still has major announcements are televisions. Everyone else scatters theirs throughout the year. But there are two big ones I saw. The first one that you mentioned is from LG. And LG has, for a long time, made these really beautiful OLED displays, these organic light emitting diodes. But basically, it’s a nearly perfect picture. And what they figured out how to do is roll it up like a newspaper. 

And we’ve seen concepts like that before, we’ve seen it in a lab. But they’ve actually put it in a product that you will be able to buy in– as I’m sure you know, a CES rarity, you will be able to buy in a few months. And what they do is they put a large, long box, I’ll say– it looks nicer than a box, but it’s just a box in your living room. And when you want to watch TV, you hit a button and this giant 65, 70 inch, whatever it is, TV rolls up out of the box straight into the air. You watch it. 

When– you’re done, you tap that button again and it rolls back down and you don’t have to think about it. And it’s technologically neat, but what I like about it, too, is that it frees you from the constraints of if you’re designing a room, to design around the television. You can just have your space and when you want the TV, it’s there, and when it’s not, it’s not. Just like a projector screen would today, but with a much fancier picture. 

IRA FLATOW: And so it would be very flat, to, I imagine. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Extremely flat, yeah. And I assume that’s one of the major problems of getting it to market, is you have to put some connectivity things in there. But I assume that is mostly at the base and then you can roll up. Because OLED itself is very malleable that way, you can do what you want with it as long as the panel lifts off the glass panel. 

IRA FLATOW: Right. Well, what about personal robots? We keep seeing that scary looking robotic dog or animal, that Boston Dynamics creature. Is that going to come to fruition? 

BRIAN BARRETT: Well, I’ll tell you, the closest thing we had to the scary Boston Dynamics dog was a car this year, actually. It’s a Hyundai Elevate, which can roll around on wheels when you want to drive, but when you want to get to somewhere else, it’ll stand up on all fours and you can basically walk it where you want to go. That’s another far flung Transformers-ish vision of the future. 

But in terms of bots, I think what we saw this year most of all was a focus on elder care and companion robots, a lot of which are also actually available, not the concepts, the real things. I think one that stuck out to me was the Lovot, and there’s a chance I’m mispronouncing that, but I think I’m right. It’s almost Furby 3.0, if you remember the Furby doll. It’s fuzzy, it’s got these deeply expressive eyes– digital eyes, but they really found a way to convey some depth there. 

It’s got a sensor packet on its head that looks a little bit like a hat. But it knows who’s talking to it. If you tickle it, then it knows to laugh. If you cradle it, it knows to fall asleep, which some people might see as creepy, but I do how if you are lonely in this world, that is something that might be appealing, maybe not. But that is a lot of what we’re seeing, which I think is both a reflection of– I think there’s probably demand for it. I think it’s also a reflection of where robot technology is right now in terms of what can be affordably done with it. 

I think we’re not at robot butlers yet. We’re more at robot pets. 

IRA FLATOW: And it’s certainly for people who can’t get out and walk a dog, right? 

BRIAN BARRETT: Exactly. And they’re developing into something of all different stripes. There’s that Kiki, which looks like a little fox, but you actually have to feed it– pretend to feed it. But that gives you a sense of responsibility and sense of purpose. And then you have the more practical– Samsung has something called Bot Care, which helps you run through– if you have to take your blood pressure every day, if you have to do different other medical diagnostic tests, it can help walk you through that and make sure that you’re staying on task. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s interesting. Are we seeing a lot more of personal gadgets being connected to the smart speakers? 

BRIAN BARRETT: If we have– I think Alexa– Amazon in particular has been leading this. Alexa really opened up in 2017. They really started actively courting gadget makers and we’re seeing the fruition of that even more, I think, from the most extreme end of the examples. You have Kohler this year, the venerable bathroom and kitchen company brought an Alexa-powered toilet, the Numi 2.0. So if you wanted to play music or just want to have a conversation with a voice assistant, that’s there for you. 

I think we’re also seeing more practical applications, too, though. Simple Human makes something I actually really liked. It was a mirror with a speaker in it, just if you’re getting ready in the morning and you want to check the weather or you want to listen to NPR. It condenses all of those functions into one thing in a way that still looks nice and sounds nice. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, if you’re of a certain age, like me, you’d want to say, mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the smartest or best looking of all? I have an answer. You, right? 

[LAUGHTER] 

BRIAN BARRETT: Exactly. Exactly. 

