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CES: Battle for Digital Life Grabs Center Stage

Jan. 11, 2016
The future is incredible and, of course, connected. A wrap from the desert oasis that is the Consumer Electronics Show.

LAS VEGAS — The battle to be at the center 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” that connects the millions of connected objects from light bulbs to wearable to washing machines.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, which concluded Saturday, 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 center for the vast array of Internet of things in your home, car, and elsewhere.

South Korea’s LG, for example, 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.

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

Samsung, meanwhile, announced its TVs will act as command centers 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.

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

Respond and Entertain

Segway, which is owned by China’s Ninebot, unveiled a personal transporter that morphs into a cute robotic personal assistant. The robot, made in collaboration with Intel and China’s Xiaomi, is open to developers, who 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 commercialized later this year.

More whimsical, Chinese startup UBTech Robotics unveiled Alpha 2, a prototype personal assistant humanoid that 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 has its 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.

A Wearable Siri?

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

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,” OrCam co-founder Amnon Shashua said. “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.”

Carmakers don’t want to be left out either.

Ford unveiled an alliance at CES with 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 opened, or request an appointment with their mechanic.

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

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 of the auto research firm Edmunds.com.

Roger Kay, an 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.”

By Rob Lever, Sophie Estienne and Glenn Chapman

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2016

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