So far at CES “proper,” I’ve had one day of sessions and meetings, and one day roaming the show floor. The sessions were on various consumer electronic topics, and I’ll write up a few interesting ideas for TidBITS once I’ve had more time to think about them and add a little research.
As for what I’ve seen, the meetings were all very interesting, but the show floor has been a bit underwhelming so far compared to what I saw at the press breakout events. To be fair, that might have something to do with the many more miles I’m walking on the astonishingly huge show floors. I think I was accidentally Mr. Grumpy Journalist to a few PR people who wanted to tell me their product’s life story before I had even figured out what it was and if I was interested.
I’ll start with the companies I met with and then move on to what I found for you on the show floor.
Other World Computing — Other World Computing, also known as OWC and macsales.com, currently holds the title for “best thing I’ve seen” with a prototype of the DEC expansion dock for the 2016 MacBook Pro. It attaches flush to the bottom of the MacBook, adding a bit to the weight and thickness, and has a flat U-shaped connector that plugs into one of your Thunderbolt 3 ports. Here’s what you get: up to 4 TB of additional SSD storage, three USB 3 type-A ports, a multifunction SD card reader, and a gigabit Ethernet port. Larry O’Connor, CEO of OWC, said that they were still finalizing whether they could put anything else in there and they weren’t sure about what the final thickness and weight would be. Also still to be decided is the price, but O’Connor said that there would be an entry-level model with an empty SSD bay, and that the SSD prices would be highly competitive against what Apple charges for its internal upgrades.
OWC was also showing off the Thunderbolt 3 Dock, which has two Thunderbolt 3 ports (with passthrough power so you don’t need to plug in your MacBook Pro), Mini DisplayPort, five USB 3 Type-A ports, gigabit Ethernet, digital audio output, 3.5mm audio combo input, and an SD slot. It will come in colors to match your MacBook Pro starting in February 2017 for $299.
The company is known for its external storage products and was demonstrating the Thunderbolt 3 Envoy Pro SSD, a portable (and very slim) drive that will come in sizes ranging from 500 GB to 2 TB when it ships in March 2017, with no price set yet. Not on display, but new to me, is the Envoy Pro mini, a USB-stick sized SSD with USB 3.1 throughput that you can buy now in sizes of 120 GB, 240 GB, and 480 GB for $100, $178, and $270.
I also appreciated that Larry O’Connor reeled off deep-geek statistics about throughput and drive performance with the verve of someone who seriously groks the technology, which is not common at CES. Usually a PR person or executive needs to bring in an engineer to answer technical questions. O’Connor has a deeper grasp of Mac hardware than I do, which is refreshing when you’re talking to the guy running the company.
Even Earphones — As I’ve written before, I have lousy hearing (see “iOS Hearing Aids… or, How to Buy Superman’s Ears,” 8 February 2011). I don’t know if I qualify on any of the disabled measurement spectra, but there are frequencies I miss on my good days, and on bad days when I’m blocked up, I can lose my right ear almost entirely. Usually I don’t notice what I’m missing unless other people react to a sound I can’t hear.
Apparently there are a lot of us “not disabled but not great ears” people out there, and Even ? has a nifty solution: headphones and earphones with a built-in hearing test that then adjusts an equalizer to match the frequencies you have trouble hearing. You put on the headset, which is color-coded so you know which side goes in which ear, and hold down a button on the cord for a few seconds to start the test. The headset then plays eight audio samples into each ear, starting very softly and increasing in volume, and you press a button when you can hear it. It takes about three minutes. After that, push the Even button on the headset to turn the equalizer on and off. If you’re in a different environment and you need to adjust your profile (i.e., on an airplane or with different background noise), just take the test again. (The company’s Web site has an online version of the test.)
