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CES 2020

I just dragged my sorry sack of cells around the Consumer Electronics Show 2020 for two days; it was hard work. Here are some notes of the things I saw during my visit. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive review (nor an unbiased one), I'll leave that up to the professional journalists. This posting is just about what I happened to stroll into and piqued my interest. For the last few years I’ve done a write up on the show. Here are links to some of the previous years’ reviews:
CES 2019    CES 2018    CES 2017    CES 2016    CES 2015    CES 2014    CES 2013   


It’s not CES without big TVs. What is better than a 4k TV? Well, an 8k TV of course! I think every major manufacturer had an 8k TV on display. They all looked stunning. Unbelievable stunning (and after all, why wouldn’t they? They’ve been tweak and calibrated for this event; displaying hand-picked content, in a darkened conference arena. If you can’t optimize your product for display at this show, you should not be here).
How many pixels are on an 8k screen? I’m glad you asked. The resolution is 7680×4320 (over 33 million pixels, each of which has an RGB element), so with a healthy refresh rate, that’s a pretty high bandwidth of data to push! It's 100 million elements per frame.
100 million elements per frame!
Could I tell the difference between a 4k display and an 8k display? I’d like to think I could on close examination of a static picture but, to be honest, all the 4k displays looked equally as stunning. The differences came down to the technology used to display. The brightness and contrast ratios seemed to have more influence on the ‘quality’ of the picture, to my eyes, than the resolution.
I can see why the industry is moving to 8k, it’s giving them a new premium product that they can sell at a premium price. These days you can go into your local Costco and pick up a very nice 4k flat TV for around $700, and even a super large variant for less than $2,000. When 8k displays get into retail they will be sold at a very high-end price to the early-adopter connoisseurs, and that’s good for both sides.
What about content? Well, even 4k native content is not available in prolific quantity, so 8k native content is going to be even rarer for a while. There’s always upscaling of lower resolution sources and this does work surprisingly well (especially when the content is moving rather than static; your eyes and brain smooth out things that might get noticed on a still picture. The up-scalers also smart, and can recognize things like faces and text to pay particular attention to improve their appearances).
A potential savior for native 8k content is the Olympics. I believe the Olympics this year are going to be filmed in native 8k (though I don’t know any details about how this will be distributed, streamed, or broadcast).
Each year, LG puts up a fabulous display on their booth made up of hundreds of panels (I can’t call them ‘flat’ panels as there were curved ones there; both convex and concave). This year was no exception. Their demo was up to their usual quality.
If my living room was big enough, I'd have a TV like this in it (probably).

Autonomous vehicles

A few years ago I made the prediction that the auto industry was going to change more in the next dozen years than it had in the last fifty. This pace continues. Every major manufacturer (and also ones you’ve probably never heard of), is working on electric and hybrid vehicles, and all are experimenting with self-driving and autonomous capabilities. Everyone was displaying concepts of what future autonomous transportation pods will look like. They all had one thing in common. It seems like, in the future, the laws of Physics (and especially aerodynamics) will cease to exist! All concept vehicles looked like, and had the drag coefficient of, a barn! Come on people, think about the environment, and energy efficiency; make your designs aerodynamically slippery (if you need help, be sure to contact me, I do have a degree in aerodynamics, but to be honest, even a small child could come up more efficient shapes than the shoe boxes you had on display).
Aerodynamics of a barn!
There was an interesting dichotomy on display too; the one that occurs at the inflexion point when the human driver ceases to be the most important part of the system. Dashboard displays were getting cooler and more sophisticated, with seamless moving maps and more lights, indicators, and dials than the cockpit of a modern commercial jet airliner or the Starship Enterprise, but then, wham!, sometime after that, it’s all gone when the car drives itself and, if we believe these concepts, we’re moving into a ‘less is more’ aesthetic design where the pods are minimalistic with no controls or dashboard, just places to relax. Also, looking at the seat widths on many of these concepts, we’re all going to be getting a lot fatter. Are we really trending towards Wall-e?
Walking around the show floor, I’d hate to estimate the number of times I’d been scanned by spinning Lidar sensors. One booth was showing infra-red sensitive Lidar sensors helping the vehicle avoid colliding with warm-bodied people and animals. I guess it does not provide additional assistance to stop you running over Zombies (or into brick walls).

