Battle for digital life takes centre stage at tech show

  • TECH
  • Tuesday, 12 Jan 2016

LAS VEGAS: The battle to be at the centre of your digital life has taken on a new dimension amid a proliferation of connected devices. 

After smartphone wars, browser wars and platform wars, a fight is on to be the “hub” which connects the millions of connected objects from light bulbs to wearable to washing machines. 

At the Consumer Electronics Show which concluded on Jan 9, the contenders included robots, televisions, speaker hubs and even wearable trackers powered by artificial intelligence. And the connected car raced into the mix. 

Exhibitors ranging from startups to big consumer electronics giants are vying to be the control centre for the vast array of Internet of things in your home, car, and elsewhere. 

South Korea’s LG unveiled its Smart ThinQ home hub, a speaker that lets a user communicate with and get alerts from connected appliances, security systems and even talk to cars. 

This allows the smart home and connected car to communicate with each other. And it can connect with older appliances with attachable sensors.

Newly unveiled Haier Ubot household robots are shown in a kitchen display at the CES 2016 Consumer Electronics Show on January 8, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. AFP PHOTO/ DAVID MCNEW
Newly unveiled Haier Ubot household robots, a near-humanoid gadget which can control home appliances, in a kitchen display at the CES 2016. — AFP

LG calls this “the future of the smart home” and uses an open platform that can connect with devices using Google Nest, Bluetooth, WiFi and more. 

Samsung announced its TVs will act as command centres in smart homes by incorporating technology from Silicon Valley start-up SmartThings, which Samsung bought in 2014, allowing them to control devices synched to the platform. 

“You can have a smart home basically for free as a starting point; it is pretty amazing,” SmartThings founder and chief Alexander Hawkinson told AFP. 

Chinese electronics giant Haier unveiled its Ubot personal assistant robot – a near-humanoid gadget which can control home appliances. 

“He’s like a personal assistant who can turn on your TV and all your appliances, and when you’re not home he helps with surveillance,” said Haier’s Kristen Smith. 

“The ultimate goal is to simplify your life, to take care of the things you worry about.” 

Respond and entertain 

Segway, which is owned by China’s Ninebot, unveiled a personal transporter which morphs into a cute robotic personal assistant. 

The robot, made in collaboration with Intel and China’s Xiaomi, is open to developers which could add on applications for security, entertainment or other activities. 

After riding it, the device sprouts arms and can navigate and interact with users with its sensors and artificial intelligence. It is expected to be commercialised later this year.

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 07: The self-balancing Ninebot Segway personal transportation robot is demonstrated at CES 2016 at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on January 7, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. CES, the world's largest annual consumer technology trade show, runs through January 9 and features 3,600 exhibitors showing off their latest products and services to more than 150,000 attendees.   Ethan Miller/Getty Images/AFP == FOR NEWSPAPERS, INTERNET, TELCOS & TELEVISION USE ONLY ==
The self-balancing Ninebot Segway personal transportation robot is demonstrated at CES 2016. — AFP

More whimsical, Chinese startup UBTech Robotics unveiled Alpha 2, a prototype personal assistant humanoid which can respond and entertain. 

“You can talk to him and he will answer. He can give you the weather,” said UBTech’s Jessica Pan. 

“And he is very lifelike. He has 20 joints and can move like humans, he can dance and show you a yoga pose.” 

These new contenders face a tough battle against entrenched companies like Google and Apple – not part of the floor exhibitors at CES – which each have their own artificial intelligence assistants as well as ecosystems for connected homes and wearables. 

And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said ahead of the show that he wants to build a robot butler “like Jarvis in Iron Man” which can manage household tasks. 

While Zuckerberg and Facebook were not exhibiting at CES, his comments and the innovations at the show underscore the progress being made in computing and artificial intelligence which can unleash new innovations. 

Wearable Siri 

Israeli-based startup OrCam for example unveiled a wearable artificial intelligence clip-on camera which “acts like a personal assistant like Siri or Cortana, but with eyes and ears,” says OrCam marketing chief Eliav Rodman. 

The device “can provide a real-time profile of people as they walk up to you during a conference, displaying their details on your smartphone or watch; it can track your eating habits,” says OrCam co-founder Amnon Shashua. 

“It can even monitor the facial expressions of people you meet and topics of discussion and let you know in hindsight the quality of interaction you have with friends and family.” 

The Alpha 2 is a prototype personal assistant humanoid that can not only do the standard responding to questions but also entertain with ultra-stupendous dance moves. — AFP

Carmakers don’t want to be left out either. 

Ford for example unveiled an alliance at CES with US online giant Amazon aimed at allowing people to connect their cars into “smart home” networks. 

The tie-up will enable drivers to communicate with the hub and, for example, ask if their garage door is open, or request an appointment with their mechanic. 

Other carmakers including BMW and Volkswagen showed systems which connect not only to a smartphone but to home networks, enabling users to tap smart appliances or garage door openers, for example. 

Wild West 

These new systems offer new connecting options but could create confusion because of multiple technical standards. 

“It almost forces you to get things within the same brand in order to match up,” said Ron Montoya at the auto research firm 

Roger Kay, analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates, agreed, saying that There is no grand architecture, so everyone is making a land grab. Everyone wants to be the hub.” 

Kay said that until players such as Apple, Google and Microsoft agree on open standards, “it going to be difficult for this market to move forward.” — AFP

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