February 26, 2021

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CES 2021: The pandemic loomed large over tech’s most important trendsetting show

5 min read

For anyone hoping for an insight into the major tech trends for the year ahead, the next 12 months will be spent feathering our nests with mod cons if this year’s CES is anything to go by.

CES, the world’s largest consumer electronics show, is usually held In Las Vegas over the course of a week each January and welcomed 171,000 visitors from 164 countries last year. Its organisers cancelled the in-person event in July last year after the coronavirus pandemic showed few signs of abating, scheduling an online-only version with less than half the exhibitors (from 4,419 to just under 2,000).

Unsurprisingly, the spectre of the pandemic loomed large over the week’s muted product announcements. If the inventions weren’t directly related to combatting the virus (smart face masks, body sensors, touch-free showers, wearable air purifiers) they were been created in response to it, generating a collective focus on devices designed for the home.

Home comforts dominate this year’s show

Ultrawide computer monitors, countless powerful laptops with upgraded webcams for video calls, LG’s fancy voice-controlled fridges, MyQ’s Pet Portal smart door (complete with Bluetooth-equipped sliding door to grant pets outdoor access) and Samsung’s dishwasher-loading robot reflected how much more time we’ve spent indoors over the past year.

Undated file photo of the CES show in Las Vegas. The world's largest consumer technology show begins later on Monday as an entirely virtual event for the first time, as the tech industry adapts to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. PA Photo. Issue date: Monday January 11, 2021. CES is normally held every January in Las Vegas, with thousands of exhibitors and more than 170,000 attendees coming to see a wide range of new gadgets unveiled. See PA story TECHNOLOGY CES. Photo credit should read: Martyn Landi/PA Wire
CES usually attracted 171,000 international attendees (Photo: PA)

Similarly, a proliferation of sophisticated AI-powered TVs from the likes of Sony, an Asus wall projector the size of a coffee cup and booming wireless speakers demonstrated the increasing role luxurious home comforts are playing in the lives of consumers who are spending more time than ever both working and relaxing at home.

Futuregazing takes a back seat

This year’s show wasn’t entirely devoid of the outlandish concepts that usually dominate the headlines, thanks to General Motors’ single-seater flying Cadillac it hopes will revolutionise the future of transport. Similarly, Californian company Archer Aviation confirmed it had partnered with Fiat Chrysler to work on what it claimed was the world’s first all-electric airline, creating large aircraft capable of travelling at speeds of up to 150mph, while gaming firm Razer showcased the ultimate gaming chair, complete with wraparound curved screen mounted above the player’s head. However, CES’ staple wacky and wonderfully weird gadgets were thin on the ground, replaced by great numbers of practical devices (albeit with ludicrous price tags) than past years.

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With early global vaccine roll-outs bolstering hopes of returning to a degree of normality within the next year, coupled with the show’s organisers plotting an in-person return to Sin City in 2022, the next CES will hopefully play host to more innovative tech that reflects the future, rather than our present reality.

CES 2021’S COVID-19-FIGHTING TECH

1) Wavenology, a Taiwanese start-up, has created iDistance, a wearable device designed to help stop the spread of Covid-19 inside offices and workplaces. It can be worn around the arm, wrist or neck and uses ultra-wideband (UWB) technology, a short-range, wireless communication standard that works through radio waves, to sense when wearers get too close to someone else and sound an alarm. 

2) Binatone’s MaskFone is a washable, breathable facemask that contains a Bluetooth headset, allowing its wearer to make phone calls clearly without sounding muffled. The $50 (£37) mask comes with inbuilt earbuds for making and receiving phone calls or listening to music, which its makers claims prevents its owner from having to miss calls while fumbling to remove their mask in time. 

3) Alarm.com has sidestepped the need for humans to physically press a button to ring a doorbell, developing the Touchfree Video Doorbell that is activated by a visitor stepping on a doormat bearing the printed instructions: ‘Stand on mat to ring doorbell’. It’s designed to encourage social distancing and to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses to the doorbell itself. 

4) Other touchless technologies were showcased by US bathroom and kitchen company Kohler, which has created hands-free toilets and sinks for the home. Waving a hand over the toilet’s flush and either over the top of the sink or a puck embedded into its surrounding surface causes the toilet to flush and water to turn on, no touching required. 

5) South Korean tech giant LG showcased an autonomous robot that uses ultraviolet C (UV-C) light to disinfect surfaces in hotels, hospitality and retail businesses to help reduce humans’ exposure to potentially harmful germs. It trundles around tables and other types of furniture to disinfect surfaces within 15 to 30 minutes, which LG says will remove the burden of extensive cleaning from humans. 

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6) Californian start-up Seguro showcased Airsafe, a helmet-style face shield with inbuilt air purification, thanks to a powerful internal fan that wafts purified air over the wearer’s face. The company claims its gentle air pressure prevents contaminated air from entering, while allowing the wearer to “eat in a restaurant, share your smile and feel safe to travel again”. 

7) US firm Brondell says it has created an FDA-approved (US Food and Drug Administration) a $649 (£476) air purifier capable of eliminating the Covid-19 virus, reducing the aerosol particles from over 2m particles per litre of air to zero within 15 minutes. The company worked with research organisation MRIGlobal to conduct lab tests using both live culture and live aerosolised versions of the SARS CoV-2 virus and claims both tests effectively eliminated it. 

8) Keyboards are often derided as one of the dirtiest pieces of equipment in any given office, but laptop accessory company Targus has a solution. The motion-sensitive UV-C LED Disinfection Light uses ultraviolet light to disinfect the length of a standalone keyboard evenly, switching off automatically if you approach it before it’s finished its disinfection cycle of five minutes each hour. 

9) Targus has also created an antimicrobial backpack designed to carry larger laptops with screens measuring up to 17-inches or full-size keyboards. Its antimicrobial coating on the internal bag’s ‘key touchpoints’ offers added protection against bacteria multiplying, the company claims, coupled with handy pouches for mice and a water bottle. 

10) Kebbi Air is a cat-like little educational robot created to help children learn from home during the pandemic. The brainchild of Taiwanese company NUWA Robotics, Kebbi Air can play English tutoring videos and other teaching materials on its inbuilt screen, hold one-to-one conversations with a child and measure their temperature thanks to its inbuilt temperature sensor. 

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