CES 2017: Exploding phones and disappearing tech

I made two predictions in the first year of this business. One, that we would see the smartphone being exploded into a range of body and home-wide accessories, reversing the trend of ever-greater integration. And two, that much of the technology around us would be increasingly integrated into our clothes, furniture, and other accessories, becoming less and less visible as discrete items. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, I think we’re seeing evidence for both trends.

The Exploding Phone

Wearable tech is one obvious part of the exploding phone phenomenon, a phrase that took on a different meaning in the wake of Samsung’s 2016 travails. CES will see more watches, fitness trackers, and glasses, as well as the (for now) more outre options such as smart shoes and clothing. But it will also see more and more technology that started in phones — and is cheap because of the volume at which they are now produced — being integrated into the home. Totally wireless, battery-powered security cameras are one such innovation that has caught my eye. Battery life of up to two years is being claimed. These devices will continue to shrink, and the battery life will continue to grow until these devices are just about invisible and deeply integrated into our homes.

Why is this attractive? Right now the apps that support these cameras are of limited use. The cameras are so tiny that there’s limited deterrent value and if you live in a reasonably safe country, the chances are that 99.999% of the time they are only going to catch images of your pets or the waving trees in the background rather than a criminal. If you’re anything like me you end up more stressed about not being able to check the cameras because of your broadband being flaky than you would have been if you could just see nothing at all.

The real purpose of these ubiquitous cameras is not for security, though. Cameras are basically general purpose sensors. Backed by cheap, large-scale processing power they can recognise objects and people, and with microphones, sounds. Cameras everywhere presents a potential privacy nightmare, but it also offers the opportunity of a completely seamless interface to the digital world.

To use the comic trope of the internet fridge, the simplest way to know what’s in there and how long it has to last is not to scan everything in and out. It’s to put a high-resolution camera in there and let it spot and analyse everything.

Invisible Tech

Cameras are just part of the increasingly invisible world of tech. Truly wireless charging with a range of metres not millimetres is finally approaching commercial readiness. Those wireless cameras may never need their batteries replacing. It may not matter that your wearables only have a few hours battery life if they are automatically charged whenever you’re within a few feet of a power socket. Just don’t tell the electro-sensitives…

The latest TVs unveiled at the show are just a few millimetres thick, continuing the inevitable progression of screens from room-dominating CRTs to smart wallpaper. We’re only a few years from being able to print LEDs on a substrate that is paper-thin. With wireless power and high-bandwidth streaming, you won’t even need to connect it to a wire. Just paste it up and it will work.

Qualcomm’s latest smartphone platform, the engine at the heart of most high-end devices, is this year again smaller and more efficient. And its peers continue to become cheaper and more accessible. The fact that you can now buy a multi-core computer the size of a matchbox for a few pounds show just how far Moore’s law has taken us.

This is truly ubiquitous computing. And it is already barely visible.

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Tom Cheesewright