I think these will become my go-to headset for music and movies going forward; having used them for a day, music sounds a heck of a lot richer with the Even profile kicked in. Podcasts don’t sound too different, but I’ll be curious to see if it helps me listen to English in non-American accents, which sometimes gives me trouble. A few caveats: since there’s processing going on in the cord, you have to recharge these to use them, unlike most wired headsets. You also need to remember to turn them on (they sleep automatically when you’re not using them, with an included audio cue to let you know). And since the button mount can’t be at jaw level as it is on most headsets (it’s low enough so both right and left cords come out of it), the included microphone rides on your chest, which isn’t optimal for phone calls. But for their intended purpose of better audio for the somewhat impaired, I’m calling Even’s headphones a huge win. Headphones ($179) and earphones ($99) are available now from the Even Web site, and Even has a Bluetooth version coming soon that will enable you to save multiple ear profiles simultaneously.
Aifi Bluetooth Speakers — Aifi wins the dubious prize of “frickin’ cool, but only if money is no object.” By itself, an Aifi speaker is a good portable Bluetooth speaker, of which there are many. But the magic happens if you have more than one: put them side by side or stack them (or arrange them in a grid), and the additional speakers automatically slave themselves to the units they’re attaching to, so a single audio source can drive multiple speakers without any cabling or setup. A nifty LED lighting system changes colors to indicate whether the Aifis are separate or slaved. And the music even intelligently changes its audio form depending on whether the speakers are stacked horizontally or vertically. Unfortunately, these things cost $299 a pop, and you need a bunch of them (well, at least two) to make the most of their features.
SCOTTeVEST OTG — SCOTTeVEST has a long track record of making jackets and vests with tons of extra pockets for geeks, but even I’m surprised by the company’s OTG, which includes among its 29 pockets two pockets large enough to carry a full-sized laptop, and another one for your tablet. So if you like to travel with a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro, and an extra iPad for kicks, you’re all set; the medium and large jackets can accommodate a 15-inch MacBook Pro, while the small tops out at 13-inch. It’s $215 and available now, but use coupon code CES17 and you can save 30 percent during CES or 25 percent off for the rest of January.
Elgato Eve — If there’s one thing at CES that’s making my eyes glaze over, it’s the hundreds of companies offering smart home appliances. Some are compatible with HomeKit (see “A Prairie HomeKit Companion: Core Concepts,” 3 November 2016) and others with one of at least four other competing standards. It’s impossible for me to tell which of these products are better than any others, so until now I’ve skipped them all. But I’ll mention Elgato’s Eve system purely because I have a soft spot for the company; one of their products was the subject of the first article I wrote for TidBITS over 13 years ago (see “TiVo Alternatives: EyeTV,” 10 November 2003, for a real blast from the past regarding computer specs).
Eve is representative of the various kits I’m seeing: a collection of sensors, switches, and electrical outlets ($40–$80 each) that all communicate with a free iOS app. In theory, you could buy a pricey pallet of these and control every appliance or check the status of every door in the house. In practice, you’ll pick out a few key things you want to control and monitor, and expand as you go. When it comes to pricing and features, Eve is in the same ballpark as every other vendor here; if anyone is competing on price or has a breakout feature set, I haven’t found them yet.
Carrobot Driving Assistant — CES just isn’t CES without some kind of virtual or augmented reality, and the one I’ve noticed so far (having skipped dozens of people wearing goggles covering most of their faces) is Carrobot’s C2, an in-car heads-up display for your windshield. It has a few neat tricks aside from what you’d expect, like yelling at you if it notices your head nodding or you being distracted by your phone. But I’m a little skeptical of its built-in voice interaction, which seems at best duplicative of Siri and Google Assistant. The quickest way to decide if it might be your cup of tea is to check out their slightly silly two-minute YouTube video. It will set you back $500 once it ships in April 2017, unless you speak Chinese, in which case it’s available now.
