The Best and Worst of CES 2020

Here's what I liked, loved, and hated at the biggest trade show in America

CES is just too much. It’s sprawling and generally overwhelming. Once inside, it’s like you’re nose-to-nose with a Seurat, you know, one of those pointillists paintings where you can only understand it by stepping way, way back.

Now that I’m finally done with CES and literally thousands of miles away from it, I can see it for what it was and, I think, accurately assess the hype, the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

I learned a lot walking 54,187 steps on some of the ugliest carpet in history, finding an astonishing number of products, hearing countless innovation tales, and having some truly awesome experiences. 

Mercedez-Benz Avatar Car
The Mercedes-Benz Avatar car is, naturally, like something straight out of the movies.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Getting Around

If CES reflects our digital experience, then it's surely telling us that transportation is about to change. From the tunnel the Boring company is digging below Las Vegas (even as 175,000 event attendees walk above), to the countless e-scooters and electric bikes, CES is showing us how we’ll get from A-to-Z in the future.

Even though this isn’t a car show, there were concept cars aplenty, like the organic-looking Mercedes-Benz Avatar concept. This is a car that looks like it was poured, not built. In addition to four independent turning wheels and an array of robotic panels that can signal your intentions to the car behind you, the Avatar car has an interior that looks exactly like something Avatar Director James Cameron would design. Even the controls, which appear as projections on your raised hand, are magical. To use one, you close your hand.

Sony shocked everyone by introducing an all-electric car but inexplicably did not call it The DriveMan. The Vision-S, though, does live up to its name with almost three-dozen sensors and a nice built-in entertainment system.

Faraday Future FF91
The Faraday Future FF91 looks like the future,. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Surprises and Rides

As I was racing from one meeting to another, I found a pair of Faraday Future FF91 electric cars parked outside the Renaissance Hotel, which is right next to the convention center. That Faraday has any functioning cars is a surprise considering the turmoil at the company. Still the FF91’s were real, quite comfortable and, yes, they can drive (0-to-60 in 2.4 seconds).

I did ride a few electric vehicles. There was the Unagi e-scooter, which, thanks to its user-friendly controls, I mastered in no time, and Segway’s fascinating S-Pod. It’s the self-balancing personal mobility device that looks a lot like those Wall-E hover chairs. Balancing on two wheels, the chair works as advertised, gliding smoothly and turning on a dime with the use of a joystick. It’s oddly less intuitive to use than a typical Segway, where you stand and imperceptibly shift your body weight to move.

There were also large pools and tanks of water dotting CES. Most of them were filled with people using new underwater mobility devices, including SuBlue’s MixPro underwater scooter. I couldn’t look at them without worrying about a leak.

The look of things

LG OLED rollable
LG's rollable OLED rolls up into the ceiling like a projector screen. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

All the 8K TVs I expected were there, but the fascination with Micro LEDs surprised me. This modular TV system lets you take smaller high-resolution displays and combine them into wall-sized screens. Because the displays are not all one unit, they also accommodate splitting the TV into multiple inputs. At one point I stood sweating in front of a blazing 216-inch Planar 8K unit.

Planar Micro LED TV
Can you see the sweat beading up on my brow?. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

There were also flexible displays everywhere. LG rolled a UHD OLED TV out of a ceiling box and put smaller ones in next-gen car seat backs and Royole made a tree out of them. Flexible and transparent OLED panels TVs are now old news and the only question is when LG will finally bring some of them to market.

Instead of bendy TVs, we get folding smartphones and, now, laptops. I was impressed with Lenovo’s implementation of OLED technology in the ThinkPad X1 Fold. I mean, the device is a little thick and heavy for its size, but I think there’s a market for a 13-inch laptop that folds down into folio size.

The Big Whiff

CES 2020 was not without its hype. In the run-up to the show, everyone was talking about Neon Life’s Neon and how it might represent a breakthrough in digital human avatars. But the videos were mostly canned and the live demos were unimpressive, to say the least.

Less hype-driven, but more worthy of notice were a pair of ability and precious resources-driven tech breakthroughs.

WaterGen’s GENNY uses solar energy to turn moisture from the air into potable water and LexLight is a simple yet smart solution to dyslexia. The desk lamp uses blinking lights to trick the mind into using one eye at a time to read. This somehow helps re-sort the text into readable prose.

