Remember virtual reality? Its buzz has faded at CES 2019
use Oculus VR headsets at the Panasonic booth at CES International in
Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
New York (AP) - Just a few
years ago, virtual reality was poised to take over the world. After
decades of near misses, the revolution finally seemed imminent, with
slick consumer headsets about to hit the market and industries from
gaming and entertainment to social media ready to hop on the bandwagon.
But the buzz over VR has faded to a whisper. At the
CES 2019 tech show in Las Vegas, Facebook’s Oculus unit isn’t holding
any glitzy press events, just closed-door demos for its upcoming Oculus
Quest, a $399 untethered headset due out in the spring. Other VR
companies are similarly subdued. HTC announced two new headsets - one
with only sketchy details - while Sony has some kiosks for its $300
PlayStation VR set in the main hall.
It’s a world away from the scene a few years ago,
when VR products from Samsung, Oculus, HTC and Sony seemed omnipresent
and unstoppable at CES. These days, VR is mostly a niche product for
gaming and business training, held back by expensive, clunky headsets, a
paucity of interesting software and other technological shortcomings.
“VR hasn’t escaped the early adopter, gamer-oriented
segment,” said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder - himself an early adopter
who chafed in 2016 at delays in shipping Facebook’s then-groundbreaking
Oculus Rift system. Gownder said many existing VR setups are still too
hard to use; even simpler mobile systems like Samsung’s Gear VR, he
said, don’t offer “a clear reason for the average non-gamer to get
VR proponents are still dreaming big, although the
challenges remain formidable. Shipments of VR headsets rose 8 percent in
the third quarter compared to the previous year, to 1.9 million units,
according to data research firm International Data Corp. - an uptick
that followed four consecutive quarters of decline. Nearly a quarter of
a million units of Facebook’s Oculus Go and Xiaomi’s Mi VR - the same
stand-alone VR headset, sold under different names in different markets
- shipped worldwide in the quarter, IDC said.
Those still aren’t huge numbers for a technology that
seemed to hold such promise in 2012 when early demonstrations of the
Oculus Rift wowed audiences - so much that Facebook acquired Oculus for
$2 billion two years later. Despite large sums plowed into the field by
Facebook, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft and Google, VR hasn’t yet made much
of a dent in the real world.
Some of the biggest consumer complaints involve
expense, laggy or glitchy graphics and the fact that many systems still
tether the headsets to gaming consoles or PCs. “Technology is still
what’s holding VR back,” said eMarketer analyst Victoria Petrock.
Upcoming stand-alone headsets like the Oculus Quest could solve some of
More alarming, though, VR still suffers from a lack
of hit software. Many major game publishers have largely avoided the
field so far, and venture funding for VR software development has
nosedived this year.
SuperData, a digital games and VR market research
company owned by Nielsen Holdings, estimates that consumer VR software
investments dropped by a stunning 59 percent in 2018, to $173 million
from $420 million the year before.
Software makers are retrenching. IMAX said in late
December it was shutting down its VR unit. Jaunt, a startup focused on
cinematic VR and once backed by Disney, restructured this year. Its new
focus? VR’s cousin technology, “augmented reality,” which paints
consumer-simulated objects into the real world, a la the cartoony
monsters of “Pokemon Go.”
A few games have been modest hits. “Beat Saber” a VR
game in which players move a lightsaber to music, sold over 100,000
copies in its first month and became the seventh highest-rated game on
Steam, according to Forbes. But such titles are few and far between.
There’s one other problem: VR isn’t very social,
Petrock said. There’s no easy way to share the experience with others on
social media or within the games themselves, making a VR experience less
likely to go viral the way, say, “Fortnite” has. “You have your headset
strapped on and you’re in a virtual world but it is solitary,” she said.
VR “is still is the next big thing, but anything good
takes time and effort,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. “The industry
as a whole did overhype it.”
He compares the current VR industry to the TV
industry when HDTV first came out. People bought new high-definition
sets but were disappointed when there wasn’t anything to watch in the
new format. For VR, “the kind of breadth and depth of content isn’t all
quite there,” he said.
CES 2019: “Family tech” gadgets appeal to parental anxiety
A Woobo talking robot is on display at the Woobo booth
at CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP
Las Vegas (AP) – Every year,
the CES gadget show brings more devices promising to make life a little
bit easier for harried parents.
Sure, the kids might love them too:
who wouldn’t want a computerized Harry Potter wand that also teaches
coding? The Las Vegas show’s growing “family tech” sector encompasses
products that range from artificially intelligent toys and baby monitors
to internet-connected breast pumps.
