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The weirdest and most interesting tech at CES 2022

January 10, 2022 at 10:00 p.m.
This adorable robot wants to make you happy. The only catch: It wants to bite you (gently) to do it. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Chris Velazco.

he world's biggest consumer electronics trade show known as CES feels weird this year, with far fewer attendees gracing the Las Vegas conference halls where consumer tech companies show off their latest and greatest (almost) every January.

One thing stayed the same, though: Companies are delighting, confusing and angering us with their ideas for what the tech of the future might look like. Autonomous John Deere tractors? Check. A smart home for cats? Absolutely. Dozens of pitches about the metaverse, a place we would like to visit if we could figure out what and where it is? You bet.

As always, some of the industry's plans are raising eyebrows. People still don't have legal protections for the personal data they generate in normal old smartphone apps, yet consumer tech is marching forward into virtual reality.

Other ideas -- like what we'd argue are the first-ever non-ridiculous augmented reality glasses -- are worth feeling excited about. Artificial intelligence, faster processing and more connected objects are thrusting us into an entirely new era of technology. Join us, if you dare, for a frequently updated selection of the most interesting -- and sometimes strangest -- tech you can expect in the future.

n Garments made for gaming -- and the metaverse. The age of the metaverse is nearly upon us, according to some of the biggest names in tech. But what good is palling around with people in a sprawling, interconnected virtual space if you can't feel the "world" around you?

That's where the smart -- and sometimes painful -- garments from Owo enter the picture.

Each of the Spanish company's skintight vests comes fitted with electrodes in 10 locations across your torso and arms, all controlled by an app running on your phone. Why electrodes? Obviously, to stimulate your muscles to simulate the sensation of falling through the air, bugs buzzing on your back and, uh, being stabbed.

CEO Jose Fuertes hopes to make his smart clothing compatible with the virtual spaces we'll all soon be running in, but for now, support is limited to certain games. And while haptic feedback isn't exactly a new phenomenon for gamers, Owo's muscle stimulation approach hits differently than standard vibration motors. Take our word for it: After being shot a few times by drones in a demo VR game, we'll never let our guard down again.

n Augmented reality glasses that don't look (that) ridiculous. If you come to CES in search of wearable displays, you'll never leave unsatisfied. But if your goal has been to find one that doesn't make you look at least a little silly, well -- that's a different story. A prototype developed by TCL just might fit the bill.

Unlike its earlier wearable screens, TCL's latest face computer uses what it calls holographic waveguide technology to display an image in front of your eyes without letting anyone else see it. And because the lenses built into these glasses are almost completely transparent, we're left with a pair of augmented reality specs you can wear all the time. Even better, they actually look like something you might want to wear.

But what's a wearable like this actually meant to do? The software on the prototype we saw was far from finished, but it mentioned the ability to control phone calls, view photos and even display text on a virtual teleprompter.

Down the road, though, TCL hopes this headset -- or some descendant of it since this one runs on a chip meant for smartwatches -- will become sophisticated enough to offer turn-by-turn directions and display multiple virtual screens without shutting you off from the rest of the world. It'll probably be years before the company cracks the code, but hey -- at least it's getting the look down.

n Spacious space abodes. Some CES presenters are thinking forward to when people live in entirely connected homes. Sierra Space is thinking about when people live in giant inflatable houses on the moon.

Along with a space plane called Dream Chaser, the company is showcasing a scaled-down version of a large inflatable space home named the LIFE Habitat. LIFE arrives in space folded up inside a launch vehicle then expands to a full three stories -- enough living space for four astronauts, scientists, filmmakers or even tourists, the company says.

From the sound of it, LIFE's inhabitants will be very productive, with room to exercise on equipment, fabricate robots, grow their own produce and compact their trash into bricks to use for radiation protection. I'm getting tired just thinking about it.

n A fitness tracker for your cat. At least according to companies selling biometric devices for pets, including Korean brand PurrSong, which introduced a fitness tracker for customers of the feline variety called LavvieTAG at CES this year. It's part of a suite of connected products from the company, which bills itself as IoT (Internet of Things)-enabled "lifestyle design" for cats.

You might be tempted to scoff at owners who turn to artificial intelligence to monitor how often cats fall asleep or use the bathroom (PurrSong sells a product for that too). But not so fast: Biometric analysis can be a valuable preventive measure to help the pets we love live longer, healthier lives, says Amélie Caudron, CEO of French company Invoxia, which unveiled an AI-powered dog collar at this year's CES.

"The pet's place in the family is changing," says Caudron. "It's no longer a dog-master relationship. We think of ourselves as parents and our dogs as a member of the family."

Furthermore, heart conditions are about as common for dogs as they are for humans, she noted. By analyzing data on heart and breath rate from a bunch of different pets, Invoxia could help owners detect and treat problems sooner, Caudron says. And all that data will be useful for veterinarians and researchers, too. (Dogs tend to not show up on time for normal clinical trials.)

n A projector that works in unexpected places. Even now, in the middle of the strangest CES on record, companies have devoted big chunks of the show floor to showing off their flashiest, best TVs. But for Samsung, one of its biggest new products might actually be one of its smallest.