Neon
Neon did not live up to the hype. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Get healthy

Health and fitness tech is bigger and more focused than ever. Ideas that were once little more than kickstarter experiments are now high-end products like the $350 Smart Belt Pro from Welt that can detect gait issues and warn you if you might be in danger of a fall.

Welt Smartbelt
The Welt Smart Belt Pro is for more than just holding up your pants.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

There were at least two LED light helmets (one cleverly called, I kid you not, “Hairgrow”) that promised to grow back my hair, but only at the cost of my dignity. I saw of lot of massage chairs of questionable utility, though the Tony Stark Industries one was kind of cool.

LED hair regrowth cap
Update: I'm still bald. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In the world of consumer tech, though, size and flash are rarely indicative of value or utility. Some of the best and most exciting consumer technology introductions were in the small and often subtle wearable space.

Oral-B iO
When you're at a tech show, it's only natural to brush your teeth with a super-smart toothbrush. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Withings, for example, added sleep apnea detection to its latest smart watch. It looks for changes in blood oxygen saturation through your wrist. You just have to get used to sleeping with your watch on. 

There were also some high-tech sneaker upgrades including NURVV Run biometric insoles that slip inside your sneakers and track your run and help you avoid injury.

Withings Smart Watch
This watch can detect sleep apnea.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

And, as I’ve already written, tooth care is on fire. Every major brand has a smart toothbrush and there are even a few startups trying some truly wacky designs. I even test drove one of the new smart brushes while I was in Vegas. If you see me, please comment on my white teeth.

There was a mix of humanoid and utility robots. I especially like PuduTech’s cat-headed BellaBot, which has a body for trays and a head like a cat. Watching it effortlessly wend its way around some show floor obstacles, I could definitely imagine it weaving around tables and delivering meals at a restaurant.

I learned a lot walking 54,187 steps on some of the ugliest carpet in history.

The strangest robot was the Petit Qoobo and the most adorable robot was the child-like LikU from Torooc. Too bad it costs $2,500.

Samsung’s Ballie, however, was CES’s biggest robot surprise. It’s basically a very smart ball that can follow you, watch over you, help you work out, and take pictures. Some compared it to the programmable Sphero, but I think it’s much more consumer and smart home focused. Ballie also appears to be autonomous.

Bellabot
Bellabot could eventually show up at your local eateries. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

AirPod Obsession

I noticed an inordinate fascination with anything relating to AirPods or wireless earbuds. My most popular CES 2020 Twitter post featured the Wearbuds, a smartwatch that doubles as a Bluetooth earbud case and, yes, charger. It’s huge and ridiculous looking, but also really, really smart. Then there’s Jura Anchor, which built a special keychain that plugs into your AirPods case, so you don’t lose them.

And clearly the pendulum has swung the other way on whether or not AirPod style ear-wear looks absurd. Now there are companies adorning The Bluetooth buds with skulls and silver lions.

Jura
That's right, someone made a keychain for your AirPods. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Simple pleasures

On my last day at CES, the smell of brisket wafted from an area surrounded by a plastic white picket fence.

I walked over to the outdoor setup and found a dozen or so Weber grills. One of them was cooking up a giant slab of meat. Attached to its side was a new Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub running June OS software. June made a name for itself a few years back with an intelligent oven. Now it’s smartly shifted to platform mode and is powering this hub that works with any grill and a few Weber grills with the app-connected system built right in. I only wish I had time to sit down and eat a slab of grilled beef.

If meat turns you off, Impossible introduced Impossible Pork at CES. I didn’t get to taste it but was told by multiple sources that it tastes like pork.

Weber Grill with June technology
This Weber Pellet Grill is using the Weber Connect Smart Grilling Hub, which can track cooking progress of up to 4 pieces of meat. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

I could go on, but you have other things to read. So, I’ll leave you with a few other memorable products: 

So what

The biggest consumer electronics show of the year did not disappoint. It painted a vibrant picture of products, services, and trends that will carry us through 2020 and beyond. Even though no one product rose above all other as the star of the show, I think we’ll be writing, talking, and, eventually, using many of these new products in the coming years.

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