The tech industry's annual Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, is known for showing off a ton of crazy gadgets, both useful and fanciful. It's easy to dismiss some innovations out of hand, but even the wackiest products hint at what consumers should expect to see in the future, by offering a read of what trends companies are focusing on.
Here is a look at six wacky CES products — and what they can tell us about the future of tech.
What it is: A black shirt that looks like something a super villain would wear. The garment, made by Japanese firm Xenoma, has embedded silver motion-sensing circuits, and it is supposed to track your movements and the position of your body.
What’s wacky about it: I won’t sugarcoat it. Wearing it makes you look like Venom — a.k.a. the evil version of Spiderman.
What it tells us: Wearable technology is really evolving. Xenoma envisions that the technology in the shirt will be able to improve gaming, fitness and even vocational training. Your Fitbit can track steps, but it can’t tell you anything about your running form, or whether you’re lifting something at work correctly. That next level of analysis can be helpful for people recovering from injuries — or trying to avoid them — and shows we're just getting started with the idea of what wearables can do.
What it is: A robot that houses Elmo, the beloved “Sesame Street” character, and teaches kids to code.
What’s wacky about it: If you have ever wondered what Elmo would look like as a transformer, this more or less gives you the answer.
What it tells us: For the past several years, there has been a greater focus on toys that encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and the Elmoji is a perfect example of how companies are trying to bridge physical and digital play with a purpose.
This year, we’ve already seen Apple launch an app — Swift Playgrounds — aimed at teaching kids to code. Smart coding toys were on plenty of retailers’ shelves this holiday as well, such as the Fisher Price Code-a-Pillar, which indicates that more major companies will probably get in on the act.
AvatarMind iPal Robot
What it is: A 3.5-foot tall robot designed to act as a concierge, retail greeter or companion for children and the elderly.
What’s wacky about it: Uh … it’s a 3.5-foot tall robot designed to act as a concierge, retail greeter or companion for children and the elderly.
What it tells us: Advanced robotics are making their way to the home and to everyday businesses. The iPal has some impressive articulation in its arms, and it boasts an array of software functions — emotion-reading, storytelling, the ability to carry on a conversation with a 5-year-old — that’s impressive in a consumer-focused robot.
Aiming this product at children, of course, also makes the robot an interesting focus of discussion about how much we want to rely on such machines as nannies. This is a social discussion we’re already having about screen time, and it’s going to grow only more complicated.
What it is: A smart cat bowl and water fountain, which you can control and monitor from a smartphone app.
What’s wacky about it: It’s pretty easy to snark about an automated cat feeder as both a waste of time and missing the point of having a pet — establishing a connection with your pet.
What it tells us: One of the big themes clear on the ground at CES is that the smart home is aimed at helping you take care of smaller things around the house. This is not only about dispensing food, but it also gives you information on how your cat eats over time and can flag when something may be wrong with your furry friend. It's one of many pet-focused smart-home devices aimed at monitoring pet health, so you won't forget those regular vet visits — a smart dog collar was even one of the CES Innovation award winners in the wearables category this year.
The Catspad is also a particularly good example of how new tech can build on old tech. One intriguing part of the Catspad is that it can distinguish between multiple felines using the same bowl. How? By reading the microchip often implanted under a cat’s skin when it gets a new owner.
Mars by Crazybaby
What it is: A levitating speaker.
What’s wacky about it: As its space-inspired name suggests, it looks like a prop from a 1950s sci-fi movie — in a good way, mostly.
What it tells us: Well, even the exhibitors at the Crazybaby booth admit that having a levitating speaker is largely an aesthetic choice. But they do claim that their levitating speaker offers superior sound because it separates the tweeter (the floating part) from the subwoofer (the base) and the design offers 360-degree sound.
The mere existence of the levitating speaker (and Crazybaby is not the only one showing off this type of product) can tell consumers a couple of things. For one, there is obviously still some appeal in having something that just looks cool, even for technology as established as the speaker. And consumers can expect companies to continue tweaking mature forms of technology — making small improvements that may not always blow your mind but are incrementally better than those that came before.
Kerastase Hair Coach
What it is: A smart hairbrush, which connects to an app on your phone and tracks your hair health. It’s the result of a partnership between Nokia’s smart-home manufacturer, Withings, and L’Oreal.
What’s wacky about it: It feels like one of those products that has been made smart just because we can make it smart. Plus, who wants to charge their hairbrush?
What it tells us: Personalization is a key theme emerging from this year’s CES. The hairbrush is a good example of this; it will tell you whether you’re brushing too hard, and it can give you advice about how your hair, in particular, can be improved.
It also gives us a pretty good clue about how companies are going to be sneaking in through everyday objects to build more of a relationship with customers over time. This hairbrush will recommend a care plan for your head — using Kerastase products, of course.