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CES goes full pandemic with smart masks, stickers to detect covid and the biggest WiFi update in years

The annual consumer tech conference in Las Vegas was forced online in 2021 — but that hasn’t stopped the flow of products like the BioButton, the Bose Sport Open Earbuds and the LG InstaView Door-in-Door refrigerator

(Washington Post illustration; images from Airpop, BioIntelliSense, Yukai Engineering, Samsung and iStock)

SAN FRANCISCO — At CES, the tech industry’s biggest showcase, covid-19 has inspired new products to power extreme digital living. Here comes a big WiFi update, smart masks and even robot comfort cats.

The pandemic has also forced the event online. Instead of gathering 171,268 geeks in Las Vegas for a week of gadget demos, schmoozing and hiking conference halls, CES this year is all virtual, featuring thousands of competing Zoom streams at all times of the day and night. We warmed up our webcams and watched hours of product presentations so you don’t have to.

Sure, the news may be focused on fighting a killer virus and America’s constitutional crisis. But in a way, consumer tech has never been more relevant. Hear us out: Sales for the U.S. tech industry hit historic highs in 2020, according to the NPD Group, rising 17 percent because so many people were buying notebooks, tablets, headphones, TVs and smartwatches.

The pandemic has given millions of Americans a new online normal that would have sounded far-fetched just two years ago. Now many of us go to work, school, doctor’s visits, yoga classes, parties, weddings and even funerals in front of cameras and screens. A quarter of Americans are tracking vitals on smartwatches and fitness trackers. A good WiFi connection has become nearly as important as electricity.

CES 2021 is still happening — without Vegas, crowds, prototypes or germs

Samsung’s CES keynote presentation, a half-hour video, calls its focus a “Better Normal for All.” The best products of CES 2021 are trying to figure out how to make digital living work better. For one, we’re very excited for the arrival of a new kind of WiFi — called 6E — that offers the best new hope in more than a decade to address America’s top tech problem: flaky connections.

But make no mistake, this CES has still been chock-full of weird, pointless or just plain bad ideas — more than ever, given that companies didn’t actually have to show working prototypes in face-to-face demonstrations.

And this CES also brings a moment of reckoning for the tech industry’s role in fighting the coronavirus. In 2020, we heard endless ideas for gadgets and gizmos to zap viruses and help keep people safe. Companies pitched smart cities as a way to track the virus and encourage social distancing, and smartphones as tools to conduct contact tracing and offer exposure alerts. Yet as we endure America’s deadliest phase of the pandemic yet, little of this tech has made a significant impact. Will new technologies or new ways of tech companies working with governments make a difference in 2021?

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Here are our finds for the best, most intriguing and weirdest products of CES 2021.

Samsung Galaxy S21: More lenses, less money

Samsung has new flagship phones it promises work better and cost less than last year’s models.

The world’s largest smartphone maker unveiled the Galaxy S21, a line of three 5G Android phones that pack new capabilities but also shave $200 off the price of equivalent models from the previous Galaxy S20 line. The S21 starts at $800, while the larger-screen S21+ costs $1,000, and an S21 Ultra model with an even-larger screen and more cameras costs $1,200.

The S21 features a new wraparound metal design on the back left corner. And, on the Ultra model, Samsung has added a fourth back camera to help it zoom ahead of what rival iPhones can do.

Read more about the Galaxy S21 at our first look.

Bose Sport Open Earbuds: Headphones that don’t go in your ears

Totally wireless headphones like Apple’s AirPods are one of the biggest consumer tech trends of the last five years. Now Bose has given the form a major redesign: Instead of sticking inside your ear canals, its newest headphones hover just outside of them.

The idea behind the Sport Open Earbuds is that some people don’t like having equipment in their ear canals, particularly when they’re working out. Earbuds that make contact can put pressure on sensitive areas, get sweaty, or just fly out if you move too fast. For runners and bikers, headphones that close you off to the world can also be dangerous, because you need to be able to hear approaching cars and trains.

The new Sport Open Earbuds latch onto the back of your ears and point their small speakers so that the sound heads straight for your eardrums while allowing ambient noise to mix in. We haven’t had a chance to listen but worry it might be annoying to the people around you. Bose says the sound beaming from its buds gets “canceled” everywhere but your eardrums and is nearly undetectable to others. Bose first built this tech, which it calls OpenAudio, into a product called Frames that turns ordinary-looking glasses into headphones.

The Sport Open Earbuds are splash-resistant and can last up to eight hours on a single charge.

$200, shipping in January.

BioButton: A sticker to detect coronavirus symptoms

Reopening society could get some help from a disposable wireless device that promises to turn vital signs into a warning about coronavirus symptoms.

