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Update February 2019


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Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019

People use Oculus VR headsets at the Panasonic booth at CES International in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Mae Anderson

New York (AP) - Just a few years ago, virtual reality was poised to take over the world. After decades of near misses, the revolution finally seemed imminent, with slick consumer headsets about to hit the market and industries from gaming and entertainment to social media ready to hop on the bandwagon.

But the buzz over VR has faded to a whisper. At the CES 2019 tech show in Las Vegas, Facebook’s Oculus unit isn’t holding any glitzy press events, just closed-door demos for its upcoming Oculus Quest, a $399 untethered headset due out in the spring. Other VR companies are similarly subdued. HTC announced two new headsets - one with only sketchy details - while Sony has some kiosks for its $300 PlayStation VR set in the main hall.

It’s a world away from the scene a few years ago, when VR products from Samsung, Oculus, HTC and Sony seemed omnipresent and unstoppable at CES. These days, VR is mostly a niche product for gaming and business training, held back by expensive, clunky headsets, a paucity of interesting software and other technological shortcomings.

“VR hasn’t escaped the early adopter, gamer-oriented segment,” said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder - himself an early adopter who chafed in 2016 at delays in shipping Facebook’s then-groundbreaking Oculus Rift system. Gownder said many existing VR setups are still too hard to use; even simpler mobile systems like Samsung’s Gear VR, he said, don’t offer “a clear reason for the average non-gamer to get involved.”

VR proponents are still dreaming big, although the challenges remain formidable. Shipments of VR headsets rose 8 percent in the third quarter compared to the previous year, to 1.9 million units, according to data research firm International Data Corp. - an uptick that followed four consecutive quarters of decline. Nearly a quarter of a million units of Facebook’s Oculus Go and Xiaomi’s Mi VR - the same stand-alone VR headset, sold under different names in different markets - shipped worldwide in the quarter, IDC said.

Those still aren’t huge numbers for a technology that seemed to hold such promise in 2012 when early demonstrations of the Oculus Rift wowed audiences - so much that Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion two years later. Despite large sums plowed into the field by Facebook, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and Google, VR hasn’t yet made much of a dent in the real world.

Some of the biggest consumer complaints involve expense, laggy or glitchy graphics and the fact that many systems still tether the headsets to gaming consoles or PCs. “Technology is still what’s holding VR back,” said eMarketer analyst Victoria Petrock. Upcoming stand-alone headsets like the Oculus Quest could solve some of those problems.

More alarming, though, VR still suffers from a lack of hit software. Many major game publishers have largely avoided the field so far, and venture funding for VR software development has nosedived this year.

SuperData, a digital games and VR market research company owned by Nielsen Holdings, estimates that consumer VR software investments dropped by a stunning 59 percent in 2018, to $173 million from $420 million the year before.

Software makers are retrenching. IMAX said in late December it was shutting down its VR unit. Jaunt, a startup focused on cinematic VR and once backed by Disney, restructured this year. Its new focus? VR’s cousin technology, “augmented reality,” which paints consumer-simulated objects into the real world, a la the cartoony monsters of “Pokemon Go.”

A few games have been modest hits. “Beat Saber” a VR game in which players move a lightsaber to music, sold over 100,000 copies in its first month and became the seventh highest-rated game on Steam, according to Forbes. But such titles are few and far between.

There’s one other problem: VR isn’t very social, Petrock said. There’s no easy way to share the experience with others on social media or within the games themselves, making a VR experience less likely to go viral the way, say, “Fortnite” has. “You have your headset strapped on and you’re in a virtual world but it is solitary,” she said.

VR “is still is the next big thing, but anything good takes time and effort,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. “The industry as a whole did overhype it.”

He compares the current VR industry to the TV industry when HDTV first came out. People bought new high-definition sets but were disappointed when there wasn’t anything to watch in the new format. For VR, “the kind of breadth and depth of content isn’t all quite there,” he said.


CES 2019: “Family tech” gadgets appeal to parental anxiety

 

A Woobo talking robot is on display at the Woobo booth at CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

 Matt O’Brien

Las Vegas (AP) – Every year, the CES gadget show brings more devices promising to make life a little bit easier for harried parents.

Sure, the kids might love them too: who wouldn’t want a computerized Harry Potter wand that also teaches coding? The Las Vegas show’s growing “family tech” sector encompasses products that range from artificially intelligent toys and baby monitors to internet-connected breast pumps. 

Their common thread is an appeal to parental anxiety about raising smart kids, occupying their time, tracking their whereabouts and making sure they’re healthy and safe.

Some also come with subtle trade-offs. “Technology makes us forget what we know about life,” said psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies people’s relationships with machines. She’s particularly concerned about robots that seek to befriend or babysit young children.

Not-so-imaginary friends

Take the cute, furry Woobo, meant to be a real-life version of a child’s imaginary friend that can help set tooth-brushing routines, answer complex questions and play educational games. It’s part of a new cottage industry of sociable toys, which includes robots like Cozmo and Sony’s dog-like Aibo.

A gentle pull at the ears switches the screen-faced Woobo into listening mode. The $149 toy talks in a child-like voice and makes a game out of boring chores that might otherwise require a parent’s nagging. Its makers say Woobo doesn’t glue kids to its screen because it invites them to go find things in the home, help parents cook dinner or play family games like charades.

“Our focus on the content side is not to replace parents,” said Shen Guo, who co-founded Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Woobo after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. “It’s to enhance family time.”

But its appeal for a child’s emotional attachment and nurturing sets off alarm bells for Turkle, who has been warning against what she calls “artificial intimacy” since the Tamagotchi digital pet craze of the 1990s.

