CES: Innovations big and small

From big television screens to the smallest robotics, thousands of tech companies launch their latest products for 2016 at CES in Las Vegas.

  • 10 quirky 2016 gadgets at CES

Las Vegas: It’s the kind of moment every technology executive dreads.

“Hey Cortana​,” Microsoft marketing manager Bryan Roper said, addressing the newly unveiled Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S tablet device, which runs the Windows 10 operating system.

CES 2016 is the world's biggest consumer electronics convention.CES 2016 is the world’s biggest consumer electronics convention.

“Show me wash loads alongside family members at home.”

An immediate, deadly silence hung in the packed auditorium, which was full with hundreds watching the Samsung Electronics keynote at CES 2016, the world’s biggest consumer electronics convention.

“Alright … let’s try that one more time,” said Roper, the sweat almost palpable.

The Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator at CES 2016.The Samsung Family Hub Refrigerator at CES 2016. Photo: John Davidson

Roper was demonstrating Cortana, Microsoft’s personal, voice-activated assistant, and its integration with Samsung’s “Internet of Things” connected devices platform.

Tech powerhouses from Samsung to LG to smaller, less well-known brands unveiled clever fridges, washing machines and dishwashers.

Real-time monitoring, data storage and remote control access via smartphone apps was a given, while innovations such as fridge doors opening when you swipe your foot under them – hands laden with groceries – on an LG fridge were subtle delights. All were part of a much bigger plan to make household chores seamless, easy and efficient, to leave more room in our lives for the things we enjoy.

Samsung coined a new buzzword, “IoTivity”, conjuring productivity, activity and connectivity all in one.

At the heart of it all is automation, of which voice-activated personal assistants are a key part. Major tech companies are pouring huge amounts of capital into AI (artificial intelligence) research and development.

But the Cortana on-stage slip-up – and it wasn’t the first – highlighted how far some aspects have to go before these innovations can provide that truly seamless, helpful experience that will hook consumers in a big way.

Gartner research vice president Steve Kleynhans says the voice-driven personal assistant market has come forward in leaps and bounds over the past year, but gaps remain.

“Do they fail occasionally? Yes,” he says. “They are all still a little too fragile about sentence structure, and forming questions correctly for everyday use.

“For example, the virtual personal assistants currently have difficulty understanding what I mean by ‘Give me directions back to my hotel’ – unless I specifically tell it what ‘my hotel’ is [even though they already have that data].”

The fumbled Cortana’s demonstration was a case in point.

“Show me wash loads alongside family members at home” makes little sense in everyday speech. In Cortana’s language, however, it’s a clear command for her to bring up data about washing machine usage: which individual members of a household have done washing, and how big their load was.

Like so many next-generation smart home gadgets, Samsung’s latest washing machines automatically log data on usage to help manage energy efficiency and to check on activities remotely.

“Billy’s at about 15 per cent less capacity each time [than other family members],” Roper said, once Cortana had twigged the command and displayed a graph on usage statistics.

Cortana’s main rivals – Apple’s Siri, and Android’s OK Google – also have their own strengths and weaknesses, says Forrester principal analyst JP Gownder.

“Cortana probably learns a bit better than the other two,” he says.

“All of them have a way to go in real-world situations, but it’s a very important vector of competition for these computing giants: voice-controlled agents will eventually become proactive, giving you advice and information that’s relevant to you.”

His top pick to watch out for in 2016 is none of these. It’s IBM’s Watson assistant.

While other players are geared towards convenience, IBM announced a range of partnerships with healthcare providers to aid in disease prevention and personal fitness, on top of its smart home functions.

Health tracking is being driven by the booming wearables sector, but hasn’t been a major focus of Cortana, Siri and OK Google to date.

IBM said its partnership with Irish medical device maker Medtronic would help develop diabetes prevention and treatment through collecting and analysing blood sugar levels and other health data.

And the company is also developing – alongside sports wearables maker Under Armour – a 24-hour health tracking system which provides personalised fitness training based on sleep, activity and nutrition habits.

Hannah Francis travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of LG.