Consumer Technology Association As expected, last week’s CES was an expansive affair, with 3,900 exhibitors presenting interesting (and more than a few head-scratching) products and solutions across 240,000 square feet of floor space at the Las Vegas Convention and World Trade Center. More than 184,000 attendees visited this year’s show (a CES record), and while a several hour blackout briefly threw the event into chaos, overall it did not disappoint. I saw a lot of cool gadgets that ran the functionality gamut in the smart home space, from well-established companies and startups. Here’s a recap of the more compelling products I saw during the week. To be clear, I have not had the opportunity to test these products yet, but they do represent promising usage models (not simply solutions looking for a problem—can you say Juicero?). Intel’s Smart Home strategy Despite all the noise about the notorious Spectre and Meltdown chip vulnerabilities (much of it overblown, in my view), Intel showed real leadership in outlining several highly critical (and badly needed) elements that it believes will drive a better consumer experience in the smart and connected home. While not strictly a product announcement in the literal sense, Intel articulated several innovation directives: the need for faster WiFi (802.11ax support), home security enhancements at the device level, and a heavier emphasis on design for traditionally ugly devices such as routers. I wrote an extensive article about Intel’s plans in Forbes which you can read here. Sony's new Aibo robot dog, showcased at CES 2018. Sony brings back its famous (and impossibly cute) Aibo robot dog You must have a robotic heart if you’re not in love with the latest incarnation of Sony ’s beloved Aibo, the robot “dog” that garnered a fanatical following in the late 1990s. I was fortunate enough to get a sneak preview of the new Aibo at an exclusive meeting with Sony’s President on the eve of CES, and as a former owner of the original Sony Aibo, I can say without equivocation that the new model is a dramatic improvement. The new Aibo sports a whole host of enhancements to connectivity (both WiFi and cellular), sensors, and AI (that enables Aibo’s lifelike behavior to mature over time). While it will only be available in Japan when it launches this month (where it enjoys a fanatical following) and the $1,700 MSRP (190,000 yen) may scare some potential consumers, I suspect it will be a big hit given the current momentum and awareness surrounding consumer robot products. You can see a short video of the demo here. I defy you to dislike it. Channel Master and Plex showcase easy to use “cut the cord” products Over the past month, I have written extensively about the growing number of products that aid consumers in the quest to “cut the cord” from their cable or satellite provider and capture free “Over The Air” TV content. Channel Master showcased its STREAM+ Media Player, a $99 device that offers a friendly Android TV interface with built-in Chromecast support, dual TV tuners, and a subscription-free DVR. A short overview of STREAM+ can be viewed here. Not to be outdone, California-based startup Plex showed its Plex Media Server, which takes a software approach on your PC or NAS (Network Attached Storage) device to deliver an equally sociable interface for streaming your content to a wide range of devices. Check out this video overview of Plex’s functionality here. I am anxious to review both solutions over the coming weeks, so please stay tuned. Z-Wave Alliance makes further inroads into the smart home Before there were home automation solutions like Belkin’s Wemo and Apple HomeKit, there was Z-Wave. Introduced back in 2001, Z-Wave is a wireless communications protocol used for home automation. Designed as a mesh network, it utilizes low-energy radio waves to communicate from appliance to appliance. This facilitates wireless control of a huge number of residential appliances and other devices, such as lighting, smart thermostats, locks, windows, and garage door openers (just to name a few). Today, there are approximately 2,400 products on the market that support the Z-Wave protocol. Despite the enormous breadth of Z-Wave device support, few consumers are aware of Z-Wave. Companies such Google , Amazon.com and Apple dominate the brand awareness landscape, though that’s a little misleading—those solutions focus on the user interface dimension of home automation, while Z-Wave supports the “glue” that provides the actual connectivity to your smart home network. Check out Z-Wave’s web page for more information and an overview of its wealth of supported devices. Intuition Robotics' new Elli-Q assistant Intuition Robotics introduces ElliQ One of my more intriguing meetings at CES was with several of the principals at Intuition Robotics, the startup behind ElliQ—essentially a desktop “social robot” device designed specifically to help older adults bridge the digital divide. While CES was replete with companies offering a wide variety of consumer-related robot products, Intuition Robotics is one of the few companies I’m aware of that is targeting this specific age demographic—I applaud its efforts to address this market. The ElliQ product utilizes artificial intelligence to facilitate a more engaged lifestyle, by recommending activities and making it easy to connect with friends and family members. Still in beta testing phase, ElliQ is expected to ship somewhere in the March timeframe. If interested, you can see a quick overview via this link. I suspect Intuition Robotics is on to something with this product. It might not be as adorable as Sony’s new Aibo robot dog, but addresses a market that few (if any) other companies are focusing on. Comcast steps up its game in the wireless, home automation, and home security spaces Thanks to its terrific Xfinity set top box interface, Comcast currently boasts the best user experience (in my opinion) for accessing premium video content. At CES, Comcast doubled down on its commitment to the smart home by extending its home automation services to approximately 15 million customers, by facilitating significantly faster WiFi throughout the home and enabling control via its X1 voice remote.