Electric Planes

On display were a couple of concepts of electrically powered air-taxis. I’m glad to see that they’ve moved on a little from the crazy designs of past years that were just scaled up versions of drones. For various reasons (errrm, like fundamental laws of Physics), scaling up small drones is not the way to go (see this article for why you can't just scale up drones).
Future air taxis, should they mature, will be electric planes, not giant drones.
These concepts now had wings to offset lift (good), and tilting rotors (good), but one design had ducted fans and, whilst the theory is good, (and they tilted), the additional weight, and the fact that they’re not going to be able to get tight enough clearance between the blades at the shroud to make a difference, and the blades would have to be very rigid to stop flexing causing interference issues, plus the issue of foreign object fouling, it’s not going to be practical. Anyway, they looked cool on the stands and generated a lot of buzz and froth for their parent companies, which is their intention.


Electric bicycles were a lot more common this year than electric scooters, or those silly two wheeled hover board contraptions. I’m pleased about this as eBikes are more comfortable, and so much safer. eBikes have seats, so you are ‘sitting’ down as you ride. They also have pneumatic wheels, so have some suspension, can have baskets or paniers for storage, but safety is the biggest gain. Again, it’s down to physics: The much larger diameter wheels have more rotational inertia, giving stability. The larger diameter wheels (and pneumatic tires) better straddle bumps, pot-holes, and imperfections in the road, and finally, the rotational speed of larger diameter wheels is much slower than small diameters. With baby wheels, the speed at which side-to-side shimmy occurs, due to slight deviations, occurs at fundamental frequencies too high for humans to correct, so hurtling down a hill on a scooter can result in wobbles at their high RPMs that will inevitably result in a tumble. Scooters are designed to be used at low speed; they are toys at best. When it comes to safe, comfortable, transportation, bigger diameter wheels are always better.
Bigger diameter wheels are always better!

Most Impressive thing seen?

The most impressive thing I saw at the show was from a company called NEON. They had a large booth that was covered with 8k displays in portrait mode showing animated depictions of actors (dancers, airline hostesses, teachers, yoga instructors, weather presenters …), at first I was confused as to what was going on. What were they trying to sell? TVs? After all the pictures were very crisp. There was no text on the booth describing anything, so I hung around for the keynote. Here’s the thing: these were not actors, but actually (live) computer generated images! Wow, they looked incredibly photo realistic. It was new technology. The initial goal of the company is to make these into interactive avatars (sort of like a 21st century version of Clippy). I had to snigger a little inside at the choice of company name as NEON when I heard this, as NEON as an inert noble gas, and as such avoids interaction with other elements! Why would you name a company designed for interaction with after a non-interactive element?
The presentation made it clear that this is not AI. It’s about rendering and displaying the avatars, and they are also not rendered from fundamental computer models. To generate these NEONs, real people (call them actors) were filmed many multiples of times, speaking, and moving. This massive amount of data was then captured, stored, and turned into meshes which model them, their facial expressions, and how the fabric of their clothes move, their hair movements …
Then, using some of their proprietary algorithms, the subtle movements of the body (swaying), micromovements, twitches … etc, were parameterized, as to how the eyes, mouth, and other features move when speaking. This allowed the models to be then placed in “auto” mode where, with no other inputs, they would slowly move and appear real rather than as static pieces of wall paper, but more interestingly, could be then placed into a programming mode where, in ‘real time’ (well about 20mS delay at the moment) and told to speak any phrase (not just the phrases recorded by the original actors), or move, or smile, or wink, the code would render the image as to how the original actor would have done it. I have to say it was pretty impressive, and the output clearly has jumped over the uncanny valley of creepiness that earlier technology computer generated avatars suffer from. I really could not tell these images were computer generated. Not at all.
The company claimed these demos were generated in only four months (if so, that’s pretty impressive). At the moment they are computationally intensive (I thought I heard them claim that behind the scenes there were five 128 core machines running the demos. That’s a lot of horsepower!)
There was a lot of hype, some subtle glossing over on the details about some of the demos, and some fancy words ("real time responsivity"), but what was displayed, if it lives up to the hype, was pretty impressive.
What a difference two decades can make in technology!

