IFA 2018: 5 Big Consumer Technology Reveals

By Mark Vena - September 21, 2018
The IFA technology showcase in Berlin last week was a sprawling affair, attracting over 230,000 consumers, journalists, and industry pundits from all over the world. Historically it has been geared towards European consumers, but due to the conference’s late August timing, more and more companies are using it as a platform to announce new products in advance of the upcoming holiday season. Preceding the opening of IFA, I also got a chance to attend ShowStoppers, a media-only event gives media and analysts a chance to to cover a lot of territory (~70 vendors) in one centralized location. What I’ve always found fascinating about IFA is the diversity of technologies and products that are shown. There’s something there for just about everyone, including some products that border on the absurd. The following is my assessment of some of the more interesting and potentially disruptive solutions I saw at the event. Mitte's new water purification system.     MITTE An innovative purifier for in-home mineral water production Mitte, a Berlin-based startup, demoed a clever, smart-looking water purification device for the home. Most consumers today use a faucet attachment or a filter-based pitcher to cleanse and purify their tap water. While this is better than drinking unfiltered tap water, Mitte argues it’s not sufficient—filter-based purification can’t discern the disparity between impurities and “good” minerals like magnesium and calcium. In other words, today’s filters end up stripping out the good stuff that we should be consuming. Mitte’s countertop device, which occupies the same footprint as a decent-sized coffee maker, uses a proprietary method to distill water and add back in essential minerals. The company’s successful Kickstarter program conducted earlier in the year resulted in about 1,000 preorders, and the company is planning a formal launch by the second quarter of 2019. While pricing is still not formally set, the Kickstarter program offered the device at ~$469 including three mineral cartridges. While that pricing is a bit on the high side, the good news is that Mitte’s target pricing for the various mineral replacement cartridges is about 12 to 18 cents per water liter in the United States. This is an extremely cost-effective alternative compared to traditional mineral water (1 liter of Perrier Sparkling Natural Mineral Water costs ~$1.32 on Amazon.com). The Mitte device, which can be filled manually with tap water or connected to a water source in the kitchen, is also “smart.” It comes with a mobile app that provides analysis of water quality and orders replacement cartridges automatically when depleted. Danone , the maker of Evian, recently invested $10.6 million in Mitte—a huge vote of confidence in the startup. Assuming the device functions as advertised and the cartridges are affordably priced, Mitte could be poised to change the way we consume common tap water. Temi's new telepresence robot for home monitoring and communications.    TEMI Temi could be the first real home telepresence robot that makes sense Of all the robots scattered throughout the convention halls, telepresence robots in particular stood out to me. These Internet-connected robots are capable of streaming audio and video, and offer enormous monitoring potential for elderly people and housebound sick children (not to mention maintaining communications with friends and family). Unfortunately, they tend to be quite expensive and many of the current products on the market are neither intelligent nor intuitive. Temi could change all of that. At IFA 2018, the Israeli-based company Roboteam formally introduced its home robot to the world. The futuristic-looking 3-foot-tall robot is housed on 4 wheels and offers a 10.1” high-resolution UPS LCD touchscreen and Bluetooth, cellular, and WiFi connectivity. It also features a battery that lasts eight hours on a single charge, a smorgasbord of linear time-of-flight sensors, 360-degree LIDAR, 4 omnidirectional microphones, 2 infrared cameras and inertial measurement capability. It sports excellent sounding 20-watt Harmon Kardon speakers, and its voice recognition functionality can play music, pull up YouTube videos, provide weather forecasts, and more. It’s worth mentioning that Temi’s powerful hexa-core ARM and Android operating system will enable the robot’s functionality to grow in the future. All of this said, this robot packs more power than the iconic robot in “Lost in Space” ever had (sorry, Will Robinson). Temi can be controlled via voice commands or its smartphone app. Its rich assortment of sensor and LIDAR technology allows it to understand and explore its surroundings, with the ability to “recall” its specific location. Temi is even capable of following a person through a room, carefully avoiding obstacles like furniture, pets, and large toys. If I have a complaint about Temi, it’s only that I believe it will take some time for its full potential to be realized. The robot will doubtlessly become more functional as 3rd party applications are developed for it. Temi will be priced at a not-so-outrageous $1,500 when it goes on sale later in the year. It really doesn’t have a meaningful competitor at this point in time and it will be interesting to see how consumers react to it. In conclusion, Temi offers enormous potential and looks to be a significant leap forward in the telepresence robot category.
Smartphone mirroring on a Dell PC.    DELL
Dell and Microsoft tackle smartphone-PC integration
If you’re a Mac desktop or notebook user with an iPhone or iPad, you’ve probably reveled for some time in the ability to send text messages using a traditional keyboard. For a few years, that ability has been the exclusive province of consumers who buy into the vaunted Apple ecosystem. However, that capability appears to now be coming to Windows via solutions from both Dell and Microsoft . Dell is not exactly known for its own name-brand end user IoT devices, leaning more on the Edge expertise gained by its VMware acquisition. This approach has resulted in common sense solutions like Dell Mobile Connect, a complete PC-mobile productivity solution launched in January 2018 that provides comprehensive wireless integration between Dell PCs and smartphones. Android and iOS users can make calls, receive and send texts, get notifications, and interact with their preferred mobile apps from their PC screen. Dell Mobile Connect was on display at IFA 2018, in advance of a Fall update that even further extends the solution’s capabilities. I would not be surprised to see the company eventually extend this capability into the management of disparate third party IoT devices, providing a clean, centralized, and organized dashboard on a Windows desktop. In a similar vein, Microsoft announced at IFA that it will be releasing a “Your Phone” app in its next major iteration of Windows 10 (Redstone 5 build) in the October timeframe. This app is crafted to directly mirror a smartphone to a desktop or notebook PC so that Windows 10 can access texts, photos, and notifications. Microsoft is careful to point out that some of the features in “Your Phone” may differ between iOS and Android devices, but this capability could still have a huge impact on productivity for Windows users.