As I’ve commented before, while the smart home offers numerous advantages to consumers, it can also be a highly confusing undertaking. There are so many players, products, services, and ecosystems involved, many of which don’t often cooperate well with each other. Given its footprint in millions of homes, Comcast is in a powerful position to bring order to the chaos—its expanded “Works with Xfinity” program is designed to make sure that devices interoperate with each other. You can read more about Comcast’s announcements at CES via this link. Time will tell if Comcast’s efforts pay off, but I applaud the company for its continued commitment to the smart home, and its drive to provide best-in-class user experiences.
Xeros Technologies reinvents the home laundry
Water conservation is obviously an important issue, and I was genuinely pleased to see a UK-based company called Xeros Technologies announce XFiltra, a radically new technology designed to remove microfibers from home laundry wastewater. Approximately 60% of our clothing contains synthetic fibers, which can pass through wastewater treatment centers and cause environmental risks. Xfiltra filters out these harmful microfibers, and is compatible with any home washing machine. In addition to the environmental benefits, it actually protects garments by guaranteeing they are always washed with cleaner water. Here’s a video that shows this technology in operation. This technology, along with the company’s XOrb Polymer and XDrum InDrum announcements, could potentially change the way we think about washing clothes in an environmentally-conscious manner. It will be interesting to see how the big, more recognizable companies in this space embrace what Xeros Technologies is doing. 3M’s Filtrete brings “smarts” to the home air filter In another practical example of making something most consumers take for granted “smart,” 3M announced new Filtrete Smart Air Filters—the first-ever Bluetooth-enabled HVAC air filter for the home. The smart air filter can do a number of things via a smartphone app: it can pass along valuable information such as size and filter type, provide real-time indoor air quality readings, and notify when it’s time for replacement. Most consumers forget to replace their HVAC air filters on a timely basis, which can have negative health consequences and cause extra wear and tear on HVAC systems. In short, this is the type of smart home capability that can have a dramatic effect on improving the lives of families from Day One. The best news? According to the press release, these filters will be affordably priced in the $21.99 to $29.99 range when they hit the market this spring.Samsung's newly unveiled "The Wall" TV. Samsung’s new 146” TV has an interesting twist Samsung’s breathtaking new 146” 8K wireless TV (dubbed “The Wall”) was certainly the talk of the show and has been heavily reported on. I won’t dwell on it too much, except to comment that I was intrigued that its new MicroLED display technology (which the TV is based on) is apparently user configurable—meaning that consumers can expand the size of their screen post-purchase as their needs change. When I pressed Samsung’s officials at CES about how this process would work in a practical sense, without the edges of the added modules being noticeable, they kept mum. Regardless, kudos to Samsung if it can pull this off without degrading the video quality of the TV itself, which looked magnificent (to say the least) at the First Look press conference. From a smart home standpoint, Samsung also announced that all 2018 Smart TVs going forward would include Bixby support (Samsung’s rival voice assistant to Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple Siri). Samsung sees the living room TV as the centerpiece of the smart home; a “hub” for syncing and managing other all other connected devices. With Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa showing up on scores of other devices in the home and Apple HomePod finally shipping in the next several months, Samsung has its work cut out for it. Bixby will have to rise above the noise in a very crowded group of intelligent voice assistants.