The BioButton, about the size of a silver dollar, sticks to your upper chest with a medical adhesive and uses sensors to continuously track your skin temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, activity level and sleep. Maker BioIntelliSense says, after a few days, a BioButton can collect enough data to help identify if you have symptoms of a possible coronavirus infection — even if you don’t notice you’re sick.

At CES, BioIntelliSense announced a collaboration with the American College of Cardiology, which will offer the BioButton as a covid screening option to its members attending its annual meeting in May. UCHealth in Colorado is also using BioButtons to monitor health-care workers who receive coronavirus vaccines. BioIntelliSense hopes the tech could also be used to make vacation destinations, cruises and even workplaces safer.

In 2020, we reached peak Internet. Here’s what worked — and what flopped.

There have also been efforts to detect coronavirus symptoms with consumer wearables like Fitbits and Oura Rings, but they’re still being studied by researchers. The BioButton has already been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration to collect vital signs at home, and BioIntelliSense says an earlier version of its device using the same sensors proved to be as accurate as devices used in hospitals at measuring heart rate, temperature and respiration. (Geoffrey has been wearing one for a few days, finding it reports typical vital signs and its sticker holds up through exercise and showers.)

Detecting the coronavirus in all that body data is another challenge. BioIntelliSense says its software is good enough to spot symptoms of an infection after a few days — but can’t yet tell the difference between the coronavirus and the flu. (The company is currently conducting a nationwide clinical test funded by the Defense Department and led by Philips to validate how long it takes to detect covid.) Constant monitoring of vital signs is certainly much more useful than screening efforts like spot temperature checks, which are based on just one point in time.

If the idea catches on, there will be ethical and privacy concerns to work out. BioIntelliSense CEO James Mault says he thinks it’s important for use of devices like the BioButton to remain entirely optional, and for consumers to maintain control over their own vital-sign data.

$1 per day for up to 60 days of continuous monitoring, though pricing will vary by program sponsor.

The fur-covered robot from Japanese company Yukai Engineering is like a lap cat with a swishing tail but without the head, legs or aptitude for destruction. (Video: The Washington Post)

Petit Qoobo: A furry robot that will make you feel less alone

Gadgets can be a reflection of our times. That includes products to help us counter crippling anxiety.

The Petit Qoobo is like a cat, without a head or legs or fleas or a soul. A round fuzzy ball with a stubby moving tail, it is a portable-sized robotic companion designed to soothe you. It has a bit of weight to it, so it feels like a real pet resting peacefully in your lap while you watch cable news. And its tail swishes automatically in 80 different movements when it hears the sound of your voice or when you pet it.

Available in four realistic shades of faux fur, the Petit Qoobo is designed to be “reminiscent of skittish, young animals,” says its Japanese maker, Yukai Engineering. The company has even given it a faint heartbeat sound you can hear and feel when you snuggle it. Yukai believes the Qoobo provides its owners with comfort — something everyone could probably use a bit more of going into 2021.

Previewed as a prototype at last year’s CES, the Petit Qoobo is back as a final product. The company previously released a larger version, which is available in a handful of stores, but says people were interested in something smaller they could carry around with them, like a purse dog. Demand for its larger version has gone up during the pandemic, the company says.

“As many are having to stay inside and some may be more in solitary conditions, we feel that many are looking for items that could function as a companion,” said Yukai’s Saaya Okuda.

$110, available in Japan, with plans to expand.

WiFi 6E: Help for home network congestion

CES is ushering in one of the biggest changes to wireless network tech in years. Called WiFi 6E, it’s technically a new industry standard for routers and wireless gadgets such as phones and laptops. For all your apps and devices that want to stream data, it’s the equivalent of adding a whole new lane to your home’s information superhighway.

How does that work? 6E routers and devices can access a new wireless spectrum that was previously off-limits to WiFi. If you’ve messed around with routers over the years, you might know that first came the 2.4 GHz radio, then came dual-band routers that also tapped into 5 GHz (which can carry more data). WiFi 6E adds a third: 6 GHz. This new band isn’t actually much faster, but it’s far less crowded from neighbors and other devices — meaning your connection should be more reliable.

“I think it’s huge,” says Netgear’s vice president of product management, Sandeep Harpalani. “It’s solving this issue you have today of the huge number of devices in the home.”

One downside: 6 GHz signals also can’t travel as far through your house, but they’ll be extremely helpful when devices are closer together.

To take advantage of WiFi 6E, you’ll need to buy a new router ­— look for the E, not just the 6 — as well as devices that support it. That also means, at least for a while, the 6 GHz band will be mostly used by the devices that really need all that bandwidth, such as 8K televisions and new laptops. WiFi 6E could also be very useful for future mesh routers, which work as a team to spread WiFi all around your home.

