Belfast-based tech company Neurovalens has found itself in the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, competing in the final of the tech festival's high-profile "Last Gadget Standing" competition.
The company, which makes a wearable band that aims to help users with weight loss, is the only Irish company to make the top 10 list. The headband, Modius, stimulates part of your brain that controls fat storage and metabolism, helping boost the latter while decreasing your appetite. Neurovalens has already begun shipping the headband to users after a successful crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo.
“With the first 400 Modius devices in the hands of consumers around the world, individuals are recording loses of 12-15lb over an average period of eight weeks,” said chief executive Dr Jason McKeown.
“We’ve always felt CES would be the perfect platform to amplify the good news about Modius and the timing this year was perfect. It’s only day one and already we’ve attracted so much interest from visitors and the international media. It really is the best way to make and build contacts and is a great investment in terms of our time and resource.”
Neurovalens is one of only a handful of Irish companies exhibiting at the event. Another is the group of researchers and developers behind the "Smart Glove", which is an interface system for virtual reality, augmented reality and robotics. The glove was developed by the Wireless Sensor Networks group at Tyndall National Institute.
Brendan O’Flynn, head of the Wireless Sensor Networks Group at Tyndall, said the show provided the chance to explore commercial opportunities to bring it to market. “CES is a wonderful opportunity to show the depth of Irish technology development and creativity on a what is the most impactful and high-profile tech event in the world,” he said.
Away from the Irish attendees, however, if this year’s show is anything to go by, it’s less “whoa, that’s awesome” and more “whoa there, do we really need this?” The annual tech trade show seems less about real innovation breakthroughs solving unmet needs and more about incrementally improved nice-to-haves for the 1 per cent.
The technology industry does not appear to have learned from all of the soul-searching it did last year in the wake of the demise of companies like Juicero, which made a $400 (€335) internet-connected juice-maker that attracted $120 million (€100 million) in funding. The company folded six months after Bloomberg showed that its pre-portioned fruit and veg packets could be squeezed just as effectively by hand .
Given the other scandals that rocked the industry in 2017, including sexual harassment , poor factory working conditions and exploding batteries, and mounting evidence that people should spend less time glued to their devices, one might have hoped for a more cautious or conscientious display of mass consumerism.
Among the exhibits at CES Unveiled, a curtain-raising showcase of products ahead of the main show, were wifi-connected showers, skin-analysing smart mirrors and a clothes-folding robot.
"If you're lying in bed and want to get into a hot shower you can either use an app or talk to Alexa and have your shower start up at your favourite temperature," said Lindsy Argenti, marketing communications manager from Moen, demonstrating internet-connected showers, which solve the apparent problem of having to manually turn the faucet.
Another stand features a water bottle with a large electronic base with three replaceable pods to squirt in different supplements depending on your activity data. "If you went on a 10-mile cycle in Las Vegas in the summer we would know the weather, the level of activity and intensity, so the bottle would know you'd need to hydrate and would dispense electrolytes," said Rob Lawson Shanks, co-founder of Life Fuels, whose water bottle needs charging once a week via USB.
Forward X was one of several companies to have built a robotic suitcase that follows the owner around the airport so he or she doesn’t have the inconvenience of holding a handle. It’s a neat idea in theory, but in demos the prototype was slow and inconsistent in its ability to follow its owner. Plus it requires a heavy battery that must be removed to go through security and needs recharging after four hours.
There were some attempts to tackle difficult problems with clunky solutions. Two products designed to help the elderly in the event of a fall included Helite’s bulky $800 (€670) airbag belt that inflates to protect the hip bones and E-Vone’s smart shoes that alert a loved one if the wearer trips. You subscribe to the footwear (and their accompanying alert service) for about $30 (€25) per month. It’s shoes-as-a-service.
"I really feel like CES is becoming fairly irrelevant to the actual innovation that matters. It's no longer a place that leads," said Ankur Jain, founder of Kairos Society, an organisation that helps entrepreneurs solve societal problems. "It used to be a place where you would see an Alexa [Amazon's virtual assistant] being announced and everything would follow throughout the year. Now all of the products follow and are not meeting any unmet needs, they are just 'nice to haves'."
That’s evidenced in the battle to push virtual reality devices on to consumers’ wishlists. Despite several years of hype, VR devices are still mostly purchased by a niche market: gamers.
