All posts in “Gadgets”

The secret to avoiding CES cynicism is never really going

I’ve been going to CES for almost ten years now, and it amazes me that really, nothing has changed that whole time. The same people are saying the same things on the same stages, selling the same people the same junk with slightly higher price tags. But this year I had a great time and found some amazing companies — because I avoided at all costs actually stepping foot on the show floor.

The math is simple: when a company gets big enough to get itself a big booth showing off its products, it is almost always at that point that it ceases to be a source of real innovation — or at least the kind of innovation I think is worth tracking down and writing about at CES. They don’t do anything truly cool, nor anything truly dumb.

And I’m not punishing them for their success. I’ve seen some of these companies grow up from nothing to a flashy booth staffed by dozens, and that’s great. But they exist on a different plane now: they seed their news with sites ahead of time, they have private press conferences, they’re working in suites to set up sweetheart manufacturing deals. They’re part of the machine now. Congratulations!

(The most eloquent summary of this side of the show came from a cab driver. After he asked about the latest advances to the TV ecosystem, we explained — something about OLED versus Micro-LED and refresh rates and other things that make almost no difference. “And is it cheaper or more expensive?” he asked with a straight face — then he cracked a grin and laughed uproariously. He knew the score, and with a single question reduced the whole industry to a pack of charlatans, which is exactly right. That was probably my favorite moment of the entire week.)

It’s for this reason that I spent my entire time at CES roaming the hot, shabby wilds that are “Eureka Park.”

A small portion of the Eureka Park map.

Technically it is part of the show, but it’s also like hell. Hundreds of booths perhaps six feet wide and deep are crammed in, CEOs displaying their wares like butchers or street merchants. It’s hot and humid (even in the cold, usually dry Las Vegas January), there’s barely room to move along the inadequate aisles, and if anyone sees you’re media they make a sort of flying pitch at you to pique your interest au volant.

Normally I’d hate this kind of thing, but of course I’d do anything for our glorious parent companies. And actually, this is where pretty much everything cool is.

Sure, you can find crazy gadgets and knockoffs in the innumerable Chinese manufacturers, and the likes of LG have things like roll-up OLED screens, but these are no more than novelties, both for the companies themselves and those viewing them. The companies at Eureka Park are generally startups with one product or service that they’ve put all their money and time behind; they really care about this stuff.

That earnestness is endearing and makes for a good story — though not necessarily a good idea. I passed by hundreds of booths full of things no one needs and I suspect no one wants, services doomed to languish in obscurity, or devices surfing on a trend that won’t last out the year. (Just how many smartwatches do they think we need?)

Every once in a while, though, you hit the trifecta: a smart piece of technology being created for a worthwhile purpose by people who actually care about both. I dare you to find anything like that in any of the main halls.

This year I found a few examples of this. The first one I visited was LifeDoor, a device that closes a door it’s attached to when it hears a smoke alarm go off. Here’s something that could save lives (really), is simply yet purposefully designed, and created by a few people (including firefighters) who saw a chance to make something that helped others.

Another gadget I found seemed too good to be true, so much so that I requested third party documentation that it works. It was Lishtot’s TestDrop, a device smaller than a keyfob that instantly and reliably tells you if water is drinkable without even touching it. Wouldn’t you be skeptical? This company didn’t really even have its own booth; it was listed under the “Israel Export Institute.” An affordable device that could save thousands of lives, and it has less room dedicated to it than Samsung’s cheapest TV!

Cherry’s new low-profile switches may help bring mechanical keyboards to more laptops


You may not think much about the switches that sit underneath the keycaps of your keyboard, but there’s a large contingent of enthusiasts who really, really care. And for those users, Cherry’s various MX-branded switches are somewhat of a standard. Because they include a number of mechanical parts, though, you won’t see a lot of laptop-like thin mechanical keyboards or mechanical keyboards on more than a handful of laptops.

The trend, however, is clearly going toward slim keyboards — and that’s not lost on Cherry. So at CES this week, the company is introducing a completely new line of keyboard switches that may just be small enough to bring mechanical keyboards to more laptops (or at least more niche gaming laptops) and thinner keyboards. These new switches are low-profile versions of the Cherry MX RGB switch, a switch that features colored LEDs and which is especially popular with gamers. The company tells me that, if successful, it’ll launch thinner versions of its other MX switches, too.

As Cherry engineers told me, the company saw a lot of interest in a lower-profile switch. The new one still allows for 3 millimeters of travel, and with a 1 millimeter thin keycap on top of that, you could build a seriously thin mechanical keyboard with these. On thing Cherry definitely didn’t want to change, though, was the “Cherry feeling” that many enthusiasts can detect with a single press. At the same time, though, the company also wanted to make sure that it could build a few innovations into these new switches. Among other things, this includes improved spill and dust protection.

Cherry says that the switches are rated for at least 50 million key presses (though Cherry told me that it will likely hold up for much longer) and are 35 percent shallower than the standard MX switches. For gamers, the 3.2 millimeter of travel (compared to 4 millimeters in the standard switches) — and the shorter bounce time that comes with that — should also allow them to hit those keys just a little bit faster.

Cherry is currently ramping up production for the switches, which are all manufactured in Germany. We’ll likely see the first keyboards with them hit the market within the next few months.

Yesojo’s Nintendo Switch projector dock is a dream accessory

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The Yesojo Nintendo Switch projector dock got a lot of attention when we covered the launch of its crowdfunding campaign last year, but at CES, it was on display and working, with the company ready to ship to its early backers. We got to spend some time with the portable projector, which gives your Switch a high-resolution screen you can take with you anywhere – and we came away very impressed.

