22 Jan 2019
Mock-Meat Beats AI to be Most-Talked-About Innovation at CES 2019
While AI-enabled smart speakers, walking rescue vehicles and heli-cars all jostled for attention at this year's CES, the world's biggest consumer technology expo, it was high-quality counterfeit cow-in-a-bun that proved the biggest draw.
While this year's CES – the annual Las Vegas-hosted showcase of breakthrough consumer-oriented electronics technology – had its expected quota of flying cars and 8K TVs, the show was stolen by something far humbler. Indeed, amid the smart-home installations and array of autonomous automobiles, it was a soyburger whose mock-meatiness was deemed authentic enough to dupe even the most committed carnivore that most entranced attendees. Such culinary creations aside, however, there was also a surfeit of high-tech fare on offer.
Indeed, artificial intelligence (AI) and the way it's already changing lives, in subtle but drastic ways, pretty much dominated proceedings on the showfloor. Acknowledging the technology's ubiquity, Gary Shapiro, President and Chief Executive of show organisers the Consumer Technology Association, said: "This year, AI pervades the show. Almost every major company has some form of AI on offer, with many of the applications truly jaw-dropping."
Striking a similar chord, Sayon Deb, the CES' Senior Research Analyst, said: "AI is now very much 'ingredient technology' – it's been sprinkled liberally across a wide range of products, software and services, but seldom in the same way or to the same degree."
The overall sentiment was that AI has already changed the way many consumers interact with technology. Essentially, it's no longer a matter of people having to learn how to use new devices, but more the case of technology having the capacity to adapt to new people and new situations. In simple terms, this means cars can talk to each other to avoid crashes, cameras can take better pictures without the need for human input, TVs can optimise their colour settings based on the viewer's choice of programming and robotic vacuum cleaners can use their own discretion as to whether to chew-up a discarded sock or not.
Such advances are also going hand-in-hand with an overall move towards all-but universal Internet of Things (IoT) technology, with AI as the essential data-crunching nexus. Voice-controlled devices is one of the key areas where AI is already making a huge difference, with the latest applications for Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant and Home widely in evidence across the showfloor. While the former still dominates the US smart speaker market with a 65% share, sales of Google Home grew by more than 165% in the first three quarters of 2018, according to figures from Parks Associates, the Texas-based IoT market-research specialists.
Google, though, traditionally dominates CES and, once again, this year it didn't disappoint, with its Disney-style of brand engagement rolled out to promote its Google Assistant, a system said to already have been incorporated into more than one billion devices. Particularly to the forefront was its new Interpreter Mode, a facility said to provide simultaneous translation to and from 27 different languages. Perhaps understandably, it's already being tested by several large hotel groups across the US.
Another system targeted very much at the big players was the Miranda, the latest innovation from Spain's IoT Labs. Its USP is said to be to enhance the effectiveness of users' interaction with their virtual assistants by 'learning' their typical daily activities and predicting what actions smart speaker systems will be expected to complete. If that's a little high-tech, there is also the option of interacting with your home-hub via a slab of wood – albeit one with a touch-sensitive control panel. The creators of this particular system – Japan's Mui – bill it as "a quieter alternative to yelling".
No matter how surprising the latest technological innovations, one thing that is safe to predict is that, every year, CES' dedicated automotive zone will have continued to expand, with automakers ever keen to unveil the latest smarter, more autonomous vehicles and, this year, flying taxis. New for 2019, there was a slew of concepts that may or may not take off, including the Nexus – a drone-like futuristic car developed by Bell, a Texas-based helicopter manufacturer. Boasting a six-fan rotor design, the company is promoting it as "a small, consumer-friendly aircraft that comfortably seats four passengers and a pilot." Given the number of legal barriers it has to negotiate its way around, however, it's not expected to start test flights until 2020 at the earliest.
Staying a little closer to the ground was Hyundai's Elevate concept car, another innovation that also, however, eschews roads – apparently because it has the facility to "walk". Designed to function as an all-electric emergency response vehicle, it has mechanical legs set between its body and wheels, allowing it to switch between driving and walking modes if it's required to scramble over rocky terrain.
