Start-ups outshine electronics giants at world's biggest tech fair

Flexible TV screens by big manufacturers fail to fire up the imagination at world's biggest tech fair, but start-ups do better, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 9:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 January, 2014, 9:36am

As trade fairs go, the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas is easily the world's most famous.

Each January the planet's innovators and entrepreneurs - often one-man bands or new start-ups - jostle for time with the world's biggest electronics manufacturers.

Couple this with the endless casinos and hard drinking that Sin City is famous for and it's a heady mix that makes CES the place to be.

However, CES is now so big that to see it in any meaningful sense would take at least two weeks of constant walking through exhibition halls as large as Hong Kong's airport (minus the travellator).

By the time you've seen the latest gadgets at the big, brash booths of Sony, Samsung, LG and Panasonic, it's time to go home.

Anyone who spent their time cruising the big stalls might have felt a little disappointed, because the real innovation in 2014 was dominated by the boutique start-ups.

CES used to be all about the latest TV innovations, but with large, smart HD TVs now affordable, the big TV manufacturers are at a loss.

What other explanation is there for this year's headline-grabber, the flexible TV? With no obvious function, LG's 77-inch and Samsung's 85-inch TVs made both companies look slightly ridiculous.

Beyond that blandness was a treasure trove of innovation. Take the iBuyPower Steam Machine, Valve's attempt at taking PC gaming into the living room. With specs, features and a price (HK$3,870) that put it in competition with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Steam Machine could be a game-changer.

Sony unveiled its PlayStation Now cloud gaming platform, which allows users to stream titles between various Sony gadgets - even a TV. However, that freedom is only open to owners of the PlayStation.

Smartphone gamers need not look up from their small (but growing) screens.

Leader in high-performance gaming hardware Razer displayed two innovations: a modular PC concept called Project Christine, and a "smart band" called Nabu.

The former is a liquid-cooled, silent DIY computer that can be updated and improved over time, while the latter is a cross between a smart watch (it receives e-mails, texts and social media alerts from a connected smartphone) and a fitness wearable (it measures biometric and sleep data). Razer says its ability to communicate with other Nabu smart bands in the area means it could also be used in augmented reality games.

But co-founder, CEO and creative director Min-Liang Tan insists that Razer is about more than video games.

"Razer is not just a gaming company - we design products for gamers," he says, calling the "gaming lifestyle" a global phenomenon.

"We're just a start-up, but our worldwide community of gamers and what we do for them positions us shoulder-to-shoulder … with the largest tech companies in the world."

Project Christine could yet fall into the category of "vapourware" - prototype products shown off at CES that never actually go on sale - although that's always the case with start-ups.

So, too, could another gaming lifestyle innovation that slipped past most eyes; the Oculus Rift Crystal Cove augmented reality headset. Using an Oled screen for low-latency, Crystal Cove uses a 24-point tracking system that lets the user move in a 3-D space. It's designed to banish the motion sickness caused by earlier versions.

Similar incremental improvements were shown by Pebble, which announced a long-awaited app store for its popular e-ink smart watch, but the general lack of connected timepieces at the CES suggests that this much-hyped genre may already be flat-lining. That is, of course, until Apple comes up with a "wristable" and changes everything.

The Last Gadget Standing event used a less-than-technical "applause-o-meter" to determine that the device "most likely to change the face of technology" is the Skulpt Aim, a portable body fat/muscle-quality measurement device seeking funding.

Wearable technology, however, also needs to look good, and that's the thinking behind CSR's Bluetooth Smart jewellery. The pendant-style necklaces have embedded LEDs whose colour and brightness can be customised to suit their user's mood, co-ordinate with an outfit, or alert the wearer to an SMS on their smartphone.

"If wearable technology is to reach its potential it needs to appeal to more than just technology lovers," says Paul Williamson, director of Low Power Wireless at CSR.

"Devices like these connected pendants will help wearable tech go mass market."

The pendant - which is still a prototype - was designed with boutique jeweller Cellini.

"The possibilities for truly wearable technology devices are endless and we're looking forward to seeing what they develop with it in the future," says Williamson.

The wearable web and the so-called Internet of Things are really nothing more than mobile computing devices that talk to each other.

This is where Intel comes in. The semiconductor chipmaker is in the process of tweaking its business to address the wearable web, the first product being the Intel Edison. This memory card-sized computer has both Wi-fi and Bluetooth. Expect to see it feature in wearable computing devices as they gradually divorce from smartphones.

In one demo Intel and Rest Devices showed off a baby's onesie that can read the tiny wearer's pulse, body position and temperature.

CES also fired the starter gun for gadgets connecting to the Internet of Things.

The Lynx Smart Grill was a standout prototype. This voice-activated smart grill automatically cooks foods based on what the chef shouts at it. It even boasts online notifications.

Other Internet of Things-ready devices in Las Vegas ranged from rather predictable smartphone-controlled lights from Holi (an accent lamp) and Belkin (its WeMo Smart LED Bulb) to Kolibree's electric toothbrush that analyses brushing habits via a smartphone app.

If you think that's weird, how about's Mother? Attach tiny activity/temperature sensors called MotionCookies to children and pets and receive data on their fitness, health, well-being and distance from the base station.

One far less creepy technology trend gathering pace is 3-D printing at home. For the first time, CES hosted a 3-D Printing TechZone, where more than 30 companies showcased their technology.

As well as promising to provide a 3-D printer to every school in the US, MakerBot unveiled three new 3-D printers for this year, one of which can affordably create advanced prosthetics for children. Now that's innovation.

But coming back to the original search for a use for flexible TVs. Thought of any yet?

The only sensible use for this seems to be with a hand-held gadget. Yet, there's still no sign of a flexible tablet.

Signs of bigger tablets, on the other hand, are aplenty. Cue Samsung's 12-inch Galaxy NotePRO 12.2 and Galaxy Tab Pro, although parents will be more drawn to Panasonic's drop-proof, water-resistant seven-inch tablet, the Toughpad FZ-M1. But that's not flexible.

Perhaps we'll have to wait until 2015 for that.