Their common thread is an appeal to
parental anxiety about raising smart kids, occupying their time,
tracking their whereabouts and making sure they’re healthy and safe.
Some also come with subtle
trade-offs. “Technology makes us forget what we know about life,” said
psychologist Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology who studies people’s relationships with machines. She’s
particularly concerned about robots that seek to befriend or babysit
Take the cute, furry Woobo, meant
to be a real-life version of a child’s imaginary friend that can help
set tooth-brushing routines, answer complex questions and play
educational games. It’s part of a new cottage industry of sociable toys,
which includes robots like Cozmo and Sony’s dog-like Aibo.
A gentle pull at the ears switches
the screen-faced Woobo into listening mode. The $149 toy talks in a
child-like voice and makes a game out of boring chores that might
otherwise require a parent’s nagging. Its makers say Woobo doesn’t glue
kids to its screen because it invites them to go find things in the
home, help parents cook dinner or play family games like charades.
“Our focus on the content side is
not to replace parents,” said Shen Guo, who co-founded Cambridge,
Massachusetts-based Woobo after graduating from the Rhode Island School
of Design. “It’s to enhance family time.”
But its appeal for a child’s
emotional attachment and nurturing sets off alarm bells for Turkle, who
has been warning against what she calls “artificial intimacy” since the
Tamagotchi digital pet craze of the 1990s.
Research has shown the benefits of
children playing out their inner feelings and worries by projecting them
onto inert dolls. But Turkle says that doesn’t work when the toys seem
real enough to have their own feelings.
“Pretend empathy is not a good
thing,” Turkle said. “Everything we know about children’s development is
that if you read to a child, what’s going on is the relationship, the
talking, the connection, the mentoring, the safety, the sense that
people love learning. Why do we think this is a good idea to give this
to some robot?”
Is your baby
Talk to makers of the next
generation of baby monitors unveiled at CES and you’d be surprised that
generations of children survived infancy without artificial intelligence
systems analyzing their every breath.
“Babies want to breathe. Babies
want to live,” says Colt Seman, co-founder of Los Angeles-based startup
Miku, which promises to monitor breathing and heart rate without letting
parents get overly worked up about it.
Regulators haven’t approved any
baby monitors for medical use and instead recommend parents focus on
providing a safe sleeping environment. Some doctors worry that such
devices create additional stress for parents.
Unlike most past offerings, the
latest crop of baby monitors that measure vital signs are “contactless”
– meaning they don’t work by attaching some electronics to a baby’s sock
or chest. Raybaby’s device resembles a one-eyed robot that detects
breathing patterns using radar technology. The non-ionizing radiation it
emits is at low levels, but might still turn off some parents already
concerned about keeping their babies too close to smartphones.
Most of the other devices rely on
computer vision. A camera by Nanit watches a baby from above and
measures sleeping patterns by tracking the slight movements of a
specially-designed swaddle. It also uses the data it collects to
recommend more consistent sleep times. Nanit’s Aaron Pollack
acknowledges that some parents might still check Nanit’s phone app to
check breathing data five times a night “out of sheer anxiety.”
“We’re not trying to prevent that,”
he said. “We’re just trying to give you some piece of mind.”
Two others, Miku and Utah-based
Smartbeat, each boast of a level of precision and analytical rigor that
could eventually help predict when the baby is going to get sick. Both
have phone alert systems to report worrisome breathing irregularities.
Smartbeat’s analysis is purely image-based, while Miku also uses radar.
Miku’s sleeker hardware comes at a cost: It’s $399, well above the $250
Tech in the womb
Of course, parental anxiety begins
even before a child is born – hence Owlet’s new $299 pregnancy band that
wraps around a woman’s abdomen to track fetal heartbeats by taking an
electrocardiogram. The idea is to put on the stretchy band before going
to sleep starting about three to four months before the due date.
It sends a morning wellness report
to a user’s smartphone app, with details including an expectant mother’s
contractions and sleep positions – and warnings if fetal heartbeat or
movements fall outside acceptable ranges.
An owl-faced medallion above the
mother’s belly gives the band the look of a superhero emblem – and why
not? Pregnancy is tough.
“It’s really just having that extra
piece of mind, between doctor’s visits, that everything is OK,” said
Owlet spokeswoman Misty Bond.
