This year’s Consumer Electronics Show appears to have generated more hype about more useless inventions than ever.
It’s been a long week: the first back to work after Christmas usually is. But I can only imagine how much time has dragged for those attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week. At least for those who aren’t sucked in by what The Engineer’s news editor referred to this morning as possibly the greatest collection of bells and whistles ever assembled.
In some years, the annual gathering of the world’s consumer technology industry unveils an advance that we can genuinely expect to filter down through an entire product range over the next few years (Blu-Rays, internet TVs and Ultrabook laptops have all featured at previous events). But without such a headline product, CES seems to descend into a competition to produce the device least likely to impact people’s lives. And this year looks worse than ever.
Smart watches have already become the greatest product wanted by no one thanks to the release of Samsung’s Galaxy Gear last year. And yet multiple copycat devices were on display this week.
This morning we’ve been treated to the news that you can now design and print your own pasta shapes. Aside from the point that we already know 3D printers can handle complex structures like living cells so dealing with flour and water is hardly groundbreaking, how many people have actually ever wanted a way to make their farfalle a bit rounder?
Another device promises to turn your smart phone into an electric stun gun. Brilliant. So when I’m held up for my phone, the mugger can fire 650,000 volts into me for an added bonus as he runs away laughing.
Not once have I looked at my TV and thought: ‘It’s good but I wish it was bendy’. Yet someone at Samsung must have had that thought because the company duly revealed a telly that changes shape depending on where you are sitting. Perhaps my living room’s just not big enough for me to appreciate it.
And of course, manufacturers are still obsessed with making ordinary household appliances ‘smart’ by connecting them to the internet and giving them a joylessly cheerful interface.
LG has unveiled a “HomeChat” system that allows users to text their oven or air conditioner and turn them on before they get home. Remote control and natural language processing are both useful tools, true, but I’ll be waiting for the industry to make a washing machine that won’t catch fire before I start using text messages to turn it out while I’m out of the house.
Equally, a way to find out how many beers are left in my smart fridge (an “advance” unveiled annually at CES for years now) when I’m out shopping would indeed be welcome. But until there’s a way to accurately assess how much food is left in each of the RFID-tagged packets I’ve deposited inside the fridge, such a system is always going to be limited. And why on earth would I need a touch screen on the front of the appliance to give me an inventory of its contents when I can just open the door and see what’s inside?
There’s nothing seriously wrong with most of these ideas (the stun-gun phone aside) and some of them may well end up as standard features of home appliances in a decade’s time. But none of them are life-changing enough to persuade most people to part with a significantly larger sum of money when upgrading.
Part of the problem is that companies seem to have seen how readily people take up free smart phone apps that claim to help you improve your life by reminding you to brush your teeth or monitoring your sleep patterns, and thought that they can build such capability into the household items themselves.
But such apps are usually forgotten about pretty quickly once the novelty wears off, so it seems highly unlikely many people are going to pay extra to get the same experience from an internet-enabled toothbrush or “smart bed”.
Of course all industry exhibitions feature plenty of products that are neither new nor likely to have far-reaching effects. And this year’s CES has featured genuinely innovative technology in the form of driverless car technology (although we’re already pretty used to the idea).
Still, I can’t help but cringe everytime I hear an item that struggles to justify its existence described as ‘revolutionary’. A little perspective would be a very welcome thing.