For the first time in its history, the world’s biggest consumer technology show, CES 2021, was an entirely virtual event. This meant that rather than hundreds of thousands flocking to Las Vegas, potentially millions could experience it from their own homes.
There were still all the big announcements, launches, and insights into upcoming tech and trends that we expect from the event every year. Some things were inevitably different, though, due to the changing times we’re living through.
Understandably, technology related to healthcare and safety was more prominent than it has ever been in the past. Another focus was technology designed to help us adapt to home working, homeschooling, and our increasingly housebound lives. But there were also ideas and concepts that look forward to a time when traveling, socializing, and partying is back on the agenda.
Here are some of the key trends I picked up on, giving us a glimpse of the cool tech-enabled toys, gadgets, and gizmos we will be able to spend our cash on now or in the near future.
Of course, one area of tech development with a strong presence this year is assistance in the fight against Covid-19 and other potential pandemics.
Razer, most known for its gaming-oriented laptops and accessories, doesn’t seem a likely source of covid-busting technology, but they've put their expertise in hardware design into creating the Project Hazel smart face mask that combines UV sterilization capability, voice projection, and of, of course, cool multicolored LED lights, in an n95-grade mask.
Smart thermometers were also a trend, including one developed by Kinsa that collects aggregated data from thousands of devices used in homes that can be used to detect and predict viral spread and outbreaks.
And LG had an autonomous anti-covid robot that uses UV-C to disinfect spaces and surfaces that it will start to put to work in schools, hospitals, and workplaces early this year.
Remote and telemedicine is another strong theme this year, with Philips, Omron Healthcare, and South Korea's ICON.AI demonstrating variants of the “remote health monitoring platform." CarePlus.AI showed off a system that can be used to monitor the health and safety of elderly people in their own homes, using AI to learn their routines and raising alerts if it senses unusual behavior. Another exhibitor, Nobi, has built similar functionality into its smart bedside lamp.
With virtual home visits being safer and doctors and other caregivers coping with heavy workloads, devices like this will undoubtedly help to save lives throughout 2021.
For those who still need to go outside, Targus unveiled an antimicrobial backpack with embedded antiviral and antibacterial materials built into its fiber mesh, helping to make sure you don't bring any unwanted visitors back home with you.
Working and Learning from Home
One sector where activity and innovation have certainly exploded over the last year is working and learning from home. Everyone from furniture to computer manufacturers is looking for ways to get their tech solutions into the millions of newly-established home offices and classrooms that have become part of our lives.
Need an office chair, but looking for something a bit flashy now that their office chair is also home furniture? You might want to take a look at X-Chair’s X-HMT. As well as being ergonomically designed to provide excellent support, it has built-in heating and massaging functions - which X-Chair says is a first for an office chair - to keep you warm and relaxed as you work.
Other areas of innovation include bringing OLED technology to the computer monitor screens we’re staring at for hours every day, courtesy of LG.
The amusing and embarrassing things that can happen if we accidentally have a webcam running during a meeting or work call have been well documented in Youtube videos and gif memes during the pandemic. Dell is hoping that its new Latitude laptops will save some red faces, with a built-in automated, physical shutter, designed to bring peace of mind when you wonder whether you remembered to switch off your camera after your last meeting.
Remote education is a reality for many of us now, and one company showing an interesting new platform is Engageli. It has been described as “Zoom for teachers” and provides videoconferencing tools built around recreating a classroom environment remotely. It natively offers features and functions designed to help teachers keep groups of fidgeting children engaged with their lessons.
Home robots undoubtedly have a role to play in education, too. Moxie is a learning robot that uses AI to enable play-based activities and games and was the recipient of an honorary 2021 CES Innovation Award.
And finally, because we’ll all be so busy working and studying from home we won’t get any housework done, Samsung showed off three domestic robots. The most advanced is the Bot Handy, still a concept model but strongly suggesting robots capable of complex manual tasks such as loading a dishwasher, doing the laundry, or serving drinks might be in our homes soon.
Or just "entertainment," as it may as well be known now. With nowhere to go out, manufacturers are keen for us to spend the money we've saved by not eating out or attending sports events and concerts on flashy toys to watch, listen to or play with at home.
LG showed off its 55-inch "invisible" OLED TV. In a world where modern homes are getting smaller, and TVs are often the focal point of a room, it offers new interior design possibilities such as screens that act as windows. The technology is also being developed for installation in sliding doors.