Get away from her you b*tch!

If you are fan of the Aliens movie, you’ll instantly recognize this quote from when Ripley is driving the loader. Delta were showing a concept cyber-suit that augmented the lifting capabilities of the wearer, allowing them to lift heavy objects, in this demo suitcases which, presumably, had contents which included depleted Uranium or bars of Gold bullion. When my family travels, there always seems to be a much lower weight limit per bag! I jest, it’s cool technology, and even if limited to standard check-in weight bags, it would allow an operator to load and unload without getting fatigued, or suffering injury.

Sony's Virtual Movie Lot

Sony were demonstrating a cool ‘virtual lot’ technology for filming movies. This had foreground props (in this case the Ghostbuster van), and on the walls were screens onto which they could project background images to make a fake ‘virtual lot’. By knowing the position of the camera, where it was pointing, and details of the lens settings, they could project the appropriate images onto the background screens at the correct perspective to mimic what would happen if the real large lot was actually there. Again, a very impressive demo. Watching from the outside, the backwall seemed to be projected at a weird perspective (and it changed), and looked un-natural, but when viewed through the feed of what the camera saw, it all looked correct.
You can see the subtle difference if you look at the illuminated sign sticking out from the wall, and how this changes as the camera dolly moves around.

Internet of (Pointless) Things

This year there were the usual collection of pointless mash-ups of making everyday items 'smart' when there was no use case or advantage. This year was no exception.
This 'smart' pan weighs the food you put in it as you cook it. I don't think it will make you a better cook.
Why is it everyone likes to start off their pitch with “The World’s First Smart …” I really don’t care if it’s the first. What I care about is if it is the best. I don’t want to drive around in the World’s first car, or fly in the World’s first aeroplane. And you don’t need to tell me it’s “smart”. If the smartness adds value, it’s obvious and doesn’t need calling out (I don’t buy a “smart” laptop computer, I just buy a laptop). 95% of all the things I saw at the show that called themselves “smart” were relegated to the “internet of pointless things” that I’ve ranted about in CES’s past. For most people, your life really is not better with an internet connected smart water bottle, pepper mill, toothbrush, fridge, razor, garbage bin, or spatula. If the smartness adds utility to the device, it’s part of the natural evolution of that device, and does not need explicitly calling out.