The Neato Robotics family of smart vacuums.     NEATO ROBOTICS
Neato Robotics double downs on personalized cleaning Neato Robotics has long been an innovator in the intelligent robot vacuum space. While iRobot and its family of Roomba robot vacuums have enjoyed greater brand visibility over the past few years, I’ve always considered Neato solutions to be more innovative and effective. Their integrated laser navigation capabilities facilitate faster and more accurate floor cleaning, and I’ve found their D-shaped form factor allows for better corner cleaning. Moreover, Neato has led the robot vacuum market in voice integration, with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple WatchOS, Google Wear OS, and ITTT support for its products. Neato announced two new models at IFA 2018, the Botvac D4 and D6 Connected. Priced affordably at $499, the Botvac D4 Connected features No-Go Lines. This is one of the most sought-after capabilities in the robot vacuum segment, allowing the user to designate “keep out” areas (e.g. pet food bowls) via the vacuum’s smartphone app. The Botvac D4 Connected also provides 33% more battery power than its prior model and features Quick Boost Charging, which optimizes cleaning by calculating the amount of power needed for each run. The new Botvac D6 Connected, priced at $699, is targeted at pet owners. It features a 70% larger core brush than most comparable cylinder-sized robot vacuums, and a side brush for closer cleaning along walls. Additionally, it supports Multiple Floor Plans with No-Go Lines, an extremely convenient feature for consumers with multi-floor homes. Both of these announcements underscore Neato’s focus on cleaning solutions that understand and adapt to the specific living environment of their owners. This emphasis differentiates Neato from literally all its competitors. The company’s flagship model, the Botvac D7 Connected, will soon offer a new Zone Cleaning capability. Available in the fall timeframe and available as a free download to existing Botvac D7 Connected owners, Zone Cleaning personalizes things even further with the ability to identify specific “trouble” areas in your home that deserve cleaning more often than others. Across the board, Neato continues to push the envelope in the personalized cleaning area. The company deserves kudos for such pragmatic innovation.
Amazon Alexa VP Daniel Rausch delivers a keynote at IFA 2018.     MARK VENA
Amazon Alexa takes inspiration from Star Trek
Lastly, while not exactly a new product announcement, I wanted to talk a bit about Amazon’s “Alexa everywhere” vision (which was laid out in an excellent keynote by Daniel Rausch, VP of Amazon Alexa). Amazon appears to be aggressively tracking to its vision and, in some cases, ahead of schedule. Today there are more than 20,000 Alexa-compatible devices, a 5X increase over the 4,000 Alexa-supported devices at the end of 2017. Alexa is no longer just exclusively a smart speaker solution—it is showing up in varied and unique products, such as light stands, clock radios, bathroom mirrors, and more.  In short, Alexa is no longer exclusively a smart speaker solution. There were three main things that stood out to me from the keynote. First of all, I learned that Alexa product teams use the voice recognition capability showcased in the classic 1960s TV series, Star Trek, as their inspiration. Amazon views Alexa as a powerful step toward ambient computing: a world where users have “voice-forward” capability wherever they are, be it their home, office, car, or hotel room. Secondly, I was interested to learn more about the new Alexa Skills Kit, which allows developers to take advantage of self-service APIs and shorten the time-to-market development cycle. Alexa has always been the de facto leader in the smart home/home automation with its support for a huge number of third-party devices. With the Alexa Skills Kit, Amazon is clearly focused on accelerating developer efforts and maintaining this lead by shortening skills set development cycles. The last item that caught my eye during Rausch’s keynote was a couple of impressive (though a bit disconcerting) factoids about Alexa usage. We learned that Alexa has sung “Happy Birthday” to customers millions of times and told over 100 million jokes. The question in my mind is how Amazon uses this data. It’s hard to believe that customers using Alexa for these casual interactions are not going to be bombarded with targeted ads for birthday gift suggestions, comedic movies, and other products that Amazon would love to sell you. Amazon wants Alexa to be present wherever you live, play, and work, and is continuing to execute on this goal. Privacy issues aside, consumers seem to be extraordinarily receptive to the company’s vision. Wrapping up  IFA 2018 was an extraordinary event, and not just because Berlin is a hospitable place to be in the late summer. It’s one of the few global technology showcase events that allow both consumers, the media, and exhibitors to interact with each other, and it’s a great opportunity to see some of the hottest products coming to the consumer electronics market. This article just covers a thin slice of what there was to see at this massive conference—to get the full picture, I highly recommend technophiles attend next year’s event. Be sure to bring comfortable shoes with you if you want to see everything—there’s a lot of ground to cover.
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