Much of the media chatter about this week’s Consumer Electronics Show has centered around the search for 'the next big thing.' Who cares? It’ll only be big for 15 minutes or so. As a jaded tech columnist, I’m more interested in the smaller booths and more offbeat products. Here are a few under-the-radar gadgets and trends that caught my eye this year:
Give Your Plant a Voice
CES is full of products we didn’t realize we needed until we got them, and apparently we need to “foster interaction between plants and owners.” No less than three separate companies introduced wireless plant monitors at this year’s show: the audio Moneual Smart Communicator for Pot Plant (which won a CES Innovations award), the WiFi Koubachi plant sensor, and the Bluetooth Parrot Flower Power plant sensor.
These products measure light, humidity, temperature, and fertilizer, and will notify you when your plant needs care, via push notifications to your smart phone. Lonely and want to hear more from your plants? There’s now a solution for you.
Projectors in the Palm of Your Hand
Remember when it was a big deal for a phone to have a built-in camera? This year continues the trend of companies offering smaller, phone-compatible “pico” projectors—that’s even smaller than “mini”—at lower prices. These will clip onto the back of your iPhone and be practically unnoticeable, because they’re smaller than the phone itself. Or pick up a combination battery, case, and pico projector, like the Dausen iPhone battery projector case. The projectors are currently somewhat dim and low-resolution, but that’s changing fast.
Desktop Manufacturing—of Toys
You can always recognize a 3-D printer manufacturer’s booth by its collection of plastic toys—currently the coolest thing you can make with the existing technology. (Check out Afinia.com and x-object.com for examples.)
If these printers do become common, I wonder if it will spark a resurgence of old-school, all-plastic playthings? Or possibly pirated plastic playthings? Today, a rabid Star Wars fan could use a 3-D scanner to upload designs for the figures and playsets, which other people could download and use to create their own copies.
I wouldn’t be surprised if in 20 years 3-D printers are still limited to printing antiques... like iPhone 5s.
At CES, everything old is new again. Amplifiers with vacuum tubes are in, especially if those tubes are highly visible. Old-style bulky plastic telephone handsets are coming back, as Bluetooth remote handsets for cellphones.
Even cigarettes are making a comeback, as a growing number of booths offered smokeless e-cigarettes with flavored vapor (One of many examples is Kangertech at szkanger.com).
I found the Japanese company Art Factory in the farthest back corner of the Venetian show floor, demonstrating its latest (and only) product, the Massage Touch Mouse.
This high-tech rodent works just like a regular computer mouse, features a multi-touch surface, and is available either wired or wireless. But by pressing two buttons on the side of the mouse, it instantly becomes a vibrating massager you can use on your back, your neck or—ahem—wherever else you want. The company is still looking for a US distributor.
When is a Prototype Not a Prototype?
Not all the products at CES (and many other trade shows) are real. Some are fanciful, Hollywood-style mockups that will take decades to get to market, if they ever do.
This year’s Whirlpool booth featured an amazing new product called Fireplace. Meant to emulate the intimate feeling of sitting around an outdoor hibachi, the Fireplace is a low circular table with a cooking area in the center and controlled colored lighting from above and below. Vertical rods clustered together automatically adjust their height to conform to the bottom of a dish, while a unique cooking system uses light to heat the food without raising the plate’s temperature.
The full-size prototype makes you want one, and start wondering how you could afford it. But if you ask the price, they will tell you there is no price, because the product doesn’t exist yet. I suspect Whirlpool put the prototype in their booth to give people a more interesting reason to stop than their current products—like their refrigerator that can send you a text message if its door is open too long.
Whistle While You Brush
There are innovations that will change the course of life as we know it, and then there are singing toothbrushes.
You may have seen BrushBuddies, which feature built in songs from artists like Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber, at Walmart or Target. Well, BrushBuddies is not only expanding their range of available music (Want a brush that plays Gangnam Style? No problem), they have also solved their customers’ most pressing need: different music for morning versus evening brushing. That’s right, the exciting new BrushBuddies models now include two songs, instead of just one.
To be fair, BrushBuddies also has some slightly more practical products, like a talking child’s toothbrush that can walk your kids through the correct process for scrubbing their pearlies. Who knew chatty toothbrushes could be useful after all?
What will they come up with next, talking plants? Oh, wait…