CES 2018: The walls have ears

But it wasn’t just walls that had ears at the CES show, voice control and AI was a dominant theme from wall lights to toilets and ‘try-on’ bags. Exertis Unlimited head of marketing and PR Clare Newsome reports

It’s a shame he died back in 367BC, because Dionysius of Syracuse would have loved CES 2018. Despot Dionysius had an ear-shaped cave cut and connected between the rooms of his palace, so that he could hear what was being said from another room – the origin of the phrase ‘the walls have ears’.

At CES, the tech had ears, with almost any conceivable product being enabled to hear Alexa/Google/Cortana/Siri voice-assistant commands. From laptops and projectors to connected Tupperware-tech, wine cellars and smart toilets (‘Alexa: flush!’), your home is listening and ready to serve.

The near-ubiquity of voice-activated products was key to a stated CES theme of ‘native interfaces and digital sensors’. It’s interesting to see, however, that manufacturers – including Amazon itself, with the Echo Spot and Echo Show – recognise that voice alone isn’t always the answer: a blend of voice and display has way more impact. One of the most sophisticated implementations was JBL’s new Link View, a wireless speaker with an 8in touch-screen display and front-facing camera. Users can view pictures, stream audio and video, ask questions, scan recipes, and video call with family and friends, all with the help of Google Assistant voice commands.

Another ‘new’ interface option was a fresh generation of multi-device remote controls, allowing you to easily control a range of connected home products from a single, tactile place – no app or voice control required. “Because sometimes it’s easier, quicker – even sensible – to just press a button,” as Elgato puts it, launching its Button remote, which can command individual devices or combinations of Apple Homekit-compatible products.

Doing a similar job in a distinctive, dodecahedron shape is Nanoleaf’s Remote, which can also oversee any Apple Homekit household with a simple gesture. Each of its numbered panels can be customised to command a range of functions. “We want to give people the option of controlling their smart home without always relying on their devices. Everyone is so glued to their phones these days, the Nanoleaf Remote offers the possibility to just sit back and enjoy living smarter,” says Gimmy Chu, chief executive of Nanoleaf.

I’m sure old Dionysius, slave-driving tyrant that he was, would have loved the concept of robot helpers, too. Robotics and AI were named as two of the key ‘ingredient technologies’ of CES (alongside 5G networks). Mainstream tech brands are including robots in their line-ups – though as the abortive CES launch of LG’s robotic smart home manager, Cloi (pronounced Chloe) showed, the gap from clever concept to functional reality still needs closing.

AI was also in the driving seat – literally – with the huge array of automotive tech on show at CES. Self-driving cars, lorries, bikes… even a self-driving suitcase – the ForwardX CX-1- that can follow you around airports at speeds of up to 7mph. However, despite some fabulous designs, too much felt like dream tech rather than reality.

But then, one of CES’s key themes was ‘realism redefined’, and both virtual and augmented reality platforms made a strong showing. VR is diversifying fast – though we’re dubious about the Room 101 potential of one platform called ‘Orwell’ – but it’s AR that has the biggest potential for growth in 2018, including real-world retail implementations.

You may already have seen Ikea’s AR-driven app – allowing you to ‘see’ its furniture in your house (sweary flat-pack build frustration not pictured). At CES, accessories manufacturer STM debuted an AR app that allows consumers to ‘try-on’ their bags, helping them determine which one they would like to purchase based on look, size, colour, features and more.

Its sister brand, Element Case, has also AR-enabled all its packaging.

“AR will change the way people interact with our products,” says Ethan Nyholm, STM brands chief executive. For example, he adds: “Backpacks have traditionally been one of the toughest products to showcase in stores, unless a trained salesperson is there to demonstrate the special aspects. Now, thanks to AR, customers can see a demonstration of a product’s key features come to life before their eyes.” Obviously a great training tool, too.

Finally, we return to Dionysius’ favourite – walls – with two hi-tech wallpaper alternatives. Samsung’s The Wall is a 146in modular TV concept that uses MicroLED technology – much smaller than current LEDs, and able to serve as their own source of light; meaning no need for a backlight, colour filters or even a bezel. It looked absolutely stunning. I’ve already measured up my living room at home, and it would just about fit.

Nanoleaf, meanwhile, showed interlocking light panels that can dress an entire wall, with full smart-home interactivity, including voice control. The walls do, indeed, have ears….

  • Main image: Nanoleaf light panels