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Update February 2019


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CES 2019: A high-tech spin for the old-school peephole

The Soma Innofit bra is displayed at CES International in Las Vegas. The $59 smart bra recommends a bra, from Soma’s line, of course. (AP Photo)

Matt O’Brien & Joseph Pisani

Las Vegas (AP) - Findings and observations from Associated Press reporters on the ground at the CES 2019 gadget show.

Ding-dong, the peephole is ringing

Ring is giving the old-school peephole a high-tech spin.

The company unveiled a new internet-connected video doorbell that fits into most peepholes. The new device is aimed at apartment dwellers or college students who want a video doorbell, but may not be allowed to install one next to their doors.

Yumi Dobashi tries on the Focals smart glasses at the North booth at CES International in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Amazon bought Ring last year, giving it a shot at competing better with Google's Nest, which also makes cameras and doorbells. Privacy experts have long sounded the alarm on Wi-Fi connected cameras and how video is stored. Amazon recently filed a patent application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras, which would allow multiple cameras to create composites of faces to identify people who may be trying to burglarize a house. It doesn't appear Ring uses facial recognition yet, as Nest already does, though Ring may add such features over time. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Ring's Door View Cam will go on sale in March for $199. Ring's new device will still act as a peephole, but will also send alerts to user's smartphones when the doorbell is pressed or someone knocks the door.

Eye of the beholder?

The makers of a robotic "personal massager" for women won a prestigious CES award. Then organizers took it away.

Its maker, the startup Lora DiCarlo, was also banned from exhibiting on the show floor (though it was in Las Vegas at a separate media event).

The show's organizer, the Consumer Technology Association, said in an email to Lora DiCarlo that it reserved the right to disqualify any entry "deemed by CTA in their sole discretion to be immoral, obscene, indecent, profane or not in keeping with CTA's image."

An independent panel of judges had selected Lora DiCarlo's Ose vibrator last fall to win a CES 2019 Innovation Honoree Award in the robotics and drone category. Gary Shapiro, CTA's president and CEO, apologized in a separate letter and said the company should have been told it's "ineligible for entry." CTA declined to provide further comment to The Associated Press on why the product was ineligible.

Ose's makers say it's sexism, noting that "a literal sex doll for men launched on the floor at CES in 2018." Lora Haddock, the CEO of Lora DiCarlo, says that makes for a double standard at the tech show already under fire for not including enough women.

Shades that text

Smart glasses haven't been a hit, but at least one startup still sees them in our future.

A company called North will be delivering its $999 smart glasses to customers in the coming weeks. Called Focals by North, they pair with a smartphone and show text messages, weather and mapping directions on the glass that only the wearer sees.

 

Users also need to wear a ring with a joystick on their index finger, so they can flip through messages or respond with their thumb. It can also be controlled using the built-in Amazon Alexa voice assistant, but the joystick has to be pressed down for it to start listening.

Getting people to buy smart glasses has been a challenge - Google famously stopped selling its smart glasses to the public about four years ago.

Aaron Grant, North's co-founder, says his product is different because they are designed to look like regular frames. And prescription lenses can be added.

But there's a small projector on one side, and the frames on the side are slightly thicker.

Fresh bread, no baker

That smell wafting through the CES show? Freshly baked bread.

Wilkinson Baking Co. unveiled a 22-square-foot machine that can bake 10 loaves of bread every hour - no baker needed. But a human is needed to dump the ingredients into the machine, which then mixes them, forms the dough and starts baking. Someone also needs to slice the bread, although the company says it's working on a way for the machines to do that, too.

The BreadBot, as it's called, is being pitched to supermarkets as a way to deliver fresh bread to shoppers who are increasingly worried about the ingredients in their foods. The machine is covered in glass, so customers can watch bread get made. They then select the loaf they want on a touch screen, sort of like a vending machine.

Three local supermarkets are already testing it. The company says a couple of big chains have agreed to try it out soon, but it won't say which.

Smart bra

Is your bra dumb? An underwear company is pitching a solution to an age-old problem for women: finding a bra that actually fits.

In the past, women could get help from an expert human in finding their right size. A simple measuring tape wouldn't do, as it doesn't reflect other factors such as the shape of a woman's breasts. But these old-school "bra fitters" are hard to find these days.

To address that, a company called Soma has added some circuits to a brassiere and connected it to an app.

The Soma Innofit has four lines of circuitry hooked up to a circuit board in the back, which then connects to an app via Bluetooth. The $59 smart bra then recommends a bra - from Soma's line, of course.

The smart bra isn't meant for regular wearing, though it could be used again if sizes change because of pregnancy or other factors. The company says people who don't want to buy one can use it at a Soma store.


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]

CES 2019: A high-tech spin for the old-school peephole


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