Touchless tech defines CES as pandemic stamps its mark on innovation

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Normally this week would involve hundreds of thousands of tech industry workers and journalists descending on Las Vegas for the world's biggest annual trade show - CES.

But the party in Vegas was cancelled this year as CES went virtual to avoid becoming a Covid-19 suer-spreader event. The Consumer Electronics Show, which I’ve been to half a dozen times, is always a logistical nightmare. Spread across a sprawling series of convention centres and hotels, the show is crowded and features a bewildering agenda of events.

So it has been nice this year to lean back in my chair and take in the virtual sessions from the comfort of my office. While the usual flurry of product announcements have emerged spanning everything from flat-screen TVs to PCs, smartphones to streaming services, the pandemic has spawned its own significant product category touchless tech.

Hence, we have Ettie, the touchless doorbell from Plott that can take the temperature of a visitor at the door before they are permitted entry to the premises. Alarm.com’s video doorbell allows a person to virtually knock, simply presenting their face to the resident without having to press any doorbell button and potentially passing on the virus.

Cleaning bots proliferate

There’s the Coro Bot from Hills Engineering, an autonomous hygiene and cleaning robot that motors around any blasts surfaces with ultraviolet light to clean them of bacteria and kill the virus. It also sucks in the air, purifying it of virus particles. Legions of them could be put to work sterilizing areas where the virus spreads, such as overburdened US and European hospitals full of Covid-19 victims.

The Coro Bot model that debuted at CES 2021

Companion robots, all the rave in Japan, have always been a major theme of CES, but the pandemic has given them a further boost as robot makers come up with new uses for people trying to stave off the isolation and boredom of lockdown.

Then there’s Moxie, the homeschooling companion robot perfect for assisting kids trying to continue their education from lockdown. The robot, from US startup Embodied, helps kids build their social, emotional and cognitive skills and was one of Time’s best innovations of 2020.

The Moxie Bot, helping home school kids.

The BioButton from BioIntelliSense, a wearable sensor that is designed to give early warning that you may have Covid-19. The coin-sized disposable sensor has battery life for up to 90 days and continuously measures temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate. Connecting to your smartphone, it will indicate if your vital signs change to indicate potential infection. I could see that coming in very handy for managed isolation facility and border staff.

MaskFone will appeal to workers who need to talk on the phone regularly but are required to keep their mask on at all times in the workplace. It does what it suggests, building a microphone into a mask that allows for filters to be replaced. There’s also earbuds built-in and you can just tap the front of the mask to adjust the volume or skip music tracks on your phone.

With the Airpop Active+ mask you can track your breathing, the air quality around you and remind you when its time to change your mask’s filter.

The Airpop Active+ mask.

This sort of touchless tech can’t beat effective vaccines in keeping people safe. But as the pandemic has advanced, the public health messages have crystalised around the importance of mask-wearing and maintaining good hygiene standards. This year’s CES goes down as a unique moment in the history of the tech show where tech to keep us alive rather than entertained, gets top billing.

What CES says about the state of enterprise tech

If hygiene, cleanliness and workplace safety are influencing tech as a result of the pandemic, there were plenty of five other big picture themes also in evidence at CES this year:

  • Electronic vehicle models and technologies continue to have a strong presence at the show which the autonomous features of vehicles a particular focus this year, suggesting the technology is inching towards wider roll-out – and higher levels of autonomy.
  • 5G – the mobile networking technology is embedding itself as the wireless infrastructure underpinning everything from basic consumer mobile services to edge-computing and gaming. Every new connected device at CES had a 5G chip in it this year, marking the mainstreaming of the mobile standard in 2021 despite patchy network coverage in many countries, including ours.
  • Mixed reality ebbs and flows at CES from year to year. But mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality applications and products had a strong showing this year, suggesting the technology is maturing and finding compelling use cases beyond its gaming roots.
  • The CES keynotes this year were peppered with mentions of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Smart algorithms of increasing sophistication debuted that are being used for everything from enhancing image quality on flat screen TVs, to improving user viewing preferences on streaming video platforms. We can expect smart algorithms to become more embedded in the technology we use – in the office and at home alike.
  • Cybersecurity is paramount. This was hammered home in the keynote delivered by Microsoft President Brad Smith, who reflecting on the SolarWinds hack discovered in December had this to say: “It was a mass, indiscriminate global assault on the global supply chain that all of us are responsible for protecting. This is a danger that the world cannot afford. The last month has shown us how we all need to work together in new ways to protect the cybersecurity of the planet.” As we network more devices and services together and share more data for diverse uses, we will have to double down on cybersecurity to better protect security and privacy. The CES crowd know this is imperative to everyone’s business succeeding.

Watch Brad Smith’s CES keynote in full here.

 

 

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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