Weighing in at less than 2 pounds, you could tote Samsung's new Freestyle projector from room to room without much fuss. And despite its compact size, the Freestyle can project a 1080p image as large as 100 inches on a screen, a wall, or the side of your house.

Now, small home theater projectors aren't exactly new -- what makes the Freestyle interesting is what it might be able to do down the road with the help of a few accessories. Samsung plans to release a battery add-on that should power the Freestyle away from outlets for up to two hours at a time. (You can also run the Freestyle off a more common power bank, but you may not get that kind of longevity.)

And with the help of another forthcoming adapter, you screw a Freestyle directly into a lightbulb socket. Why? We're not exactly sure, but one of Samsung's demos featured a Freestyle projecting the image of a sumptuous meal down onto some empty plates. That's one way to host a dinner party, we suppose.

n A robot that nibbles your fingers and warms your heart. True comfort is priceless, and for some people, that kind of peace only comes when animals or babies cutely gnaw on them. If that's you, a tiny product from Japan just might be the best impulse buy of your life.

Amagami Ham Ham might look like a small plush cat or dog, but its robotic innards mean it can give you a light chomp when you need a little reassurance -- all you need to do is put your finger in its mouth. And since there's nothing worse than uninspiring chewing, Amagami Ham Ham relies on a set of HAMgorithms (no, seriously) to make sure its nibble patterns don't get too repetitive.

At this point, you might be wondering why Amagami Ham Ham even exists. For creator and Yukai Engineering CEO Shunsuke Aoki, the answer is simple: It's all about giving people moments of happiness whenever they need it. That same desire inspired the company's last hit product, a robotic cat butt named Qoobo, and that's exactly the kind of mission we can get behind.

Aoki hopes to usher Amagami Ham Ham through a crowdfunding campaign in a few months, and -- assuming that's successful -- he aims to sell the robot in Japan and abroad for the equivalent of about $30.

n A robot that probably upsets you. Humanoid robots are getting more lifelike, but only compared to their predecessors.

Just take the Ameca robot from Engineered Arts, a true-to-scale, metal-and-plastic robot person who blinks, shrugs and grimaces just like you and me -- if you and me were stilted human facsimiles.

Companies that buy an Ameca model can station it at events and tradeshows to greet attendees and "strike an instant rapport with anybody," its creator's website claims. Video from Engineered Arts shows Ameca performing hand and facial gestures that are indeed natural looking, though markedly slow. The company takes care to describe her as "nonthreatening," though robot threat level is in the eye of the beholder.

And Engineered Arts isn't the only company peddling human look-alikes at CES. DeepBrain AI is showcasing its new software called AI Studios: Just type in a video script and the program will instantly generate a deepfake human to perform that script. YouTubers, corporate trainers and news anchors beware (maybe).

n A foldable screen that doubles as a laptop. Gadgets with foldable screens are inching toward the mainstream, but there's one thing the tech industry hasn't figured out yet: how to make a good laptop out of a screen that folds in half. Now, Taiwanese PC maker ASUS has taken up the challenge.

Its new Zenbook 17 Fold is a whopper of a tablet -- it's slightly heavier than Apple's new 14-inch MacBook Pro -- and it packs a 17-inch touch screen just like its name suggests. And while you could certainly prop up the Zenbook and binge YouTube videos, you may sometimes be better off folding the whole thing in half and plopping a combination Bluetooth keyboard/trackpad on the bottom. Voilà: your tablet just became a full-blown laptop, albeit one with a 12.5-inch screen.

But do we need a foldable screen on our computers? ASUS rival Lenovo tried a similar approach with the ThinkPad X1 Fold PC it released more than a year ago, and reviewers almost universally panned the thing. Hopefully, ASUS's attempt at a laptop with a foldable screen is at least a little more polished.

n An air purifier/ear bud mash-up. Wearable tech is almost inescapable at CES, and that's especially true when you wander into the start-up wonderland that is Eureka Hall. And that's where we found Ible, a Taiwanese company that created a very specific kind of wearable.

The Airvida E1 is, at its core, a negative ion air purifier that goes around your neck. (This isn't all that new; the company has released a handful of similar devices over the years.) But because this is 2022, and we always need a quick way to avoid interacting with other people, this new model has a set of noise canceling Bluetooth ear buds built-in.

Like similar air purifiers, the Airvida is meant to help you breathe more easily when pollen or smoke start hanging in the air. The company claims that tests by labs in Taiwan and Japan show that Airvida could be effective in removing covid particles from the air.

As with many claims that come out of CES, it's probably a good idea to take that one with a grain of salt, and we'd argue you're better off following CDC recommendations for vaccination and mask use. If nothing else, though, this thing is proof that people are preparing to settle into pandemic life for the long haul.

photo TCL has dabbled with wearable displays before, but its prototype augmented reality glasses are more ambitious than usual. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Chris Velazco.
photo Want to feel bugs on your bag while playing a game? What about the sensation of being stabbed? Owo's haptic clothing can make the virtual feel (somewhat) real. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Chris Velazco.

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