The battery-powered air filter isn’t something for the future. It’s made for the 95 percent of the world’s population who live, commute and work in areas with polluted air. The two-phase air filtration system can clean smoke from wildfires, such as those ravaging Australia. It can also provide more information about air quality.
“We’re facing realities unlike before,” said Mikal Peveto, U.S. head of AoAir. “Unless people really know what air they’re breathing in, they don’t really act.”
The mask was on display at CES, a 53-year-old conference that more typically reflects the shiny utopian future of technology, with robots doing all the hard work while people kick back in their spotless Internet-connected smart homes, watching obscenely large 8K TVs.
With each CES, more reality creeps in. For the second consecutive year, the event had a section focused on climate change-related technology with the optimistic name “Resilience.” Other devices on display hinted at general heightened anxiety and helicopter parenting of the digital age, with tech to help you sleep, meditate and track every thing and person in your life to make sure they’re okay.
Prompting even more introspection, smartphones across the conference were lighting up with alerts on unrest in Iran as some muted TVs played the news. It was a serious and stressful interruption that brought a more somber tone to the somewhat silly parade of such gadgets as a robot that delivers a roll of toilet paper.
It is not the event’s first collision with reality. Last year, government officials including Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had to cancel CES appearances because of the U.S. government shutdown. In 2018, security at the event was at an all-time high just months after the mass shooting a few miles away.
In front of the convention center this year, Zero Mass Water set up its hydro-panels to collect moisture from the air and offer attendees samples of the water. Like many people this week, Zero Mass chief executive Cody Friesen was closely following news on the Middle East and Australia. He said he could see connections between what was in the news and the companies at CES.
“A huge percentage of the wars we fight now are around water stress, around resource stress. Things we could solve. We could hopefully de-escalate conflicts, not in a utopian way but in a realistic way,” Friesen said.
No single event encapsulated the contrast between the world CES imagines and the one we live in like the keynote talk from Ivanka Trump on Tuesday. During a session on the future of work, Trump talked with Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, about job retraining and skipping college. She never addressed or acknowledged her father’s pending impeachment trial, the tense military standoff with Iran or climate change.
Overlaps between the unpleasantness of the real world and the optimism of the technology industry is nothing new. While tech giants like Facebook and Google once set out to make the world more connected and better informed, in recent years they’ve struggled with the spread of disinformation and election interference. Companies including Microsoft, Amazon and Google have come under fire for working with law enforcement and pursuing Defense Department contracts. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
On the show floor, people crowded around self-driving delivery vans, flying taxis, companion robots for the elderly, laptops with foldable screens and computer-generated customer service representatives. They took rides on the next generation of transportation options, like self-balancing scooters and Segway’s odd-looking S-Pod people-mover, which looked like something straight out of “WALL-E” — a cautionary movie about the environment and outsourcing everything to technology.
Meanwhile, more of the exhibitors this year were prepping for a bleaker future.
The resilience category, reserved for innovations to help with disasters or such issues as rising sea levels, pollution and water shortages, included almost 40 companies, some grouped together and others spread around the show. Their tech didn’t draw as much attention as the flashy consumer hardware or innovations that reflected the future people want. But they were, perhaps, more realistic about the future to which we’re headed.
There was Senegalese company Dictaf, which says it uses artificial intelligence to help farmers improve their crops, and Corners, a South Korean company developing evacuation systems to better help people survive such disasters as gas leaks or, for U.S. customers, active-shooter events. Multiple companies, including John Deere and Odd.bot, are working on weeding technology to help farmers use fewer chemical herbicides.
A handful of companies were focused on the environment and climate change. There was technology aimed at cities and towns facing pollution and climate issues. The BeachBot is a small, rugged autonomous vehicle from the Netherlands designed to clean up beaches using object detection. Its makers hope to start selling it to local governments next month. Korean company N.thing showed off its modular indoor farm systems in stackable shipping containers, which grow vegetables in locations where the climate has become too dry or hot for some outdoor farming.
Some corners of the conference are a prepper’s paradise, with solutions for anyone interested in living off the grid just in case existing infrastructure collapses. There are DIY greenhouses for growing your own food, solar panels for homes and batteries to store enough electricity to weather power outages. Air filtration systems promised to make air more breathable, inside homes and cars or during time outside.
Another mask — AirBliss Plus’s more traditional-looking smart air pollution mask — was designed to be comfortable for prolonged wear.
ClimateSeed didn’t have any technology or fun hardware prototypes at its simple booth in the crowded basement of the Sands, the location of the smaller start-ups’ exhibits. The company takes money from businesses hoping to offset their carbon footprint, then invests it in projects, such as preventing deforestation in Brazil. The idea is to cancel out, on paper anyway, the damage businesses might do to the environment through such things as manufacturing.
Edoardo Bertin, ClimateSeed’s head of marketing and partnerships, said he hadn’t seen much innovation around addressing climate change.
“It’s strange to see the four thousand exhibitors and only a really small part focused on the environment,” Bertin said.
Zero Mass Water’s Friesen thinks the intelligence on display at CES, and in the technology sector around the world, could be applied to bigger problems and help humans live better lives.
“There’s a huge opportunity to create solutions that both provide joy to people and make their lives better, as opposed to just simply another screen with higher resolution.”