And if you happen to live in a smaller home but like the idea of watching TV on a 140-inch screen, you might want to try out TCL’s wearable display headset, which uses two 1080p OLED displays to give the impression the viewer is watching a much larger screen.
Also aimed at those with space considerations or single occupant homes, Razor’s Project Brooklyn concept gaming chair featured a 60-inch wrap-around screen that rolls out from behind the chair.
Dell said they had seen a surge in sales of gaming hardware like its Alienware gaming laptops – announcing that the newest generation of these devices will make 8K resolution games running at 60 frames per second the standard. This will mean more detailed and realistic game worlds to explore and more immersive experiences – particularly in virtual reality environments. Asus also showed off its ROG Flow X13 gaming laptop, with up to three dedicated graphics processing cards - the sort of graphic power you’d normally need a desktop case to contain.
If you want to take your music into the shower with you, Ampere showed us the world’s first water-powered Bluetooth speaker. Designed to be built into a showerhead, the Shower Power has a mini internal generator that converts kinetic energy from the falling water into electricity to keep it charged.
Nearly all of the amazing new toys and gadgets on show need data to power them, and 5G was everywhere at CES this year, promising to pipe digital information into our lives quicker than ever before.
It was so prominent that it was the subject of the show’s first keynote, given by Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg. Vestberg spoke about the impact that 5G is already having in many of our lives and how this has been accelerated by Covid-19. You can watch his keynote here.
Most of the big handset manufacturers promoted new 5G-enabled phones, and we saw a clear shift towards budget models, following the introduction of the technology to high-end handsets last year. Motorola unveiled a 5G handset that will retail for under $400. Meanwhile, Qualcomm introduced the Snapdragon 480 processor, providing the computing grunt needed for the new standard in a chip that is far less costly to produce than most 5G-ready processors. Laptops with built-in 5G modems were also unveiled from Dell, Lenovo, and HP, among others.
Samsung unveiled a 5G-based telematics control unit that uses features of the advanced network such as beamforming to boost connectivity used in cars, enabling them to communicate more quickly with devices in other vehicles, carried by pedestrians or embedded in roadside infrastructure.
And another recipient of an honorary innovation reward was Inseego, who has created the world's first mobile 5G hotspot as well as developing a range of in-home 5G routers that will bring super-fast speeds for home offices and entertainment centers.
Transport and mobility
When the pandemic is over, we’ll all need to get around again. So, it’s good to see that vehicle makers are still working away to solve the problem of getting us from A to B as quickly, comfortably, and safely as possible. This year the trend shifted from ride-sharing vehicles towards more personal and private forms of transportation.
Among the most impressive on show is GM’s personal electric Vertical Take-Off/Landing (VTOL) Cadillac. A battery-powered one-person aircraft that we’re unlikely to be able to buy any time very soon, but gives an exciting vision of how personal transport is evolving. Similar vehicles already exist and operate as autonomous taxi services, so it looks like flying cars are becoming a reality.
GM also put its Halo self-driving car concept on show, a pod car designed to carry the passenger in luxurious comfort and using biometric sensors to adjust lighting, temperature, humidity, and even scent to their liking.
Sono Motors demonstrated its Sion solar-powered car that uses 248 panels to generate the electric power to drive around 22 miles per day (if you live somewhere sunny) at up to 87 mph.
And the first completely electric Hummer demonstrated its “crab walk” mode that lets it angle its wheels at up to 10 degrees in order to move sideways (as well as forward) while not changing the direction it is facing.
Mercedes-Benz is doing away with buttons on its new EQS electric sedan. The whole dashboard is replaced by an OLED display called the MBUX Hyperscreen, which gives the driver and front-seat passenger access to all the readouts, navigation, communication, and entertainment technology built into the car – including the amount of g-force the driver is experiencing.
With "micro-transport" still a strong trend, Segway was on hand to show off its range of electric scooters, including the self-balancing eScooter T, child-friendly Ninebot S Nano, and the eMoped B, which it says is designed to "revolutionize the way we commute."
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Bernard Marr is a world-renowned futurist, influencer and thought leader in the field of business and technology. He is the author of 18 best-selling books, writes a regular column for Forbes and advises and coaches many of the world’s best-known organisations. He has 2 million social media followers and was ranked by LinkedIn as one of the top 5 business influencers in the world and the No 1 influencer in the UK.