Ashley Chloe brings style and premium sound with new wireless earbudsAshley Chloe is a relatively new brand that takes a decidedly fashion-focused approach towards technology. Like Apple, Ashley Chloe challenges the paradigm that technology and style must be independent. At CES, Ashley Chloe announced Fuse, wireless earbuds that the company says offer both superior sound quality and stylish design. Both the earbuds and carrying case feature a sleek aluminum finish with rose gold accents, a stark departure from many of the other wireless earbuds on the market. In addition to comfort, they also conveniently include Qi Wireless Charging support. Ashley Chloe also announced the Ensembl, a smart, modular, wirelessly-charged home entertainment system. By combining projector, smart light, a 360-degree camera and integrated sound functionality, the stylish Ensembl could be just the ticket for “on the go” consumers, indoors or outdoors.
Lenovo jumps into the smart display frayI was also pleased to see Lenovo and Google jointly announce a new lineup of Lenovo Smart Displays with integrated Google Assistant functionality. Available in 8 or 10-inch models, these devices offer vibrant HD displays in a surprisingly modern (even minimalist) design. During my brief time playing with these models at CES, I was impressed with their touchscreen responsiveness—undoubtedly the result of being powered by Qualcomm ’s Home Hub Platform, which features a high-performance SoC with integrated CPU, GPU, and DSP functionality. I was also impressed with the audio quality (both clarity and loudness) of the Smart Display, which cut through the noise in the loud, crowded restaurant where I was shown the device. Available in the early summer, the 8-inch and 10-inch models will be priced at $199.99 and $249.99 respectively. Lenovo is obviously aware that the upcoming “battle for the bedroom” is getting more intense, and these products position the company well against those featuring Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri. iHome makes a big splash with its Amazon Alexa-enabled clock radio As I remarked to Forbes staff writer Parmy Olson last week in her report about CES, the smart home battle between Amazon.com and Google could not have been more noticeable at the event. While Google has done a reasonably good job trying to catch up to Amazon over the past 18 months despite Amazon’s 2 year head start, my personal observation is that Amazon Alexa is still winning the battle for device placement. This was perhaps most evident in iHome’s booth at CES 2018. iHome, as many consumers know, made its mark in the home years ago with the first affordable clock radio “docks” with integrated Apple iPod (and ultimately iPhone) functionality. Committed to “winning the bedside” battleground and maintaining its strong presence in consumers’ homes, iHome announced an impressive Alexa-enabled clock radio called the iAVS16B. I could easily see consumers placing a clock radio like this in multiple rooms to facilitate Alexa coverage throughout the home. Additionally, since the iAVS16B also includes Apple HomeKit support, you’ll have access to your Apple iTunes library from any HomeKit-connected device. AXIS brings the window shade into the 21st century Finally, in the department of “why didn’t they think of that first?” comes AXIS Gear, an affordable device that allows you to automate your existing window shades. While automated window shades have been around for some time, existing solutions almost always involve replacing the entire window shade—often cost prohibitive for many consumers. Additionally, one must factor in the complexity (and incremental cost) of adding a AC power outlet to accommodate the motor at the top of the shade.
AXIS’s “eureka” approach mounts a small motorized device near the drawstring loop at the bottom of an existing window shade. What’s more, the motor is controlled by a smartphone app that manages the raising or lowering of the window shade (even in groups) on a schedule basis. What is particularly forward-looking about AXIS’s solution is that it includes a solar panel that charges the motor battery when not in use. Best of all, Gear is affordably priced at $249 per window motor and is designed to be installed without professional assistance.If you’re like me, it’s too much of a hassle to manually raise and lower my blinds every day and I’m unwilling to pay $5,000 to replace my blinds and make the necessary electrical outlet changes. I would imagine that automating the raising and lowering of blinds would also have a non-trivial cost-saving impact on electricity bills. This will likely to appeal to a lot of consumers.
Some closing thoughtsAs I mentioned at the onset of this article, these are just my initial observations of some of the more compelling smart home and home automation solutions that I saw on display at CES. The sheer volume of home automation and smart home solutions (not to mention home security, which I have not even covered here) appearing on the scene right now is staggering. It’s easy to understand why so many consumers are overwhelmed by the options. In future columns, I hope to bring some sense and order to this very confusing subject—I welcome your comments and feedback.