Innovators Shine with Inspirational Ideas Despite CES 2019’s Sameness

CES 2019 was awash in 5G, drones, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous everything, wearables, and smart (and not so smart) home connectivity and security. It also had some interesting chip announcements from Nvidia and a great keynote by AMD’s Lisa Su, but down on the show floor there were plenty of interesting concepts, ideas, and gadgets, along with some that would make one wonder, “Why?” Here’s a few that have been put through the filters of surprising, useful, practical, and inspiring.

First up, let’s go with surprising. After hours of walking and talking with purveyors of the latest technological innovations, seeing Millner-Haufen Tool Company’s stand induced both a state of cognitive dissonance and engineering reality (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Completely out of context, Millner-Haufen caught everyone off guard with a riveting demonstration of how its multipurpose, flexible drill bits could quickly turn tempered steel and concrete blocks into swiss cheese. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

If you’ve ever broken a drill bit, you can understand why the demonstration of how easily its multipurpose bits bent and flexed as they cut through tempered steel, concrete, and tiles, was so mesmerizing. I can’t help but call it out, in equal parts due to the great demo, it being so surprising and out of context, and my own experience with typical store-bought drill bits. These are a lifetime birthday or holiday gift – no, make that an investment – for any tool user, professional or hobbyist alike. Of course, using them correctly, at the right speed for the material being drilled, is part of the secret to success.

Now, on to classic CES demonstrations.

Use bacteriological electrical profiles for optimized skin treatment

This demo from Taiwan’s Skin Electric was fascinating as it’s based on its own research that showed first of all that skin bacteria do emit electrical impulses, and secondly, that each form of bacteria has its own electrical profile (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Skin Electric discovered that skin bacteria emit electrical signals, with a profile specific to each strain. From there the team figured out how to treat skin maladies with precision. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

Using these findings, Skin Electric developed a way to identify what specific bacteria may be causing a skin malady, and from there the correct treatment can be applied. This contrasts with current treatment regimens that involve trial and error with various topical and ingested chemicals and hormonal treatments.

What do ear pieces and autonomous vehicle technology have in common?

This may apply to much of what was shown at CES, as AI is the common thread. However, the Pilot Translating Earpiece from Waverly Labs (Figure 3) and the OmniCam system from OmniEyes are particularly interesting. They are good examples of how fairly straightforward front-end hardware can be put in place and become increasingly more useful, both to the user and the hardware maker, thanks to back-end AI algorithms and data exploitation.

Figure 3: Putting AI to good use for travelers, the Pilot Translating Earpiece translates 15 languages directly into the ear. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

The Pilot Translating Earpiece can understand and interpret up to 15 languages – directly into the user’s ear. It combines speech recognition, machine-based translation and wearable technology, but the fascinating part is that the hardware gets “smarter” over time as the algorithms incorporate the data from each use case.

Similarly, OmniEyes’ model is to deploy its relatively simple OmniCam dashcam technology into current and future vehicles to identify local points of interest (stores, signs, potholes, statues) and send that data back to a database to be analyzed (Figure 4). While it provides contextual information to the driver, the constant streaming of data to OmniEyes’ database allows the company to provide data services to third parties who might also be able to make use of the real-time view of important points and features of interest.

Figure 4: OmniEyes’ OmniCam dashcam analyzes the environment to identify points of interest for the driver, while also constantly updating a remote database with AI analytics capability. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

OmniEyes uses proprietary techniques to locally analyze the data at the edge (on the camera) so that it minimizes the amount information it sends upstream, minimizing bandwidth requirements and power consumption.

The earpiece and camera applications are two very good examples of how simple hardware can be used to gather critical data, while also providing a good and ever-improving service to the end user. All without requiring hardware updates. They’re similar, in fact, to Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, which is a relatively simple device compared to the remote servers’ and algorithms behind it that are constantly improving and making the devices smarter and more useful.

Taking care of the elderly and infirm

I’ve had personal experience of taking care an elderly parent, who recently passed away, may she rest in peace. I expressed my own frustration with the lack of really useful solutions to help her, or the elderly in general (see, “Care of the Aged: There Has to be a Better Way”). In the case of my own mother-in-law, the wrong medication in a rehab facility set in motion the conditions that led to her passing away. How does that happen with today’s technological resources?

While the technology showcased at CES 2019 won’t help her now, what was on display were point solutions for specific situations and conditions that may someday be amalgamated into a more comprehensive elderly care protocol or regimen.

For example, falling down is one of the scariest events for the elderly. Some simply can’t get up, which is frightening in and of itself, but many also fracture their hips or other bones. While the E-vone shoe can’t prevent them from falling, it does send out a wireless alert when it happens, so at least they aren’t stuck (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The E-vone shoe is designed for the elderly and sends out a wireless alert when they fall. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

My suggestion here is for a more preventative approach: develop a means of analyzing foot movement data to detect deteriorating balance conditions. Indicators would include increased foot muscle movement as users subconsciously perform more balance correction maneuvers over time. The shoe could then send an alert before a fall.

Also related to the elderly, as well as the disabled, Triple W showcased its DFree wearable for incontinence (Figure 6). It detects when the bladder is nearly full to help avoid “accidents”.

Figure 6: The DFree from Triple W alerts users when their bladder is nearly full to help avoid “accidents”. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

While the DFree’s purpose is noble, there’s so much more that can be determined by monitoring a bladder’s fluid level. Lack of fluid is a red flag for too little liquid intake, a dangerous yet common situation with many, not just the elderly and infirm. No fluid at all could indicate renal failure. Also, spectral or radiowave analysis of the fluid could show markers for other conditions as yet undetected. Lots of room for new ideas here.

On a lighter note, BrainRobotics has made exciting progress in the field of lower cost smart prosthetics (Figure 7).

Figure 7: BrainRobotics developed an affordable smart prosthetic hand with machine learning built-in to make it more intuitive for users. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire)

Its prosthetic hand has eight electromyographic sensors for precision detection of brain originated signals. In addition, its mechanical design addresses cost by allowing for replaceable parts, instead of having to replace the whole hand. Also, it uses machine learning techniques to make the hand more intuitive for the user.

Finally, just when you thought LED lighting couldn’t get any smarter, Sengled came up with a very clever design that integrates a motion sensor into an LED bulb (Figure 8). Simply insert the bulb into a regular outdoor holder, and suddenly you have a motion sensing outdoor light, without having to purchase or rewire a fixture.

Figure 8: Sengled cleverly integrated a motion sensor into an outdoor LED bulb to convert standard outdoor lighting fixtures into motion detecting lights. (Image source: ClariTek/TechWire International)

Conclusion

Unlike some other startups, Sengled and the other companies mentioned here actually innovated. It was shocking and disappointing to see so many others displaying wares that were simply knockoffs or slight tweaks on what’s currently available. One company I spoke with was showcasing a knockoff of Ring’s outdoor camera and LED light. I asked the representative if there was anything to differentiate it from Ring’s original, and he quite frankly said there wasn’t. I had to walk away and wonder, “Why?” Maybe that’s a good business model, but it’s very disheartening at a show that’s supposed to be a harbinger of the future. Luckily, there were some gems that offer inspiration for future design ideas.

About this author

Image of Patrick Mannion After starting in engineering, Patrick Mannion has been analyzing the electronics industry for over 25 years, with a focus on informed editorial to help engineers manage risk, contain costs, and optimize designs. Formerly brand director and vice president of UBM Tech's electronics group, he now provides custom content services.
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