The Yesojo is barely larger than the official Nintendo Switch dock itself, and very similar in terms of how the actual dock component works, so there’s no learning curve. It has a 200 lumen digital projector built-in, which is roughly equivalent to around 2,000 lumen with a lamp-powered home unit in terms of brightness. Even in the CES hall lights, it was perfectly playable, and you can imagine how good it would look in dark lighting conditions.

Built-in to the projector is a battery with enough capacity to give you around four hours of play time – and the battery is actually charging up the Switch the whole time it’s in operation, so even when it runs out you can undock the Switch and play for hours more that way.

The Yesojo also features a built-in speaker that’s surprisingly powerful and clear in terms of output, and really fills a room – again, even when competing with ambient conference hall sound.

Finally, the Yesojo also has input for other HDMI devices so that you can use it with things beyond the Switch, making it an extremely versatile travel accessory both for work and play.

As mentioned, the Yesojo is going to begin shipping soon, and it retails for $369. It’s a great accessory for the Switch, and a good deal for a portable projector that works with all your devices, and that also ships with a USB-C adapter in the box. The dock itself can charge easily using the original Switch adapter, too, so you only need one cable.

It sounded like it was potentially too good to be true when the project was first announced, but now that we’ve had some time with it, it lives up to its potential – and more. We’re going to be putting it through its paces for a full, extended review soon, but based on what we saw at CES, this will be a very in-demand add-on for Switch fans.

39 million Americans now own a smart speaker, report claims


One in six Americans now own a smart speaker, according to new research out this week from NPR and Edison Research – a figure that’s up up 128 percent from January, 2017. Amazon’s Echo speakers are still in the lead, the report says, as 11 percent now own an Amazon Alexa device compared with 4 percent who own a Google Home product.

Today, 16 percent of Americans own a smart speaker, or around 39 million people.

The holiday shopping season also seemed to have played a role in the increased adoption of smart devices in the U.S., with 7 percent of Americans reporting they acquired at least one smart speaker between Black Friday and the end of December, and 4 percent saying they acquired their first smart speaker during the holidays.

Both Amazon and Google used the holiday shopping season to their advantage in terms of acquiring market share for their respective devices by slashing prices to encourage more impulse buys, and by heavily promoting the items across their storefronts. In fact, analysts believe that both Amazon and Google likely lost a few dollars per unit during the holiday season, where they were discounting their smaller form factor devices to $29 for the Amazon Echo Dot and $50 for the Google Home Mini, for example.

The end result for Amazon was that the Echo Dot became a top seller across its site and by manufacturers through the Black Friday weekend, and through the holidays, Amazon recently said.

The new report also delved into how consumers are using their devices, which have a range of functions including things like being able to stream music, control their TV and other smart home devices, and more.

The research indicated that smart home functionality was in the minds of 64 percent of users, who say they bought the speakers because they plan on using them to control smart home devices.

66 percent said they want to entertain family and friends with the speakers – for example, by doing things like playing music, asking general questions, telling jokes, playing games, getting news and weather or sports scores, and more.

Bringing a new, interactive device into the home may also be changing user behavior in other ways, the report found.

30 percent of smart speaker owner said the device is replacing time spent with TV. They’re also listening to more audio (71% are), including news and talk radio or podcasts.

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The adoption of the device for in-home voice assistance had a trickle-down effect as well, as 44 percent found they started using the voice assistance on their phone more since getting a smart speaker.

This, perhaps, could push Amazon to add Alexa itself to the Alexa companion app where today users are able to manage various settings, and check in on conversations. (In fact, it seems that Amazon is already considering this. When we asked Alexa VP Steve Rabuchin about the plan during CES this week, he smiled and cagily responded, “that’s an interesting idea.”)

The research also indicates that smart speaker usage grows the longer you have the device.

A majority (51%) said they use their smart speaker more often than they did the first month they had it, while 33 percent they use it about the same amount.

The full report is available for download here (PDF).

Augmented reality windows are here to turn you into a life-sized hologram

Image: karissa bell/mashable

Augmented reality doesn’t need to be confined to your phone screen or a pair of glasses — it can be life-sized.

That’s what one company is proving with its massive augmented reality windows that let you view mixed reality without donning a headset or firing up a special app.

Called DeepFrame, the massive curved displays create life-sized projections that appear as if they are overlaid onto the world around you. 

Created by Danish company RealFiction, the displays are surprisingly simple. Each one consists of a single piece of clear 64-inch glass that’s made with specially designed optics that are able to reflect an image that’s projected from a normal display, like a television or monitor. 

Besides being able to beam content from a TV, in the setup I demoed, RealFiction showed off how DeepFrame could be used as a futuristic telepresence tool. A camera setup in an adjoining room allowed me to chat with a life-sized projection of RealFiction CEO Clas Dyrholm. 

DeepFrame isn’t intended for your average consumer, though — at least, not yet. RealFiction is now focusing on selling DeepFrame to larger businesses. Dyrholm says the displays could be especially useful in retail stores and shopping malls, hotels, and car dealerships.

And, for good reason. The displays don’t come cheap; the starting price for a single DeepFrame starts at around $50,000, according to the company.

But Dyrholm says its technology could be used with smaller devices, like tablets and phones, which would open up the potential for more consumer-ready applications.

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