At CES, the weird takes center stage
LAS VEGAS — Maybe we should get President-elect Trump out here to the Consumer Electronics Show and have him give a speech about making America weird again.
Every year, CES presents hundreds of clever new products from the world’s most innovative technology companies. But the show also serves up digital oddities that look like something Ron Popeil would advertise on late-night TV.
And that’s not a bad thing. Innovators are supposed to take risks, sometimes crazy ones. So where are all the crazy new American products? During my first day here,the oddest and most interesting new products on tap are imports from beyond the sea. In fact, all of them came from just two countries — China and France.
For instance, there’s the Kerastase Hair Coach, a smart hair brush from L’Oreal Group. It wouldn’t work on me, the booth lady told me in heavily accented English. My hair . . . it is too short. But she said that those with flowing locks could now brush their way to healthier, prettier hair.
The spokeswoman pointed proudly to a silvery disk in the center of the brush. A microphone, she said. It could tell the condition of a user’s hair just by listening to it as he brushes. There are also motion sensors that track how hard you brush and how many strokes you use. The brush handle vibrates if you’re doing it wrong. And a smartphone app lets you keep a permanent record of your hair brushing habits. How much? Somewhere around $200 when it goes on sale this fall.
What is it with the French and brushes? A few yards from the Kerastase booth, a Parisian company called Kolibree displayed the Ara, an electric toothbrush with artificial intelligence. It’s not the first toothbrush that uses a Bluetooth connection to your smartphone to track brushing habits. But Kolibree claims the Ara’s sensors can detect if you’ve missed a few spots. A smartphone display shows every insufficiently brushed tooth in your head, highlighted in a nasty yellowish-brown that’ll send you scrambling back to the bathroom.
It seems a bit much, but at $129, the Ara is in the same price range as other fancy dental devices.
My favorite odd product from France is Eugene, a barcode scanner you attach to a wall in your home, directly above the trash can. That’s right: you scan your trash as you throw it away.
This one only sounds crazy. With Eugene, an app on your smartphone keeps track of the packaged foods your family is eating, so you can track your consumption of salt, sugar, or fat. Eugene uses your discards to create shopping lists — yes, you did use up all the laundry detergent — and lets you instantly order more from Amazon or other online retailers. It even tells you whether your empty packages should be recycled.
But it has its limits. Eugene won’t read the label on a package of ground beef or that bunch of bananas you bought, so it can’t track your family’s consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, or meats.
Still, strange as it seems, Eugene could catch on with the millions who are careful about what they eat and what they throw away. It’s expected to hit American shores by year’s end, at a price of about $100.
Drones have been a fixture at CES for several years, and by now they should be boring, but not just yet.
Zero Zero Robotics of Beijing captured my attention with its Hover Camera Passport, a $600 drone that hangs in the air shooting super-sharp 4K video or high-resolution still images. The Passport can be manually steered through a smartphone app, but it’s also got an “auto-follow” setting that lets it recognize the face and body of the user and follow him around, shooting pictures all the while. Think of it as a flying selfie stick.
But the strangest drone here does its hovering underwater. The PowerRay from China’s PowerVision Group might be the weirdest fishing accessory since Dan Aykroyd pitched the Super Bass-O-Matic blender on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s a sleek, science-fictiony looking thing that can dive as deep as 98 feet, while remaining connected to the surface through an electronic tether. The fisherman steers it with a smartphone or tablet, or with a set of virtual reality goggles.
The PowerRay can transmit 4K video, or readouts from an integrated fish-finder that can be popped out and used separately. It’s also got a nose-mounted attachment where the fisherman can hang a baited hook. Now he can steer the drone straight for the nearest school of fish, and record a video of some poor salmon getting an unwanted invitation to dinner.
Bizarre? You bet. But the PowerRay would also make a fine tool for nonviolent underwater photography, or for scientific research. But you’d better apply for a grant first. The company hasn’t officially announced a price yet, but a man at the CES booth reckoned that it will sell for between $2,000 and $3,000.
So far, Europe and Asia are out front in the CES oddball sweepstakes, but the show’s just getting started. By week’s end, I expect plenty of striking new gadgets stamped “Made in America.” Either that, or I’m calling the White House.