Smart but nosy: Latest gadgets want to peer into our lives
home mockup is on display at the Tuya booth at CES International, Wednesday,
Jan. 9, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Rachel Lerman & Joseph Pisani
Las Vegas (AP)
- Many of the hottest new gadgets are also the nosiest ones.
This year’s CES tech
show in Las Vegas was a showcase for cameras that livestream the living
room, bathroom mirrors that offer beauty tips and gizmos that track the
heartbeats of unborn children. All will collect some kind of data about
their users, whether photos or monitor readings; how well they’ll protect it
and what exactly they plan do with it are the important and often unanswered
These features can be
useful - or at least fun - but they all open the door for companies and
their workers to peek into your private life. Just this week, The Intercept
reported that Ring, a security-camera company owned by Amazon, gave a
variety of employees and executives access to recorded and sometimes live
video footage from customers’ homes.
Our data-driven age now
forces you to weigh the usefulness of a smart mirror against the risk that
strangers might be watching you in your bathroom. Even if a company has your
privacy in mind, things can go wrong: Hackers can break in and access
sensitive data, or your ex might hold onto a video feed long after you’ve
“It’s not like all
these technologies are inherently bad,” says Franziska Roesner, a University
of Washington computer security and privacy researcher.
But she said the
industry is still trying to figure out the right balance between providing
useful services and protecting people’s privacy in the process.
Amazon’s video feeds
Like other security
devices, Ring cameras can be mounted outside the front door or inside the
home; a phone app lets you see who’s there. But the Intercept said the
Amazon-owned company was also allowing some high-level engineers in the U.S.
to view customers’ video feeds, while others in the Ukraine office could
view and download any customer video file.
In a statement, Ring
said some Amazon employees have access to videos that are publicly shared
through the company’s Neighbors app, which aims to create a network of
security cameras in an area. Ring also says employees get additional video
from users who consent to such sharing.
At CES, Ring announced
an internet-connected video doorbell that fits into the peepholes in
apartment or dorm-room doors. Though it doesn’t appear Ring uses facial
recognition yet, records show that Amazon recently filed a patent
application for a facial-recognition system involving home security cameras.
Living room livestream
It’s one thing to put
cameras in our own homes, but Alarm.com wants us to also put them in other
Alarm’s Wellcam is for
caretakers to watch from afar and is mostly designed to check in on aging
relatives. Someone who lives elsewhere can use a smartphone to “peek in”
anytime, says Steve Chazin, vice president of products.
The notion of placing a
camera in someone else’s living room might feel unsettling.
Wellcam says video
streaming isn’t started until someone activates it from a phone and then it
stops as soon as the person turns it off. Chazin says such cameras are
“becoming more acceptable because loved ones want to know that the ones they
care about are safe.”
Just be sure you trust
whom you’re giving access to. You can’t turn off the camera unless you
French company CareOS
showcased a smart mirror that lets you “try on” different hairstyles. Facial
recognition helps the mirror’s camera know which person in a household is
there, while augmented-reality technology overlays your actual image with
animation on how you might look.
CareOS expects hotels
and salons to buy the $20,000 Artemis mirror - making it more important that
personal data is protected.
“We know we don’t want
the whole world to know about what’s going on in the bathroom,” co-founder
Chloe Szulzinger said.
The mirror doesn’t need
an internet connection to work, she said. The company says it will abide by
Europe’s stronger privacy rules, which took effect in May, regardless of
where a customer lives. Customers can choose to share their information with
CareOS, but only after they’ve explicitly agreed to how it will be used.
The same applies for
the businesses that buy and install the mirror. Customers can choose to
share some information - such as photos of the hair cut they got last time
they visited a salon - but the businesses can’t access anything stored in
user profiles unless users specifically allow them to.
meanwhile, are gathering intimate information.
Yo Sperm sells an
iPhone attachment that tests and tracks sperm quality. To protect privacy,
the company recommends that users turn their phones to airplane mode when
using the test. The company says data stays on the phone, within the app,
though there’s a button for sharing details with a doctor.
Owlet, meanwhile, plans
to sell a wearable device that sits over a woman’s pregnant belly and tracks
collected. And users can choose to share heartbeat information with
researchers studying stillbirths.
Though such data can be
useful, Forrester analyst Fatemeh Khatibloo warns that these devices aren’t
regulated or governed by U.S. privacy law. She warns that companies could
potentially sell data to insurance companies who could find, for instance,
that someone was drinking caffeine during a pregnancy - potentially raising
health risks and policy premiums.