Google wants to change that. It released a new VR headset with Lenovo Group this week, along with specialised cameras to support the technology. Dubbed Mirage Solo, it has features from high-end VR devices, like displays that don't blur as the wearer moves around, and doesn't need to be tethered to a PC. Those shortcomings have been a major hurdle to broader VR adoption. Google's new cameras are meant to address another handicap. The devices, called VR180, are built to encourage people to capture 360 degree footage that can be viewed inside VR devices.
So far, the media library for VR is relatively thin, due to the high costs of shooting and creating content. Many analysts expect the market for augmented-reality devices – which overlay digital images on the physical world – to eventually outpace VR.
Another tech innovation that promised much in past CES events, is the arrival of autonomous cars. While the car giants are still flocking to attend the Las Vegas event – some forgoing traditional US auto shows like Detroit for the tech fair – this year at CES it was all about reigning in expectations.
Truly driverless vehicles are years away was the message from executives from Toyota, Hyundai and one of the industry's major tech suppliers, Bosch. While each of those companies showed off the progress they're making in the form of concept models or Las Vegas test drives, they' have been quick to admit that plenty of major hurdles remain.
“It’s a mistake to say that the finish line is coming up very soon,” said Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, the carmaker’s $1 billion unit working on artificial intelligence and robotics. “Things are changing rapidly, but this will be a long journey.”
In the meantime the tech giants, eager to push the boundaries of digital assistants, are interested in the automotive sector. After focusing on smart home technology last year, Amazon is now moving on to the car. The US company has struck deals with Panasonic, one of the largest players in in-car infotainment systems, Chinese electric car start-up Byton and Toyota.
‘A world where Alexa is everywhere’
Amazon is also trying to diversify the types of products that incorporate its digital assistant, bringing its Alexa service to cookers from Whirlpool and GE, as well as Bluetooth-enabled portable devices such as headphones, smartwatches and even smartglasses from New York-based Vuzix.
"We basically envision a world where Alexa is everywhere," Priya Abani, Amazon's director of AVS enablement told Wired magazine.
Although Amazon does not have its own public presence on the show floor, it has rented a sizeable private space in Las Vegas’s Venetian hotel for meetings with partners.
Google, by contrast, is unmissable to CES attendees: advertising for Assistant appears on giant digital billboards up and down the Las Vegas Strip, its branding is plastered inside and outside the city’s monorail train carriages, and it will for the first time in several years have a huge booth at the convention centre.
There were the usual slew of TV announcements, with Panasonic unveiling a range of OLED TVs that support the opensource metadata platform HDR10+, while Samsung and Sony also showed off new displays. Sony used the show to unveil new additions to its mobile range too.
Dell, meanwhile, showcased new laptops, including the thin and light XPS 13, which has been named a CES 2018 Innovation Award honouree. The company has also developed software solution that enables wireless integration between Dell PCs and iOS and Android smartphones.
In recent years, many of the large tech companies have focused on creating their own events to launch their products, which has dampened the impact of CES’s annual extravaganza. For those that were making announcements, including South Korean giants Samsung and LG, it was less about any particular product but more about the artificial intelligence (AI) glue binding them together more seamlessly.
“Last year we announced that all of our home appliances would be wifi enabled. In 2018 we’re adding AI to all of our appliances,” said LG’s David VanderWaal on stage on Monday morning as he walked through a host of smart refrigerators, washing machines and ranges.
What did this added intelligence bring to the table? Well, in one promo video the company showed a man trying to work out what to have for dinner. His fridge told him what food was soon to expire: chicken, mozzarella, lettuce and tomato. What on earth could he make with these ingredients? It’s impossible to tell. So he pulls out his smartphone app, which automatically identifies the ingredients and searches for an appropriate recipe.
This gets sent to cute voice-controlled robot Cloi (pronounced Chloe) who not only reads the cooking instructions out loud but sets the oven temperature. A chicken, mozzarella, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
Things took a turn for the worse during Cloi’s live demo on stage. The desktop device, which can control other LG products in the home, was introduced as the “ultimate in simplicity when managing your smart home”.
“She’s so cute – talk about innovation that makes you smile,” said VanderWaal. Minutes later, the robot stopped responding to VanderWaal’s questions, making for a disastrous debut for the presentation’s centrepiece.
“Cloi, what recipes could I make with chicken?” he asked in one of three failed attempts to elicit a response from the robot. There was awkward laughter in the audience.
VanderWaal continued with his script: “This smart kitchen is changing the game, it’s doing it all for you seamlessly and effortlessly.” That is, provided the robots choose to co-operate.
– Additional reporting: Guardian/Bloomberg/Financial Times Service