Monday, January 11, 2016

"Cool, werid, or useless." What Hiawatha Bray saw at CES2016

Each January, tech aficionados head to CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, a mega-overload of new gadgets and devices that no one actually needs and that, surprisingly enough, some folks actually want.

The very thought of CES is so exhausting, I have to take to my fainting couch for a brief rest-up after typing the letters CES. After spending two minutes on their web site, I’m ready to crawl into my cave, hibernate and live off my body fat for the next few months. The exhaustion factor that comes from CES is, of course, compounded by the fact that the event is held in Las Vegas. All I’d want to do in Las Vegas is hide in my room, with occasional forays out to catch the performance of the Bellagio fountains.

Forget floor walking at CES. Drones. Virtual reality. Smart cars. Smart watches. Smart Kegel exercisers. Smart everything. Skinnier TVs. Skinnier smartphones. Skinnier laptops. Skinnier everything (except humans, alas).

My head explodes just thinking about it. Hey, if I were at CES, I probably would have found a device that prevents – or deliberately causes – exploding heads. Delivered via a drone. Or via virtual reality, so your head didn’t really have to explode. It would just seem like it.

Looking for wrap-ups on the event doesn’t help. In our soon-to-be-post-literate world, many of the “articles” I saw on CES were video clips. Oh, how I hunger for the world in which the written word mattered. My brain is just so wired for old school. Guess I’m just a one-word-is-worth-a-thousand pictures kind of gal.
But Boston Globe tech columnist Hiawatha Bray managed to take a break from delivering The Globe – which the paper’s writers and editors actually did last weekend after their new (smart, of course) distribution system screwed up, leaving thousands of really old-schoolers (paper paper subscribers) without their paper papers – to head out to CES. And he actually had the decency and good sense to file a column about it that’s actually written using actual spelled out words.

Bray had me at his headline: Cool, weird, or useless? I’m guessing that, for most of what was on display at CES16, the answer is (d) a, and b, and c.

And if Bray had me at his headline, it was all reinforced when, in his first paragraph, he wrote “It’s a grand, gaudy scene, but not all that interesting.” Now here is a tech man after my own heart!

Anyway, here’s what Bray saw at the startup pavilion, starting with AromaCare:

This $100 Internet-connected air freshener uses color-coded cartridges, each with a relaxing or enticing aroma. A user can have his house smelling like a rose before he walks through the door, by using his smartphone to activate the AromaCare in advance. (Source: Boston Globe)
I will admit that I’m not above swirling a bit of Febreze around when conditions warrant it, but do we really need smartphone-activated chemicals pumped into the air we breathe? Why would someone need the ability to remotely change the odor in their house? You’re in the car on the way home from work and you want to make sure you don’t walk into a room giving off old dog? Really, if you want your home to come up smelling like roses, how about going au naturel and buying a bunch of roses?
Moving beyond AromaCare, Bray saw a new Chinese speaker system, the “deliciously-named Crazybaby.” I first read that as “Crybaby,” which made no sense whatsoever. At least the name “Crazybaby” makes sense. Sort of. Crybaby Crazybaby comes with a hovering tweeter “held aloft with…magnetic levitation…with a finger, you can set it whirling above its base like a 1950s flying saucer.” The company’s claim is that the sound from this floating-on-air tweeter is better, but I can only imagine that having a tweeter droning around, right there in the corner of my eye, while I’m listening to “Thunder Road” would be like having a permanent eye-floater. I wouldn’t be thinking, “Bruce sounds better.” I’d be thinking, “I’ve got a detached retina.”
Then there’s Smartypans,
…an intelligent cooking device that precisely weighs the amount of food you put in it. Its built-in Bluetooth chip relays the information to a smartphone or tablet.
The Smartypans app also lets the chef identify each ingredient as it goes into the pan. Type in “olive oil,” then “broccoli” next, “tomatoes,” and so forth. Each time you add an ingredient, Smartypans weighs it, and calculates how many calories it contains. When the food’s done, Smartypans will know how many calories are contained in each serving.
Bad enough to worry about my induction cook top failing. Now I’d have to worry about whether the sensors in my pans are on the fritz? I’d rather take my chances on underestimating how much olive oil I actually put in the pan but, then again, I’m not the most compulsive person on the face of the earth.
Massachusetts – that hub of innovation – is home to a Skreens, which “has created a [$450] box that can cram multiple images onto a single TV screen.” You’ll be able to simultaneously ogle five video sources, while also browsing the web. You can even make them “semitransparent so you can overlay them on one another.” This sounds to me like a recipe for a nervous breakdown. Not to mention that, in the entire history of television, there has barely been a time when I wanted to watch two things at the same time, let alone five (while surfing the web). I’m fine with having the TV on and “watching” something while also sitting there working my laptop. Or reading. Or doing a puzzle. Or crocheting. Or flossing. But five video feeds at once? Bray doesn’t mention audio, but wouldn’t it be a bit distracting to have all the audio streams that accompany the video braying and babbling at you at the same time? I’ll stick to channel cruising, thank you. When the pundits on MSNBC become overwhelming, the Property Brothers on HGTV are but a click away.
The Commonwealth of Innovation is also the home to Virzoom.
The company has synchronized a Chinese-made stationary bike with custom-made virtual reality software, to create a system that turns physical fitness into an immersive videogame.
Inside the virtual reality goggles, you’re a Western sheriff on horseback, riding after a band of outlaws. Or you’re a Formula One driver speeding around a racetrack. Or you’re riding the mythical winged horse Pegasus.
It’s total visual saturation as you speed through a three-dimensional world; the faster you pedal, the faster you go or the higher you fly. Lean left or right, and watch the 3-D landscape rotate around you.
Bray found it exhilarating. I’d find it even more exhausting than the show floor at CES.
Perhaps my favorite part of the article was in the comment section, where NHBiker wrote, “How many smartphone users does it take to change a lightbulb? They can't; there's no app.” 
Meanwhile, Bray (or the headline writer) had a change of hert on the headline I found so captivating. It's now "Startups' useful and useless new gadgets on display." Perhaps but a clearer indication of what's in the article, but I'm glad the change occurred afer "Colle, weird, or useless" drew me in. 

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