CES 2016, the big technology event in Las Vegas this week, is a place where the best and brightest that the tech world can offer. It provided in a dazzling display of demonstrations, discussions and debates.
For every huge hit that receives accolades and media coverage, there are those products that don't quite make the mark. They aren't short of innovation or ingenuity. They identify a problem and attempt to provide a solution, and as such, we can learn from them.
The failures occur because sometimes the technology hasn't quite caught up with the creator's mission; the product is overdesigned; or it's too expensive and for a very limited audience. Here are some of those products that have much potential but aren't quite there yet.
My UV Patch
My UV Patch is a sensor wearable tattoo by L'Oreal designed to monitor UV exposure and help consumers educate themselves about sun protection. It's a transparent adhesive half the thickness of an average strand of hair with a patch that contains photosensitive dyes that factor in the baseline skin tone and change colors when exposed to UV rays to indicate varying levels of sun.
After time outside, the wearer can take a photo of the patch and upload it to a corresponding mobile app, which analyzes the varying photosensitive dye squares to determine the amount of UV exposure the wearer has received. The app then advises if it's time to move into the shade or apply sunscreen.
UV Patch in theory has a lot going for it. It's commendation to see stretchable electronic sensors in healthcare. It's also great to see a wearable that measures UV exposure rather than simply sun exposure, as UV rays can also be damaging in the shade and under trees. But the limitation of the patch is that the wearer needs to keep taking pictures of the patch and uploading it to the app, something which would become easy to forget or bothersome after a period of time. And while waterproof, L'Oréal didn't mention whether the patch would cope with a routine of bathing with soap, application of sunscreen, and exposure to salt and chlorine.
Statistically, skin cancers are disproportionately concentrated on the head compared with other parts of the body, with the face, nose, and ears particularly vulnerable. Hard to see anyone putting this patch there. Surely there's a way to keep the most vulnerable part of our skin monitored and safe without such a conspicuous wearable. (Smart hats, anyone?)
The patch does seem a step up from the June wearable bracelet by Netatmo that also measures sun exposure through UV sensors. It's been criticized by some reviewers for only providing measurable information in direct sunlight. And it can't be worn when swimming.
The UV patch only lasts for five days. Repeat applications could get expensive (the retail prices has not been released). It will be interesting to see how future versions compare.
Gemio Friendship Bracelet
The Gemio friendship bracelet is just the latest wearable pitched at the female teenage market. It contains rows of interchangeable “Gemsets” that can be snapped on and off. It's fitted with LED lights which can be used as a communication device with others who own them, flashing different light combinations that correlate to customized messages.
Gemio understands gestures, like a wave or a high five. The wearer can make it sparkle at the twist of your wrist make a light play when they wave hello.
Yet at a starting price of \$100, i can't help thinking it's a little out of the reach of most young women. Yes, they have disposable cash, but will they want to spend quite so much on a communication trinket?
I'm a bigger fan of the slightly cheaper Jewelbots, which retail at \$69. These are programmable friendship bracelets that teach girls the basics of coding. These also provide the functionality of assigning colors and light patterns to nearby friends wearing their own version but takes it up a notch as girls can plug in their charm and use its Arduino software extend the functionality of their charms. You can even find the open-source STL design files of earlier charm designs on GitHub.
The amusingly named Welt is a wearable belt—as opposed to the nonwearable kind, one supposes. Welt offers a discreet means for those interested in their health to monitor their waist size, eating habits and the number of steps taken, as well as their time spent sitting down. Sensors in the back of the belt buckle send data to an app for analysis, which results in the production of a range of personalized healthcare and weight-management plans.
It's nice to see a wearable move off the arm. It's also nice to see a health-focused wearable that caters to the less sporty. (It's not like anyone would wear a leather belt in the gym.)
It's also slightly better than the unfortunately named Belty of 2014 which was derided for its appearance. I'm just not sure the intended target market would purchase the belt.
Bartesan Home Cocktail Machine
The Bartesan is a bit like a Keurig or Nespresso coffee-pod machine, but for cocktails. You buy the machine (\$299), provide the liquor, and insert flavor capsules into the machine. After choosing your choice of cocktail and the amount of alcohol, the flavor capsule meets the alcohol and pretty soon, a cocktail is made. The flavors come in \$20 packs of 12 capsules, including Cosmopolitan, Uptown Rocks, Margarita, Bartesian Breeze, Sex On the Beach, and Zest Martini.
A Kickstarter campaign raised more than \$100,000 and generated press. As a keen cocktail maker, I'm a little puzzled why people would buy this. You need to buy four different bottles of liquor. The machine costs a lot more than a blender. The flavors aren't cheap, and you do not have the option of being able to create your own flavors outside of those cocktail recipes programmed into the machine. That said, perhaps I'm not representative of their market audience.
I'm a bigger fan perhaps of Picobrew, which some are calling "a 3D printer for beer." It's a DIY microbrewer that sits on your counter and enables you to brew beer using PicoPak ingredient kits produced by more than 50 of the world's most interesting craft breweries. It retails at \$669. For that price, you also get a sous-vide function for meals. PicoBrew also recently created a PicoBrew BrewMarketplace, which lets any brewer publish their beer ingredient combination and earn royalties on every sale. Could this be the programmable future of craft beer?
Pregnancy tests are highly reliable and easy, even if they do involve the slightly undignified act of peeing on a stick. Pregnancy Pro is described as the first pregnancy test that syncs with your smartphone and provides access to an app that offers information and support personalized to you. The consumer downloads the app, pees on the stick provided, and then gets personalized information about her fertility. Upon downloading the app, she can detail whether she's trying to get pregnant or not. That lets you avoid an awkward "congratulations" message.
I can't help feeling this is perhaps a scenario where the technology is extraneous. The pregnancy test, at \$15, is double the cost of a standard test. I can think of better apps for tracking fertility like Clueand even wearables like Bellabeat's Leaf, a health tracker that monitors activity levels, sleep quality, stress levels, ovulation, period, and contraception tracking as a cohesive whole.
Lessons For CES 2017
Cheap hardware and open-source software are making it easier to connect all manner of devices. What's still hard is coming up with an application that's actually useful. Is the thing that your device is replacing really broken—or are you stretching to find a reason to put technology somewhere where it's not useful?
It's not the processors, screens, and batteries on display at CES which limit technology. Those will get cheaper and better over time. It's the human ingenuity applied to them—and the time we've taken to get things right.