Robot prams, parking and exoskeletons lead US consumer electronics show

Robot prams, parking and exoskeletons lead US consumer electronics show

Part 1 of 2. Part 2 will be available to My Cosmos members later this week.

At just the moment most of us have packed away our shiny new Christmas toys, next year’s toys get their big reveal at one of the world’s biggest trade fairs. The Consumer Electronics Show fills Las Vegas – the largest convention venue on the planet – cramming it with nearly a quarter million buyers, sellers, press, inventors and entrepreneurs. CES establishes the narrative for technology over the next year, and it takes place in January because it’s at CES that the big buyers for retailers like JB Hi Fi and Harvey Norman place their orders for the next holiday season – orders that will ripple through global supply chains.

I’d come to CES this year expecting to see AI pretty much everywhere, integrated into pretty much everything, but I very quickly learned that this wouldn’t be the big story of 2024. AI has gone from zero to light speed so quickly that it became manifestly impossible for any company, however agile, to meaningfully integrate it into any new products. All the AI that I’ve seen so far looks like simplified interfaces to ChatGPT – for example, a public demo by Volkswagen of the integration of ChatGPT into their automobile voice interface, a demo that very much did not go according to plan. We have a lot to learn about how to integrate ‘smart enough’ AI into the material fabric of the world, and a year has not been enough time to learn it.

On the other hand, autonomy – which is another kind of AI – has been finding its way into all sorts of gadgets. The one that made the most sense to me was a ‘parking robot’ from HL Mando. It’s meant for parking structures; you drive your vehicle onto it – it looks like a thin platform – and it will then autonomously place your vehicle into the parking structure. So it’s a bit like a robot valet, only one that doesn’t need to open the door when it’s parked the vehicle, meaning vehicles can be parked more efficiently. It’s the kind of useful robot that, should it become commonplace, will quickly become almost entirely invisible, because it’s just there, doing the job.

At the other end of the scale, there’s the Glüxkind – which bills itself as an ‘AI stroller’ – in other words, an autonomous pram. In a normal use case you can wander around hands-free with the pram nearby, keeping pace; at home, set it to slowly trace a path back-and-forth across a nursery to establish a soothing rhythm to settle a cranky child. That seems very clever, but my immediate thought went something like, ‘What parent will trust their child to an autonomous vehicle?’ A few years ago, when AVs seemed like the future, that might have been a sure bet, but now, with a growing understanding that autonomy is almost always harder than it looks, and can sometimes go horribly wrong, that’s a much more difficult sell. Glüxkind feels like the sort of product built around the dream of autonomy, before reality sunk in.

All the AI that I’ve seen so far looks like simplified interfaces to ChatGPT.

CES also showcased recent developments in ‘powered exoskeletons’ – first popularised by Ripley in Aliens, a powered exoskeleton allows a human to significantly increase their physical capacity without sacrificing their safety. One of these – and among the most clever gadgets I’d seen so far – came from a Japanese firm, Innophys. Their ‘Muscle Suit Every’ provides a powered exoskeleton to support the back in lifting – a common cause of on-the-job injuries. Yet (this bit struck me as very clever) the armature, worn over the back and legs, requires no power. Instead, it captures power at the beginning of the movement – when you’re bending down to make the lift – and releases that power as you rise in the lift. This capture and release of the body’s own power to power the body’s movement reminds me of nothing so much as the way a kangaroo’s tail absorbs power from its landing, only to release it in its next leap. This sort of innovation – if it works at scale, across a range of workers and a range of physical tasks – could quickly become an OH&S requirement.

Taking a markedly different approach, WIM Robotics debuted ‘Wearable Mobility”. Looking something like an external garter belt with clips going down to the stockings, it offers a ‘walking assist’. Think of it as a wearable robot that can put a bit of spring in your step – literally. The device has enough power on board to be able to add a bit of assistance to every step, allowing people to walk longer and with less strain than they would be able to otherwise. Marketed to seniors, it’s part of a vast and fast-growing range of consumer electronics services aimed directly at the market for people who want to ‘age well’. If – as with an electric bike – using walking assist means the difference between being a couch potato or getting off the sofa and going for a nice walk, it’s a great idea. As someone who might someday want something like this, I wonder what they’ll be like in 20 years – perhaps invisibly integrated into my ‘athleisure’ wear, so that no one really knows whether I needed help climbing that hill, or did it on my own.

It’s the kind of useful robot that, should it become commonplace, will quickly become almost entirely invisible.

Finally, there are always products at CES that sail very close to the wind regarding their medical status. Many firms get around this by labelling what they do as ‘wellness products’, freeing themselves from the burden of regulatory compliance – and any need to be able to provide scientific justifications for their claims. Such was the Neurogen ZenBud, which uses “advanced technology” to stimulate the vagus nerve and produce a sense of relaxation. Papers have been submitted to journals – but not yet published. My friend and Next Billion Cars co-host Sally Dominguez gave it a whirl and very quickly felt a wave of calmness roll over her. Intriguing, yes, but as the buzz wore off she wondered whether she’d really enjoyed the experience, and doesn’t seem at all keen to try it again. (I stay away from things that look like unapproved medical devices.)

And all of that just came out of a tiny ‘Preview’ session of CES! The full show floor opens tomorrow, so I’ll be back again later this week with lots more about any gadgets that blow me away – and how they might change how we live our lives.

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