robot upon robot upon robot
2018 marked the year when CES technologies went from just cool to cool with a purpose. PHOTO: Shutterstock

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has always been cool. In the past, it was the place to promote new tech products for people with disposable income and a penchant for the latest bright shiny objects. To me, a lot of those new gadgets, while definitely high on the “cool-o-meter scale,” seemed to lack purpose.

Not this year.

While much of the news out of CES 2018 told of familiar technology and previously introduced products, this was still a watershed year for me. This was the year I became convinced that cool tech can also be purposeful. Here’s why.

Better Living Through Technology

One of the cool biotech CES exhibits was that of a company called Psychasec, which claimed to make full body replacements to increase longevity and improve physical appearance. What’s the catch? You have to be dead to do this. Even given that caveat, the tech seems quite intriguing.

But if that sounds like something out of the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie thriller “Vanilla Sky” — an exhibit by cryonics company Life Extensions, maybe — that’s because the Psychasec exhibit was just a publicity stunt from Netflix for a new show.

While this cool tech for the ultimate in wearables didn’t prove out, was there real technology at CES that could clearly improve our lives? You bet.

Wearable Tech for Healthcare

Two exhibitors at CES were startups offering wearable technology designed to extend our bodies, integrate into our lives and improve healthcare.

A company called Siren was selling smart socks designed to help diabetics avoid foot injuries by monitoring foot temperature and alerting wearers to changes via a smartphone app, text message or phone call. And a Japanese company called Xenoma exhibited smart-fabric pajamas designed for dementia patients in hospitals. The pajamas monitor the wearer’s movement and vitals, giving patients the freedom to move around a bit instead of staying in their rooms under constant observation.

Another example, this one from established tech vendor Samsung’s Creative Lab, is a prototype of some very cool augmented reality glasses that, of course, work with a mobile phone. The Relúmĭno App and glasses promise improved accessibility for people with impaired vision. You can learn more in this subtitled Samsung video, but essentially they add outlines to objects to make them more discernible, and invert colors to make printed words more legible.

AI Bots That Serve

CES also featured robots that solve problems for humanity, including laundry bots, shedless dogs and companion bots that express empathy.

First, meet Laundroid from Seven Dreamers Laboratories. As Dami Lee (@dami_lee) reported in The Verge, Laundroid is a “$16,000 robot [that] uses artificial intelligence to sort and fold laundry.” According to Lee, Laundroid debuted last year, but a new model was ready for CES 2018. Still, at five to 10 minutes per item folded, this bot will not be the real-world embodiment of The Jetsons’ housekeeper Rosey anytime soon. However, there is some serious potential in the cool tech that stands behind it. Laundroid incorporates multiple robotic arms that use a neural network containing 256,000 images of different clothing items to complete its tasks.

So if not Laundroid, then perhaps it is Aibo, the adorable robot dog from Sony, that will fulfill our needs. Once again, this bot is far from new in 2018, but the version at CES 2018 — an “improved” model that is said to use deep learning to get to know its humans better — did steal the Sony CES press conference. As Brian Heater (@bheater) reported in Tech Crunch, Aibo “melted the hearts of a room full of jaded tech bloggers.”

“Surrounded by strange faces, the dog let out a bit of a whimper, but ultimately performed admirably, responding to a back scratch and recognizing its master’s face,” Heater wrote. “It even managed to sit on command every once in a while, which is really all you can ask of a young dog.”

While I will be sticking with my real-life golden retrievers for the foreseeable future, I can attest to the therapeutic value of our four-legged friends. The lifelike Aibo is announced for Japanese release at 198,000 yen (about $1,735), plus a $26 monthly service fee.

OK, laundry and robo dogs may not be solving humanity’s most important problems, but check out this YouTube video of Buddy, a smart in-home assistant from Blue Frog Robotics that was featured at CES.

While you might view Buddy merely as a mobile Alexa on steroids with a face, this bot has cool tech features that enable empathy. As a companion, Buddy has technology features that support an ability to judge facial expressions and act accordingly. While Buddy doesn’t (yet) rise to the level of the advanced prototype robot child David in the sci-fi movie “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” he does come with commendable open software architecture. Buddy is effectively a robotic platform that will hopefully have a bright future in serving humanity with empathy (and with far less of a tear-jerker ending than David).

Tech to Change the World

Gary Shapiro, the president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, heralded CES 2018 in his state of the industry keynote as the place companies from around the globe come “to launch technologies that will change our world.”

In order to change the world, technologies need to have a purpose and be integral to how we live, work or play. Wearable tech and AI-infused bots have this potential. And when it comes to cool tech that disrupts businesses, I think that logistics is the area to watch.

Toyota created a stir at CES with e-Palette, a concept vehicle that illustrates how integrating connected and advanced technology can change the face of multiple industries. I have written about cool technology that seems more sci-fi than real, as in my CMSWire article “Driverless Cars: Fact or Fiction?” Well, e-Palette is real. In a Forbes article titled “CES 2018: Meet Toyota's Flexible, Electric, Automated E-Palette,” Nargess Banks describes it as “an automated, electric, flexible vehicle ... that can be tailored to various needs and lifestyles.” According to Banks, e-Palette features an open modular control interface that can be used to create “purpose-built interiors that suit different individual and business needs — be it parcel delivery, ride-sharing or on-the-road e-commerce.” And the technology behind this transport hub can shift almost seamlessly from one application to another.

Now that’s cool!

Author disclaimer: I could not attend CES in person this year, so my thanks to all who brought it to life by reporting on it so well in real time.