The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is now over. For those in the know, it needs little introduction other than to say that it rivals Sin City itself in the sheer number of flashing lights and glitz that it illuminates over a four day period in January. Interestingly, for all of the hype and hubbub surrounding the show itself many non-industry civilians have no idea what this show is about. The flight attendants on my JetBlue sojourn to Glitter Gulch were joking about CES as passengers disembarked; they had a full understanding of the scope of the show yet still thought it strange that there’s an entire trade show for “screens”. My dual-OS-dual-device-wielding, Bluetooth-headset-wearing cab driver from McCarran International Airport had no idea what CES is, referred to it as SCE during my 20 minute ride to the sprawling Venetian Hotel where a sizeable portion of the confab is located, and just didn’t understand why it’s relevant after I explained it to him. Among other more lurid things, he was much more interested in talking about the amount of property development that’s occurred in Las Vegas over the last ten years.
As an industry insider, I find this curious. We are led to believe that CES is the end-all-be-all in consumer technology. And on the surface, that appears to be true. There are a lot of big names here revealing for the first time all kinds of flashy products that, upon closer inspection, appear to be on the safe side of cutting edge. OLED screens have been around for a long time but this year they seem to be literally unrolling at the consumer level. It’s an incremental (yet new and therefore exciting) improvement. Perhaps the greatest product on display at CES is CES itself.
If you dig a little deeper you find that which are the most groundbreaking parts of the show: novel innovations in the form of technologies that improve the human condition and technologies that can be used as building blocks in larger systems.
The North Face Futurelight
The North Face, displaying for the first time ever at CES, is displaying a brand new material in BMW’s booth. Futurelight is a proprietary material that is made from nanoscopic fibers using a “nanospinning” (that’s The North Face’s term) process that ultimately weaves a material that is engineered to allow air to pass through the membrane while simultaneously blocking water molecules. The degree to which this is successful remains to be seen as the material is not yet on the market however if The North Face’s promises hold true this material represents true innovation in the material science space.
This material is exciting because of its unintended uses.
Imagine underwater aeration tubes in water sanitization and oxygenation plants that are extremely lightweight, durable, and rapidly deployable; this type of deployment would dramatically lower facility costs and construction expenditures which could help bring clean water to a greater number of people in the developing world. This technology could also be applied to power generation- any time a material density gradient exists, the power contained within that gradient as it attempts to evenly distribute itself across an available space can be leveraged to generate energy. Futurelight could prove integral to creating that gradient and, due to the selective nature of its transmission of air, could theoretically be used to capture the energy created if and when an air-filled container of Futurelight were placed into a more dense medium like water. More practically, a layer of Futurelight could be adhered to the exterior of a wetsuit which would allow for the underlying neoprene layer to be significantly thinner or to be completely eliminated all together in the event of a thick enough layer of Futurelight. My wetsuit experience is limited to the ultra-thin neoprene rash guard I wore during a jetski excursion a while back however I distinctly remember bathing in a pool of my own sweaty creation under that neoprene as I baked in the sun while traveling through the no-wake zones of the Florida mangrove swamps. Do not mistake this post as suggesting that these concepts are imminent or possible. These three scenarios obviously require a significant R&D invest before they come close to being real and there are many more unanswered questions that require explanation before such things could be realized. The point is that the potential is there. In far more real terms, the most immediately interesting part of this material is the process by which it is made. If Futurelight is truly extruded and spun as The North Face suggests, then this material could be woven over almost any shape which would create a whole new class of mass-market yet totally customized form fitting clothing made to the exact size of each wearer.
Watergen Genny (and the rest of the Watergen product line)
Watergen’s Genny is an atmosphere-to-water generator that works by pulling water from the air and then filtering it to the point where it is clean enough for continuous human consumption. While Watergen’s products don’t look like moisture vaporators from Tatooine, they function in essentially the same way. Living in an old New England home, I have a wet basement that requires the attention of two dehumidifiers so the things my wife and I store there remain in good condition. Watergen’s underlying concept is basically the same as those dehumidifiers in my basement however this is the first time that it has been convincingly deployed in a manner that is suitable for mass market use while incorporating the level of filtration necessary for even the dirtiest of atmospheric conditions. The Genny is meant to be installed in office buildings and the like where it can be a continuously self-feeding water cooler that requires no regular water deliveries or hard plumbing. Eliminating those parts of the supply chain for this category of products is in-and-of-itself a brilliant commercial step.
Watergen also offers systems that are more focused on the industrial and humanitarian aid markets. One of their products can be shipped or dropped at a location and immediately begin producing water assuming that there is a steady supply of diesel fuel. Another one of their systems is mounted on the back of a pick up truck and appears to be completely self-contained and self-powered with the option to connect to grid-provided electrical should such an amenity be available. The third tier of their system is a massive unit meant for permanent installation on top of buildings where it can supply up to 5000 liters of water per day under standard conditions. In a world where water consumption is only increasing and where the fight for clean water is only growing more and more difficult, Watergen’s suite of products are a prime example of innovation for the betterment of all.
At CES2018, Google Home and Amazon Alexa were unquestionably the blue-chip media darlings of the event. This year both systems also are well-represented although instead by companies that are integrating the technology into their own devices. As an example, Kohler opened one of the largest booths at the fair with a whole range of Alexa/Google voice control products including showers, sinks, and smart toilets. Interestingly, very few of the companies offering voice control of their products seem to be favoring one system over the other and instead offer cross-compatibility with both control architectures. While the installed base of these voice systems make them extremely appealing to major consumer brands, brands give up a significant amount of control over their own products by integrating Alexa or Google into the use-cycle of their unit. The more pernicious part of this integration is that any company that integrates the Aloogle (I am hereby declaring them to be portmanteau’d for the purposes of this discussion) systems also gives Amazon and Google a tremendous amount of advertising and mind-share whenever a user activates the voice control features: “Alexa, can you…” or “Hey Google, what’s the….”. Furthermore, this incredible voice control technology comes at a significant unseen premium in the form of a dramatic loss of personal data control as well as an increased risk of security breach due to the cloud-based processing of both systems as well as the ease with which one of these Aloogle devices can be accessed in person.
An aside/example: last Thanksgiving I was at my brother-in-law’s house and saw that he had an Aloogle device in his kitchen. When he wasn’t in the room, I set alarms to go off in the middle of the night every 15 minutes for a continuous period from 4-5:30am the following morning. It had the intended effect and he still talks to me. A win!
Snips.ai seeks to eliminate a significant number of these issues by decentralizing and decoupling voice processing from the Internet or any cloud-based service while allowing for complete customization of the deployment so that companies or individuals are not tied to the restrictions of the Aloogle systems. It’s a pretty simple pitch. Snips is also widely deployable across a number of different computing platforms and is well-supported by an open-source community of developers.
While open-source technologies have not traditionally had the best of luck in consumer-facing solutions, they are still extremely important for industrial and commercial deployments. Without Linux, there would be no OSx or Windows. Snips.ai is also the right solution at the right time as more and more developers and individuals are increasingly concerned with data security and privacy issues.