Research has shown the benefits of children playing out their inner feelings and worries by projecting them onto inert dolls. But Turkle says that doesn’t work when the toys seem real enough to have their own feelings.

“Pretend empathy is not a good thing,” Turkle said. “Everything we know about children’s development is that if you read to a child, what’s going on is the relationship, the talking, the connection, the mentoring, the safety, the sense that people love learning. Why do we think this is a good idea to give this to some robot?”

Is your baby breathing?

Talk to makers of the next generation of baby monitors unveiled at CES and you’d be surprised that generations of children survived infancy without artificial intelligence systems analyzing their every breath.

“Babies want to breathe. Babies want to live,” says Colt Seman, co-founder of Los Angeles-based startup Miku, which promises to monitor breathing and heart rate without letting parents get overly worked up about it.

Regulators haven’t approved any baby monitors for medical use and instead recommend parents focus on providing a safe sleeping environment. Some doctors worry that such devices create additional stress for parents.

Unlike most past offerings, the latest crop of baby monitors that measure vital signs are “contactless” – meaning they don’t work by attaching some electronics to a baby’s sock or chest. Raybaby’s device resembles a one-eyed robot that detects breathing patterns using radar technology. The non-ionizing radiation it emits is at low levels, but might still turn off some parents already concerned about keeping their babies too close to smartphones.

Most of the other devices rely on computer vision. A camera by Nanit watches a baby from above and measures sleeping patterns by tracking the slight movements of a specially-designed swaddle. It also uses the data it collects to recommend more consistent sleep times. Nanit’s Aaron Pollack acknowledges that some parents might still check Nanit’s phone app to check breathing data five times a night “out of sheer anxiety.”

“We’re not trying to prevent that,” he said. “We’re just trying to give you some piece of mind.”

Two others, Miku and Utah-based Smartbeat, each boast of a level of precision and analytical rigor that could eventually help predict when the baby is going to get sick. Both have phone alert systems to report worrisome breathing irregularities. Smartbeat’s analysis is purely image-based, while Miku also uses radar. Miku’s sleeker hardware comes at a cost: It’s $399, well above the $250 Smartbeat.

Tech in the womb

Of course, parental anxiety begins even before a child is born – hence Owlet’s new $299 pregnancy band that wraps around a woman’s abdomen to track fetal heartbeats by taking an electrocardiogram. The idea is to put on the stretchy band before going to sleep starting about three to four months before the due date.

It sends a morning wellness report to a user’s smartphone app, with details including an expectant mother’s contractions and sleep positions – and warnings if fetal heartbeat or movements fall outside acceptable ranges.

An owl-faced medallion above the mother’s belly gives the band the look of a superhero emblem – and why not? Pregnancy is tough. 

“It’s really just having that extra piece of mind, between doctor’s visits, that everything is OK,” said Owlet spokeswoman Misty Bond.


Smart but nosy: Latest gadgets want to peer into our lives

A smart home mockup is on display at the Tuya booth at CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Rachel Lerman & Joseph Pisani

Las Vegas (AP) - Many of the hottest new gadgets are also the nosiest ones.

This year’s CES tech show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that livestream the living room, bathroom mirrors that offer beauty tips and gizmos that track the heartbeats of unborn children. All will collect some kind of data about their users, whether photos or monitor readings; how well they’ll protect it and what exactly they plan do with it are the important and often unanswered questions.

These features can be useful - or at least fun - but they all open the door for companies and their workers to peek into your private life. Just this week, The Intercept reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave a variety of employees and executives access to recorded and sometimes live video footage from customers’ homes.

Our data-driven age now forces you to weigh the usefulness of a smart mirror against the risk that strangers might be watching you in your bathroom. Even if a company has your privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access sensitive data, or your ex might hold onto a video feed long after you’ve broken up.

“It’s not like all these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University of Washington computer security and privacy researcher.

But she said the industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process.

Amazon’s video feeds

Like other security devices, Ring cameras can be mounted outside the front door or inside the home; a phone app lets you see who’s there. But the Intercept said the Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S. to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could view and download any customer video file.

In a statement, Ring said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video from users who consent to such sharing.

At CES, Ring announced an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into the peepholes in apartment or dorm-room doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.

Living room livestream

It’s one thing to put cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other people’s houses.

Alarm’s Wellcam is for caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in” anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products.

The notion of placing a camera in someone else’s living room might feel unsettling.

Wellcam says video streaming isn’t started until someone activates it from a phone and then it stops as soon as the person turns it off. Chazin says such cameras are “becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they care about are safe.”

Just be sure you trust whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera unless you unplug it.

Bathroom cameras

French company CareOS showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with animation on how you might look.

CareOS expects hotels and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror - making it more important that personal data is protected.

“We know we don’t want the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder Chloe Szulzinger said.

The mirror doesn’t need an internet connection to work, she said. The company says it will abide by Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.

The same applies for the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to share some information - such as photos of the hair cut they got last time they visited a salon - but the businesses can’t access anything stored in user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.

Bodily Data

Some gadgets, meanwhile, are gathering intimate information.

Yo Sperm sells an iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy, the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app, though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.

Owlet, meanwhile, plans to sell a wearable device that sits over a woman’s pregnant belly and tracks fetal heartbeats. The company’s privacy policy says personal data gets collected. And users can choose to share heartbeat information with researchers studying stillbirths.

Though such data can be useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance, that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy - potentially raising health risks and policy premiums.
 


UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019


CES 2019: “Family tech” gadgets appeal to parental anxiety


Smart but nosy: Latest gadgets want to peer into our lives