Explaining the thinking behind the Elevate's ubiquity, David Byron, Design Manager of Sundberg-Ferar, the Michigan industrial-design consultancy that worked on the concept, said: "Imagine if a car stranded in a snowy ditch, 10 feet off the highway, could walk over the treacherous terrain and back to the road, potentially saving its injured passengers. This is the future of vehicular mobility."
There was no shortage of less-conspicuous in-car tech either – from Chinese electric-car startup Byton's screens that wrap around the dashboard to the augmented reality sported by the BMW X5, which seemingly transforms the cosiest commute into a drag race through Gotham City. Powered by AI, such smart cockpits not only come with voice-assistant technology as standard, but can also sniff anything that is a little off-base – from a proactive car-maintenance issue to a driver's 'altered' state.
Indeed, according to Rashmi Rao, a Senior Director with Harman – Samsung's dedicated connected-car development division – it will soon be possible to use biometric sensors to detect emotions, fatigue or even to evaluate the "collective mood" in the car in order to adjust the desired playlist. Confident as to his company's progress in this particular direction, he said: "Emotions, it seems, can indeed be boiled down to a formula."
Let's Get 'Phygical'
Health and beauty came to CES in a whole new guise this year, abandoning those awkward fitness trackers in favour of AI-powered shopping experiences. In line with this, a notable newcomer to the showfloor was Procter & Gamble, with the Ohio-headquartered consumer goods giant having hotfooted it to Las Vegas to showcase its Opte Precision Skincare system.
Essentially a handheld wand, the Opte captures skin images, detects imperfections and then acts like a thermal inkjet printer, applying tiny dots of makeup (or skincare serum) to those precise locations. The company's skincare brand – SK-II – also got a showing courtesy of the Future X Smart Store, a walk-through retail experience, built around the concept of merging the physical and digital in what the company calls a "phygical" retail environment. Basically, the walk-through diagnoses any skin issues and recommends suitable remedies – all of them P & G-branded, naturally enough.
A similar concept is being developed by Illinois-headquartered Ulta, one of the largest beauty retailers in the US, which was looking to promote its Beauty 3.0 shopping experience. Powered by AI (of course) and augmented reality-enabled, it allows shoppers to virtually test out products and looks – notably lashes, makeup and hair styles – before committing to purchase.
Outlining the application of the system, Prama Bhatt, the company's Digital and E-Commerce Senior Vice-president, said: "Our partnership with YouCam – the developers of Beauty 3.0 – has given us an insight as to how augmented-reality experiences can complement the services we offer in-store. At heart, it represents a fine merging of physical, digital and emotional experiences, especially when it comes to giving us the opportunity to allow a would-be customer to virtually try on any hair colour that takes their fancy…"
Crazy and… Tasty
CES wouldn't be the world's top tech show without a slew of out-there gadgets for pretty much every aspect of life. Love Nespresso coffee? Test out LG's HomeBrew that produces beer in virtually exactly the same fashion from a capsule containing malt, yeast and hop oil. Need a reason to skip fries? FoodMarble's Aire measures the hydrogen in your breath and matches it against your food log, then warns you what not to eat in the future. Can't spare a minute to brush your teeth properly? Thank goodness for the vibrating Y-Brush – while it looks like an orthodontic tool, it's guaranteed to clean your oral recesses in seconds.
Impressive as they all were, it wasn't any of those gadgets that was the true talk of the show. No, it was the aforementioned burger.
Developed by California-based Impossible Foods, Burger 2.0 – a soy-protein patty – brought an entirely new industry to the event. While it may only contain 14 grams of fat and weigh in as 240 calories per quarter-pounder, it has all the iron and protein of the real thing and tastes so eerily like non-counterfeit cow that it could pass muster with even the most committed of carnivores.
Testifying both to its taste and its cattle-conservation credentials, celebrity Chef Mary Sue Milliken said: "It's so good, I now serve the burger in all of my restaurants. Using animals to make protein is really resorting to ancient technology. While it worked in the 19th century, it won't sustainably scale for the 21st century and beyond. We need more innovation in the food sector, so meat lovers can eat their favourite foods without destroying biodiversity."
CES 2019 took place from 8-11 January at the Las Vegas Convention and World Trade Center (LVCC) and a number of other Las Vegas venues.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas