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January 19, 2012

Technologies for Tomorrow: CES 2012

For the past two posts, I've looked at technologies and innovations that were recognized for their significance and impacts last year. Rather than looking back, this post looks forward at a few technologies highlighted at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held earlier this month in Las Vegas. The International Consumer Electronics Show is the largest such venue in the world. Although Apple and, going forward, Microsoft have opted out of the conference, it remains the premier showcase for new consumer electronics products. The event attracts companies both large and small as well as a large contingent of the world's geeks eager to report what they find. This year's show contained the expected array of tablets, smartphones, and gaming devices. Also unveiled were devices that could have potential impacts on some supply chains.

One example of such technology is 3D printers. I first discussed the potential impact of 3D printers on supply chains in a post entitled 3D Printing and the Supply Chain. There were at least two 3D printers featured at this year's CES: MakerBot's "Replicator" and 3D Systems' "Cube." Paul Ridden reports that MakerBot introduced a 3D printer called the Thing-o-Matic at last year's CES that made quite a splash. He writes, "The folks at MakerBot Industries have not exactly been resting on their laurels since causing a stir at CES last year with the Thing-o-Matic 3D printer. Even though the original small object creation device would still see the jaws of most people dropping in wonder, the company has now unveiled a new model at CES 2012 called the Replicator that is not only capable of fabricating much bigger objects than its predecessor, but can also do so in two colors at the same time." ["MakerBot unveils its new 3D printer, the Replicator," Gizmag, 12 January 2012] He continues:

"Rather than having some fabrication company on the other side of the world mass-produce millions of plastic shower curtain hooks, door knobs, or even chess pieces and then ship them to your local store for you to buy, desktop-friendly 3D printers like MakerBot's Thing-o-Matic allow users to create every day objects in the home, only when they are needed. Revolutionary! ... With the next generation of MakerBot 3D printer, users will be offered the chance to increase the print volume from objects about the size of a cupcake in the Thing-o-Matic up to roughly the same size as a loaf of bread in the Replicator. ... The company is also now making it possible to simultaneously print objects in two colors via dual extruder heads. ... Unlike its kit-based predecessor, the new beast is pre-assembled by hand by MakerBot's engineers in Brooklyn, New York and tested before being shipped out, making it ready for action as soon as it arrives."

If you're thinking about getting one to make a replacement plastic shower curtain hook, you should know that the machine costs "US$1,749, with a further US$250 securing the purchase of the model featuring MakerBot's dual extruder." Even so, I believe that there are companies that could benefit from such a product. The other ready-to-use 3D printer introduced at this year's CES was the Cube. ["No assembly required for Cubify 3D printer," by Jonathan Fincher, Gizmag, 12 January 2012] Fincher reports:

"Since becoming more widely available to the public, people have found a myriad of uses for 3D printers, whether it's recreating bone, constructing replacement shells for hermit crabs, or simply customizing mini robot figurines. Unfortunately, most 3D printers still have one drawback over other types of printers, in that they typically need to be put together like a hobby kit. Seeing as most electronics are purchased fully intact, the idea of having to build a device piece by piece can be off-putting to consumers. 3D Systems is hoping to rectify the problem with its own 3D printer that actually works right out of the box, along with a new Cubify platform for designing and distributing printed creations. The 3D printer, called simply The Cube, offers an alternative to other printers on the market like the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, which need to be pieced together like an Erector Set before they can start churning out your creations. The device was designed by 3D Systems to be ready to print the moment it's unpacked and connected to the Cubify platform."

The Cube can be purchased for US$1,299. Still, that is a pretty steep price if all you want to do is replace plastic shower current hooks. Another technology that continues to evolve and improve is associated with smart eyewear that supports the field of augmented reality. ["Vuzix SMART glasses bring Augmented Reality into focus at CES," by Jan Belezina, Gizmag, 10 January 2012] Belezina reports:

"Vuzix Corporation came to CES 2012 armed with a video eyewear technology that, as they put it in the press release, 'breaks the boundaries of conventional optics and display solutions'. SMART Glasses Technology is based on integrated HD displayVuzixsmartglasses-5 engines and waveguide optics, as opposed to refractive and/or reflective optics used so far. What does that actually mean and is this technology really going to make Head Mounted Displays lose their association with bulkiness and strange looks?"

As the attached image shows, the SMART glasses are light and rather stylish. Belezina continues:

"The SMART Glasses Technology relies on a compact HD display engine churning out images with brightness and contrast good enough for outdoor use. ... Since the projected images are merged with the real world information, you can safely watch a movie on the go without bumping into things. But the company sees the technology as much more than just wearable TV. The glasses are meant to work in unison with Internet connected mobile devices, which leaves the door wide open to augmented reality (AR) based applications. Whatever AR magic the glasses are set to perform, the software will have a lot of hardware to rely upon. SMART Glasses, or at least some varieties of them, will be able to record and transmit everything that the user sees. They will also be capable of recognizing their environment and their position in the real word. Throw in some integrated head tracking and options for multiple camera technologies that 'broaden the users' sensory perception across a greatly expanded light spectrum' and you can see why, apart from the consumer markets, Vuzix is also eyeing the commercial and industrial markets."

For industrial purposes, SMART glasses can be mounted on hard hats. Belezina reports that SMART glasses could prove useful to first responders and could include night-vision capabilities. It struck me that SMART glasses could prove useful in warehouses and distribution centers as well. According to Belezina, "a variety of SMART Glasses is slated to appear on the market as early as summer 2012."

Reporter Brier Dudley claims that "the bigger companies were holding back this year, making it hard to find radically new products" at CES2012. ["CES 2012: Powering gadgets with body heat," The Seattle Times, 17 January 2012] He continues:

"Still, there were plenty of exciting new products and some far-out creations that left me excited about what's still around the corner. Like Perpetua's technology for powering gadgets with body heat instead of batteries. Drawing on research from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Perpetua developed thermoelectric devices that convert temperature differences in dissimilar metals into electricity. Since 2005 the company has been selling these energy-harvesting systems for industrial use, where they may be attached to warm pipes to power sensor systems, for instance. A number of employees came to the company from Hewlett-Packard's Corvallis printer operation, and Perpetua's devices are built in a way similar to HP's inkjet hardware. Now Perpetua is working on smaller, wearable versions that generate electricity just from a person's body heat. The National Science Foundation and Department of Homeland Security are helping fund the research. The company also partnered with Texas Instruments to add wireless connectivity to the devices. Within a few years, Perpetua's wearable devices could be used to power consumer gadgets, starting with fitness sensors and medical devices."

No one really knows where this kind of technology will eventually end up powering devices, but military and law enforcement uses seem obvious. Although this year's show attracted over 3100 exhibitors and 153,000 attendees, Devin Coldewey agrees with Dudley that this year's show was somewhat disappointing. "Overall the show was more promising than impressive," he writes. ["The Winners And Losers Of CES 2012," TechCrunch, 15 January 2012]. He concludes, "Products like the gesture-based TVs, the Galaxy Note, and numerous other devices and services aren't anything I would recommend, and their benefits aren't really obvious to anyone who isn't deeply interested. The offspring of these products, however, will be very interesting. Unfortunately, they won't be around for a while." For other takes on what was learned at the show, read Charles Arthur's article in The Observer entitled CES 2012: 10 things we learned about the gadgets of the future and Kelli B. Grant's article in The Wall Street Journal entitled CES: 10 Future-Forward Gadgets.

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