Xenoma E-Skin — I’m mentioning Xenoma’s E-Skin technology not because it’s a breakout in its category, but because its category — technology woven into clothing — is going to explode in the near to midterm future. Printable electronics embedded in fabrics turn your clothes into a camera-free motion-capture unit. At $200, E-Skin’s premiere shirt isn’t something that you’d buy lightly, but you’re not the preferred customer — Xenoma is mainly looking to sign up developers to build on its platform. The big idea here is that at scale, printable electronics become so cheap that eventually clothing with this technology becomes price-competitive with all but the cheapest plain old clothing. There’s not much you can do with smart clothes now, but if you want to know what you’ll be wearing in ten years, keep an eye on this technology.
UpWell — Speaking as someone who has a chronic health condition, I was immediately intrigued by UpWell’s tagline of being an advocate for people like me. Essentially, UpWell wants to provide a free service for one-stop shopping and tracking for people with chronic conditions. Right now, in beta, the company has programs for diabetes, mental health issues, and heart problems. Enroll in one of these programs, and you’ll get a tailored educational and support system for that problem; eventually, UpWell will also handle prescription drug purchases and compliance tracking. I haven’t had the chance to kick the tires on the service, and I’m not entirely sure what’s in the beta and what will be included after the full launch in June 2017. But if it sounds in the least bit intriguing, give it a try, as the beta program is open to the public.
NuCalm — Every year, I typically cover at least one thing purely for the mockery value, and this year’s candidate is NuCalm’s claim that, using its product, you can get the benefit of over 2 hours of sleep in 20 minutes. You do this, apparently, by smearing a topical cream on your neck, attaching microcurrent accessories to your jaw, listening to a “neuroacoustic” app and headphones, and wearing an eye mask. (It’s unclear if the eye mask is doing anything special aside from blocking light.) I’m highly skeptical of all neurotech claims, so I want to stress that this mockery is of the genre, not this particular vendor; apparently, NuCalm has been around for 20 years and is backed up by research. But I’ll believe it when I see it. NuCalm is currently available as a service through physician providers and will arrive as a consumer product in Q4 2017. No pricing has been set yet.
FACIL’iti — I’m not an expert on accessibility, so I don’t know if there are multiple competing standards for Web accessibility. That said, I was impressed by the demo I saw of FACIL’iti, which isn’t something you buy; it’s something you request your favorite Web publishers to comply with. Sign up once with FACIL’iti and fill out a form with any disabilities you might be struggling with — FACIL’iti has preset profiles for everything from dyslexia to photosensitive epilepsy to Parkinson’s. Then, when you’re on a compliant Web site (300 so far), the entire page’s colors, text, and layout will be adjusted to suit you. For example, if you have Parkinson’s, an impossible-to-use drop menu becomes a sidebar with very large click targets. As a sometime Web designer, I’m impressed with the amount of work shown here by FACIL’iti and compliant sites. And as a guy who’s getting older, I’d like to see this or something like it become more common.
Power Aid Solar Hat — CES seems to have a thing for goofy hats. Power Aid’s solar hat seems silly at first, but might be useful for people who spend a lot of time outdoors in sunny climates. As you would expect, it’s just a hat with solar panels, but if you’re looking to charge your phone while outside, it’s a lot easier to walk around wearing a hat than it is to stop and spread out panels on the ground. At only 175 mAh per hour for a baseball hat, though, this is more for the rugged outdoors enthusiast who’s going several days without a power outlet. I was told that the baseball cap is available now for $50 (although the company’s site has it for more); a bucket hat is coming in April 2017 with twice the charging power for $70.
International Communication Project — I was quite taken by the International Communication Project because they weren’t trying to sell me anything. Instead, their booth display was all about reminding people to talk to their kids. Specifically, to talk to their preschool kids as often as possible and be careful about letting screen time crowd out talking time and language development. This appears to be a one-off campaign by the organization; they list a number of other campaigns they run about communication difficulties around the world, but I don’t see one dedicated to technology. Nevertheless, showing up at CES was a clever way of getting themselves into the tech spotlight.