On day two or three of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (time tends to warp in Las Vegas), I was sifting through more than 100 morning emails when I found my show report’s headline. A press release announced, “A Promobot Robot was killed by a self-driving Tesla car,” and went on to assert that one of the company’s robots that wandered into a Las Vegas street was whacked by an allegedly autonomous Tesla Model S. The release included video footage that recorded the event. Although the car-kills-bot claim smelled of PR foolery, I’m sticking with the headline.
Talking Machines and Flying Cars
Here’s a fun fact: In the original futuristic film Blade Runner (1982), cars zoom around defying gravity and some humans are really robots in the year 2019. While we’re not living the movie’s imagined landscape yet, CES Bell Helicopters displayed an air taxi that looked a lot like a giant version of today’s small, four-rotor drone. And elsewhere, both consumer electronics and automotive infotainment systems want to converse with us through Amazon’s Alexa.
Though I didn’t encounter a human-like “replicant” on my journey during my visit with Dor Skuler, CEO and co-founder of Intuition Robotics, I was introduced to ElliQ, a small interactive companion for seniors who spend much of their time alone. ElliQ looks a lot like a table lamp, but is quite animated when prompted or awakens to remind you to take your meds or perhaps wonders why that ungrateful kid who locked you up with an appliance is still in your will.
Back Down to Earth (well, sort of)
Every once in a while, a vehicle concept comes along that just strikes the right chord for people who have experienced frustration on today’s roads with our current crop of drivers. Hyundai’s Elevate, its Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV), is designed to respond to “natural disasters,” but I’d submit that it’s perfectly suitable for a daily commute. In its low-slung stance it conveys just the right amount of military menace. But when needed, the Elevate transforms into a giant crawling or rolling machine. Just imagine how much fun this vehicle could be.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see Hyundai’s concept reach reality, but BYTON unveiled its M-BYTE in production spec, and the new electric vehicle bristles with technology, especially inside the cabin. It’s impossible to miss the 48-inch-wide Shared Experience Display that dominates the top of the dashboard and lower portion of the windshield. And despite its size, BYTON insists that the curved panel “was developed and tested not to affect driver line-of-sight.” A small touchscreen populates the steering wheel for driver functions, and passengers can interact with their part of the big display with a separate 8-inch pad. I’ll report on what this experience is really like when we get a vehicle to test.
Harman International took over most of the Hard Rock with all of its automotive infotainment and consumer electronics on display. The most interesting was a modular in-vehicle communications scheme that could isolate the driver and/or passengers to allow either personal audio without headphones or a driver’s connected cell phone call without other audio distraction. I’m sure we’ll see this available soon, beginning in luxury brands.
Unlike previous years, the rush to autonomous vehicles didn’t seem quite as urgent, but there were a few demonstration rides around town and within the Convention Center parking lots. The most futuristic example was the Mercedes-Benz Vision URBANETIC Mobility Vehicle that offered short driverless rides in a coned-off portion of the Vegas Strip. And perhaps the most novel self-motoring demonstration was rival BMW’s R1200 GS that rode itself around a parking lot.
Audeze (ah-da-zee) is a California company that hand-builds planer magnetic headphones that many consider the best in the world. An impressive reputation and limited supply don’t come cheap, and Audeze prices range from $799 for the LCD2 Classic to $3,495 for the top-of-line LCD-4 Reference series. I sampled the company’s new Mobius, headphones designed for serious gamers and built overseas to be competitive in that environment. Mobius comes complete with a microphone and sensors to detect head movement, but the mic is easily detachable and the sound is audiophile quality. And the $399 price may be one of the best values ever for serious listening.
The other headphone surprises were discovered in Sony’s giant display. The company that spans the creative spectrum from recording artist to living room playback offers a wide variety of headphones, many available in the low-cost volume marketplace. In vivid contrast, Sony gathered a handful of participants to demonstrate its 360 Reality Audio in a demo room equipped with an impressive loudspeaker surround system. Technicians installed a tiny device in our ears that blipped momentarily, then played the surround audio track through the headphones. Quite convincing. The company also demonstrated its new Signature Series, replacing the ES line with a $2,000 MDR-Z1R headphone connected to an $8,000 DMP-Z1 music player that combines an amp, DAC, and expandable hi-res music storage, nicely tethered by a Kimber Kable. While Sony won’t find much volume in this space, these products should add panache to the ubiquitous brand.