Netgear’s Nighthawk RAXE500 tri-band router, debuting at CES, is one of the first to support 6E, offers searing-fast 10.8 Gbps WiFi speeds and also happens to have wings like Kylo Ren’s spaceship in Star Wars.

$600, available in the first quarter of 2021.

The smart garden pairs with an app that uses artificial intelligence to monitor vegetation, manage its temperature and control the light. (Video: The Washington Post)

Gardyn: Grow salad inside

At a time when many of us are trying to stay in, you can bring the farmers market to your living room. Gardyn, a plug-in home gardening machine, is designed to let prospective growers cultivate fresh leafy greens indoors with the help of artificial intelligence. While it’s making its CES debut, the smart garden has been available to order since March 2020, when food supply chain disruptions, grocery delivery issues and panic shopping rocked the nation. At over 5 feet tall, it’s much larger and pricier than other mass-market hydroponic gardens that let you grow plants without soil. But it’s meant to produce much more food, too.

Seeds are housed in “yCubes,” the company’s version of Keurig cups, and the vertical towers hold up to 30 plant varieties, including cilantro, mint, kale and tomatoes.

Gardyn pairs with an app that uses AI to monitor the vegetation, manage its temperature and control the light. We weren’t able to test one out yet. However, all users should have to do is refill the water jug once every 30 days and the veggies should be ready to harvest within a few weeks, according to the company.

For $60 a month, you can grow enough to feed a family of four, according to the company. “It can save you 30 percent to 50 percent on your monthly grocery bill,” says FX Rouxel, Gardyn founder and CEO.

Prices start at $899, or $44 per month, and should ship by February.

The AirPop Active+ mask comes equipped with a sensor that connects to your phone and monitors the outside air quality and your breathing habits. (Video: The Washington Post)

AirPop Active Plus: A mask that will track your workout and your air quality

AirPop was early to the face mask game — so early, in fact, that the company had been making masks for nearly five years by the time the coronavirus pandemic descended on the world. Now the company has invented a way for you to wear a mask, exercise vigorously and monitor your surrounding air quality. All without losing your breath.

AirPop’s new Active Plus mask comes with a sensor that the company calls Halo. It connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth and monitors everything from breaths per minute to outside air quality to the health of the mask’s filter so it can alert you when it needs replacing.

Founder Chris Hosmer started making masks after his newborn daughter had severe respiratory reactions while his family was living in China. The line of masks is intended to protect people from subpar air quality, as well as airborne threats caused by the environment or a pandemic.

The latest mask is meant especially for those exercising or staying active and is outfitted with an aerodrome shape so it doesn’t cling to your face and provides enough air flow to breathe heavily.

“It’s sad, in a way, but covid has really raised the awareness globally of the importance of the quality of the air you’re breathing,” Hosmer said.

AirPop is not the only smart mask company to come to CES this year. Amazfit is showing off a self-disinfecting mask, and AccYouRate is exhibiting a reusable mask with a bacterial filtration system, among others.

$150 and expected to ship in mid-February.

A voice-controlled fridge with bougie ice

CES loves a weird fridge. Kitchen appliances aren’t exactly the most cutting-edge technology category, but that hasn’t stopped manufacturers from churning out “innovative” fridges at the conference for years. This year, a star of the virtual kitchen is the latest InstaView Door-in-Door refrigerator from LG.

You can use voice commands to open its door, like when your hands are full. As the name implies, there is an instant view of some of what is inside your fancy fridge through a giant window on one side. It’s for peeking at all your La Croix without wasting electricity. You can also open a mini door on top of the transparent door for quicker, less wasteful access to key items, like your La Croix. In another example of the anti-germ trend, the fridge uses UV light to clean its water dispenser.

But the real innovation of this kitchen device is its ice. Instead of just cubes, a retro shape, the InstaView also makes its ice in spheres. The technology, already rolled out in other LG fridges, has a proper trademarked name — LG Craft Ice — and a good marketing line — “Be a baller.” It melts slower, allegedly.

Availability and price not yet announced.

Samsung TVs: Solar-powered remotes

From the what-took-them-so-long department: You’ll no longer need to replace the batteries on Samsung TV remote controls. Starting with its 2021 lineup, Samsung remotes will be solar-powered.

The new solar cell panel takes up about half of the back side of the remote. No, you won’t have to take it outside into the sun — the wireless tech used by remotes requires very little power, so it’s able to gather enough ambient light from the room. And if you watch TV in a dark bunker, the remote can last up to two years on its initial charge alone, and can also be charged via USB cable.

Samsung says the shift will prevent waste from a projected 99 million AAA batteries over seven years. That’s great for the environment, though we’ve learned from other devices that there’s also an environmental cost to creating, recycling and disposing the rechargeable batteries.

Available in the first quarter of 2021 on all QLED and Neo QLED models, typically priced $500 and up.