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CES 2018: voice-controlled showers, non-compliant robots and smart toilets

Kohler Numi’s smart toilet, complete with voice-activation, mood lighting, heated seat, foot warmer and advanced bidet functionality with air dryer.
Kohler Numi’s smart toilet, complete with voice-activation, mood lighting, heated seat, foot warmer and advanced bidet functionality with air dryer. Photograph: Kohler

The annual trend-setting tech extravaganza that is CES International in Las Vegas is drawing to a close, having suffered through torrential rain, blackouts and a few uncooperative robots. And it’s clear that your voice is more important than ever.

CES 2018 rammed home that big technology thinks voice is the next major evolution in computing. First we had the computer, then the smartphone and now voice assistants.

Smart speakers such as Amazon’s popular Echo devices and Google’s Home, which both had a killer Christmas, are just one outlet for the artificial intelligence-powered voice assistant.

Google reverse-ferreted from its Google own-brand strategy to follow Amazon’s lead in opening up its Assistant voice system to third-parties. Manufacturers from all ends of the scale, from the high-end Danish firm Bang & Olufsen to the cheap and cheerful Anker, fired out announcements of new smart speakers. Some, such as LG, also launched so called smart displays with Google Assistant – a direct shot at Amazon’s Echo Show smart speaker with a screen.

An employee demonstrates home appliances that can be controlled by Amazon Alexa at the LG booth during CES.
An employee demonstrates home appliances that can be controlled by Amazon Alexa at the LG booth during CES. Photograph: John Locher/AP

But while Google’s battle strategy for the home was clearly to catch up with Amazon, the market leader’s CES was quite different. Its Alexa voice assistant cropped up in things as diverse as showers, mirrors, light switches, microwave ovens and cars, clearly freed from the confines of speaker-like things – no matter whether or not anyone actually wants a voice-controlled shower.

Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, said: “Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others are fighting not only to cement their voice technologies, but also to ensure their assistant platforms are deeply embedded across the full spectrum of consumer electronics to maintain and deepen consumer engagement.”

“Based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s no question that Amazon’s Alexa continues to lead the charge when it comes to voice assistant integration.”

One place Alexa and Google have notably lost out is Mercedes cars. The German automotive power house unveiled a new “Hey Mercedes” system for voice-control system for its cars, deciding to go it alone in a move Geoff Blaber from CCS Insight called “perplexing”.

“Just as most of the industry is recognising the need to integrate technology and improve time to market through collaboration, partnerships and open platforms, Mercedes is deciding to reinvent the wheel with an entirely proprietary approach,” said Blaber.

Smart home overload

As if voice-enabled everything wasn’t enough, the show floors were filled with a bewildering array of smart home gadgets vying for consumer cash.

Smart speakers have reignited interest in the smart home market, acting as a central hub and therefore a gateway drug to smart everything, although mainly lightbulbs until now.

Some “smart” things, such as the leak detection devices showcased at CES, appear to make sense, simply by alerting you to issues about your home that might dent the bank account if not dealt with immediately. Others, such as Kohler’s $6,000 Numi smart toilet, not so much. It’s voice-activated, has mood lighting, a heated seat, foot warmer and advanced bidet functionality with air dryer. Lovely.

“I pity the poor consumer,” said Wood. “The smart home now has such a bewildering set of choices it is virtually impossible to figure out what is the best solution.”

Flying taxis and light-up drones

So far so not-so-future, until the drones showed up. Intel set the drone agenda by flying its 18-rotor, two-person Volocopter taxi drone on stage at its opening keynote. It then lit up the famous Bellagio fountains on the Las Vegas strip with 250 of its Shooting Star drones, performing a lightshow coordinated to Kygo’s Stargazing.

Where there were drones there were also companies exhibiting anti-drone solutions, from radar tracking and signal jamming to more aggressive tactics, all promising to “bring it down”.

Analysts may be sceptical about consumer drones surviving as a mainstream item. But excitement still remains around flying taxis, even though SureFly’s demos of its $200,000 two-person diesel-electric hybrid drone were thwarted by what was reported as “mild drizzle”. Passenger drone flights in the UK might be a while.

Computer says no

Computer says no … Cloi stopped responding to LG’s vice president of marketing as he tried to show off the company’s new toy.
Cloi stopped responding to LG’s vice president of marketing as he tried to show off the company’s new toy. Photograph: David Becker/Getty Images

But if CES 2018 was to be remembered for anything, it’ll be for non-compliant robots.

LG showed off its Cloi home-helping robot that was meant to act as an interface between you and the mundane things in your life such as the washer dryer or the oven. Sadly, minutes into the live demo Cloi stopped responding to LG’s vice president of marketing David VanderWaal creating an embarrassing one-way conversation as he tried to elicit a response.

“The episode proved to be an apt metaphor for a lot of the technology on show at CES this year, particularly in the area of consumer robotics,” said Wood. “It seemed like many of the devices on show weren’t quite ready for primetime.”

That even extended to the show itself, which, due to heavy rainfall, suffered a blackout mid-exhibit leaving attendees under emergency lighting for three hours.

This article titled "CES 2018: voice-controlled showers, non-compliant robots and smart toilets" was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Friday 12 January 2018 02.16pm

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