Here’s a realllllly wide, curved screen. I think I’d use one.
Here's an interesting device, can you tell what it is?
It's the inner workings of smart duck decoy that flaps wings like a real duck.
Here's a couple of robots boiling noodles.
Here's a treadmill for your cat, just incase it's put on some extra weight from lazyily riding around ontop your robot vacuum all day. To keep the cat 'interested' there is an LED in the center of the wheel that tantalizingly stays infront of the cat, encouraging him to chase it.
For those that can't count up to six dots, here a some dice that use accelerometers to enable them to be read by RFID technology and save your eyes and brain the burden. I guess it could provide a more creative way to cheat if they were in a casino (would it be easier it hack a radio signal than attempt to switch a conventional set of dice with loaded versions?). I can also see the dissapointment at home on family board game night: "I'm sorry kids, we can't play Monopoly tonight as dad forgot to charge the dice".
Posted without comment …
Giant hamster spheres on castors so that you can wear a VR headset, and 'walk' in an infinite virtual room without hitting any walls. I didn't queue up to try, so I have no feedback about if the radius of the spheres were large enough to fool your brain into thinking the floor for was 'flat', or if it always feels like you are walking uphill. Inside the sphere was a self-levelling ring of handrails that the 'players' held onto for balance, so I'm guessing it is not perfect. Sadly, I don't think the ceiling height of my living room would allow me to fit one in (nevermind two).
This is a pretty impressive (orange) robot. Though I have to question. If you are going to put that many degrees of freedom and articulation on each of the limbs, why do you still put wheels on there? Either you have a device with wheels, and it behaves like a truck, and rolls on flat surfaces, or you give it articulated limbs and get it to mimic walking on legs. When was the last time you saw a spider on roller skates?
Having said that, here is a wheeled robot with three segmented rims that can be pivoted and spun out to make cog like wheels. This enabled it to 'roll' up stairs!
I almost dismissed this booth with the oxymoronic "AI for Humans" tag-line, and almost walked by, but I'm glad I didn't. What was on display was a couple of neat little devices to help partially sighted people. One, you strapped to the side of your glasses, and could then point with your finger to a block of text (say a newspaper or menu), and the device would scan, use OCR, and then read the text to you.
A couple of stands were showing 'see through' displays that could be used, for instance, as shop windows to display information, or designs, and still allow the display behind to be seen. Imagine combining this with eye-tracking, position sensing, and the virtual lot technology that Sony were showing to allow the display to correctly paralax image projected to allow things to map as you moved around.
I don't wear make-up, but is this really a problem? If so, it can be solved by a 'beauty fridge'. This device refrigerates your make-up and skin creams to stop them going bad!?!?!? Is this really a problem? Are skin creams really that volatile and fragile? When I go to the supermarket, I see milk, meat, and eggs in the refrigerated section, but I've never seen make-up in there (maybe I shop in the wrong stores?)
This has to be a bad idea. A 'touch free' blender that starts with gestures. How long before there is an accident? I really only want my blender to start when I physically push the start button. I don't want it mis-interpretting me putting my fingers inside as the gesture to spin up at warp speed. Ask any designer of industrial manufacturing equipment and they will tell you that safety is a critical element. Presses, for instance, have two switches on each side, both of which have to be activated, simultaneously, by the operator before the mechanism activates. In this way, there is no way it can start with user's hand inside it.
There was a whole section this year dedicated to sex toys, and sexual health devices (sorry no pictures). I didn't realize I'd wandered in there when I saw a producty advertised as a "mouth massager". That's weird, I thought, why would you want your mouth massaged, until I was told "No Sir, it's not a device for massaging your mouth, it's a device that simulates a mouth massaging …"
Haptic feedback going too far? Devices like these can be strapped to your body to enhance VR and gaming experiences. I can see value in getting force feedback, however, these devices advertised they "allow the user to feel hot and cold temperatures, and pain in their game content". Excuse me? Pain? What is the market size for masochistic gamers?
Another round of guess what it is. Do you know what this is?
That's right, it's a custom PC case that you can hang from your ceiling like a chandlier.
Do you know what's special about this drone?
It's not powered by batteries, but instead by a Hydrogen fuel cell. That explains it's size, as there this additional cell equipment requires mass that a battery drones does not, but after you get past this offset the claim is that the eneregy denisty (700 Wh/kg) is more than three times greater than batteries, allowing for this corresponding increase in range and duration.

What was missing?

I was surprised by the low mention of 5G technology. I was sure that references to it would be everywhere. Sure, it was there, but you had to look. There were some beautiful Samsung 5G devices, and I complemented the booth staff about how nice they were, and asked how I could tell they were running 5G. I received the sheepish answer that the devices were, in fact, running in WiFi mode!
I also speculated that there would be a lot of hype about “blockchain” but, mercifully, this was also in light supply. I think blockchain is a great technology, but overkill for most applications, and hyped for the wrong reason. Blockchain technology is there to help protect the ledger from interference and tampering; not for other purposes. If your airline misplaces your luggage, it’s because your bag dropped off a cart, or missed a connection, lost a label, got stolen, or got placed in the wrong pile. Baggage tags already have unique tracking ID’s to enable them to be individually tracked and traced, so wrapping this in blockchain is not going to provide any more protection from these events; your bag is just as likely to fall off a cart if it has a blockchain encrypted tag as a regular tag, and once found, can be just as easily looked up and repatriated by either system.
How many tech buzzwords can your merge and put into one phrase? This is just a ‘blockchain’ away from a perfect trifecta. Bonus marks fotr the portmanteau of merging ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and ‘Internet of Things’ into ‘AIoT’.
See you next year CES! (I hope)