IRA FLATOW: What about personal security? One of the things I keep looking into are home locks and security devices, stuff like that. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Yeah, so there’s been– that’s an area where the technology has become affordable enough to make that you’re seeing a lot of competition in the space, which is neat. In terms of innovations we’re seeing on that level in terms of home locks, I think it’s variations on the theme. You’ve got some locks that can let you– I think there was one lock that had six different ways you can get in, whether it’s biometric or with a physical key or with whatever else. 

In terms of the personal security that I was most excited about at the show, there’s a company called Yubico, which makes these things called YubiKeys, which enables these two factor authentication. So you basically plug it into your computer and it can give you a little bit of extra security. And also, now it can replace your password altogether. So what we finally saw at the show is Apple approved this little gadget, which is super handy. I recommend it to everyone who cares about their own device security. Apple finally is letting them make one for the iPhone. 

So you’re going to be able to bring that same protection that PCs have had for years and in a few months, apply it to the iPhone, which will just make life a lot easier for people. 

IRA FLATOW: We used to call that a dongle. 

BRIAN BARRETT: It is, it’s something of a dongle. Bring back dongles in 2019. 

IRA FLATOW: And there’s also talk about 5Gs coming real soon now, which is an old computer phrase. It’s just always over the horizon. Any closer? 

BRIAN BARRETT: That stuck out to me at CES I think for its absence. We were anticipating a lot of 5G this year, but it’s just not there yet. And I think that was what was really clear, is that as much as there has been a lot of hype, especially from carriers who are still– right now, they’re jockeying for a position in terms of consumer mindshare or whatever you want to call it. There’s still so much infrastructural work to be done. The carriers still need to build out their towers, people still need to have 5G phones to buy. 

It’s going to be a couple of years until A, the products are there and B, they’re there in a way that people can actually use them. And in the meantime, I guess we advised our readers to ignore 5G for now, because in the meantime, there’s a lot of misleading marketing around this stuff. So AT&T recently started putting a little icon on people’s phones saying 5GE, which is not 5G, it’s 4G, it’s the same stuff you have now but with some little tweaks. 

So it’s a little bit misleading. And then my favorite of those is the cable companies who are a little anxious about 5G have started marketing 10G, which is a lot more Gs, even though it doesn’t really mean much at this point. 

IRA FLATOW: And it could be money– a lot more Gs. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Exactly. 

[LAUGHTER] 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s the thing. Are people not– phones are not selling as well. The high-priced phones are not selling as well as they thought they would be. Certainly the iPhones, right? 

BRIAN BARRETT: Yeah. which I think, honestly, is a good thing. I think the reason they’re not selling as well is that they last for longer. I think that you don’t need a new iPhone. And to Apple’s credit, they, in its most recent big software overhaul– every year it decides how many phones back it’s going to support. And it supports now– iOS 12, it supports phones going back to the iPhone 5s, which is– I don’t know– four, five years old. 

So I think that phone sales are slowing down I think, but only for good reasons, it’s that the phones last longer and people are realizing they don’t need a new phone every two years. And that’s good for consumers, it’s good for the environment. It’s not great for Apple and Samsung. But I’ll take it. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, if you see– I have an SC. If you see that small form factor coming back– 

BRIAN BARRETT: Oh, I miss it. I wish it would. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s the thing you put in your pocket. Remember a pocket? 

BRIAN BARRETT: Yeah. And I think what is coming back a little bit, not at this show, but in general I think, there’s a trend towards these feature phones. I think Nokia has had a little bit of a resurgence. They’re bringing back the old models that people loved for folks who want to get so small that they don’t have the screen altogether and they can just move the distractions entirely. 

IRA FLATOW: Back to the– someone will invent a phone you can fold over. Wow, what an idea. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Which is coming. I think we saw that Samsung has one coming and a company called Royale showed one at the show, although I would not– I would hold off and see how well they actually work. 

IRA FLATOW: An old company name Motorola used to do– 

BRIAN BARRETT: That’s right. 

IRA FLATOW: All right, Brian. We could schmooze about this all week long. Brian Barrett is news editor for Wired. He’s based out of Birmingham, Alabama. Thank you for forging ahead in Las Vegas for us. 

BRIAN BARRETT: Yeah, no. Anytime. Thanks again. 

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break and when we come back, we’re going to talk about why the shape of your heart might actually reveal your exercise habits. And if you have a question about your workout routine and its effects on your health, give us a call. Our number 844-724-8255. We’ll be talking about the different kinds of workouts– weight lifting, walking, aerobic. And some interesting news of how bad it is not to work out. We’ll talk about it after the break. Stay with us.

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