The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is an awful lot like a large, overlit and overcrowded disco chock-full of wiz-bang technology and gaga gadgetry, much of which will never really materialize into anything of significance. This year will most likely prove much of the same as year’s prior where promising new technologies are introduced, the crowds go wild, and then when many of these new technologies hit the market, they promptly flop.
CES is targeted at the world of techno geeks and early adopters. You all know the type. Right now they are wearing goofy-looking, bulky fitness wearables on their wrists, telling anybody who will listen what their step count for the day is or what their blood pressure is at that moment.
For many of us, CES is just an event to watch and ponder with a mild sense of curiosity which of the technologies making their splashy roll-outs will prove significant in the coming years and which ones will wither and die on the consumer market vine.
Despite the hype, there were a few new technologies for which engineers should keep a watchful eye. These are technologies that might one day enter into the real-world work environment, taking products to the next step of functionality. Let’s take a look at a few of the more hopeful new technologies that made their debut at CES.
Voxel8 printer. First up is a 3D printer that can embed circuits inside whatever object it is fabricating. The real innovation here is the material used to create the circuits, not the 3D printer. 3D printers have traditionally been almost entirely confined to inert objects, models or components made from a single substance or several kinds of similar material, such as multiple plastics. The new Voxel8 device, created by researchers from Harvard University, combines the plastic typically used for rapid prototyping with a new silver-based conductive ink that, unlike conventional circuit solder, can be extruded by the 3D printer.
Imagine that this could enable 3D printers one day to produce entire functional devices in a single manufacturing operation, with the circuits built in to the structure of the object, which plays quite nicely into the “smart” products and Internet of Things trends. So far, the Voxel8 printer only prints the connecting electrical pathways and the electronic components have to be added separately. Keep in mind that this is a developer rapid prototyping model, not a commercial-quality additive manufacturing tool. Despite its initial limitations, the ability to embed circuits within 3D-printed objects could make it easier to incorporate sensors or energy harvesting devices within structures.
Tracked eyewear. XOEye Technologies debuted eyewear that includes a camera and sensors that are designed for occupations, not consumers. The eyewear offers wearers numerous functions including barcode scanning and sensors that can track, for instance, how many times an employee has to bend down to pick something up, or how far someone must walk to perform certain tasks. The primary use for these glasses seems to be job training in the skilled trades. With the glasses’ video link, someone can see exactly what a person is doing so they can observe, guide and instruct someone on a particular job, no matter where they are located. Because they also include an accelerometer and gyroscope, the platform can log body movements, inviting new possibilities for managing worker safety and ergonomics.
Battery breakthrough. Another significant announcement was from an Israeli company, Storedot, that debuted a battery that can supposedly be recharged in seconds. The battery uses ‘bio-organic nano crystals’ that enable ions to be moved between electrodes much faster than in conventional batteries. If Storedot can further increase the battery’s energy density, it could become the battery breakthrough needed for major advances in various applications. Charge time is seen as one of the critical limiting factors in the market acceptance of electric vehicles, so the ability to “refuel” a battery-powered car in three minutes instead of 30, makes this technology a potential game-changer. Any technology that provides greater flexibility when storing and accessing energy is likely to have an impact on the grid-level energy storage needed to usher in greater use of renewable generation.
Sprout workstation/scanner/projector. The Sprout combines the power of a desktop computer with 3D scanning and projection and adds a second display surface that is actually a touchpad. The workstation has several parts, the main one is a computer (with 1 TB of storage) running Windows 8, hidden behind its 23-in. display screen, a touchpad the size of a display screen, and an overhead 3 camera-scanner/projector. The system can combine elements in the real world with virtual objects, to create something new.
Ultrahaptics. This up-and-coming new tech, from Ultrahaptics, lets you “feel” objects and sensations several inches above your keyboard, and then manipulate them. By creating constructively interfering intersections of ultrasonic waves, the Ultrahaptics system can generate silent points of turbulence in the air that that essentially trick you into thinking your fingertips are touching objects when they’re not. What’s cool is that it doesn’t involve any extra gear on the part of the user: no gloves or special glasses–all the tech is in the hardware and the accompany software.
Did you see or hear about any other tech breakthroughs at this year’s CES? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Share your comments below.