What's Next In Tech? We Dodged Robots At CES To Find Out

Jan 6, 2020
Originally published on January 7, 2020 9:01 am

Flying cars, big-screen TVs that rotate vertically to better show your mobile videos, a trash can that changes its own bag: Welcome to CES.

About 200,000 people will descend on Las Vegas this week to check it all out at the annual technology extravaganza of the Consumer Electronics Show.

Among the robots they will encounter is the Charmin RollBot. That's roll as in a roll of toilet paper, which is what the small-wheel robot carries on top of itself.

"So you're on the commode, you look over, oh no, somebody didn't change the roll. Hello? Nobody home," explained Gregg Weaver, who works in research and development at Procter & Gamble, Charmin's parent company.

That's when you take out your smartphone and summon the RollBot via Bluetooth. It "delivers a fresh roll of Charmin, saves the day," Weaver says.

That might sound a bit dramatic, but this single-task robot could save you a few uncomfortable steps to retrieve a spare roll.

The Bluetooth-enabled Charmin RollBot is on display at CES in Las Vegas. The robot is just a concept — it isn't available to buy — but it would deliver a roll of toilet paper in the user's home.
John Locher / AP

You can't buy P&G's robot — or a lot of the stuff on display here.

But that's what much of CES is about: glimpsing at the future of technology. Things like touch screens and voice assistants showed up here years before they became mainstream.

The show is a dizzying display of tech in every form imaginable, spread over almost 3 million square feet of exhibition space.

Visitors must dodge rolling robots and people stumbling around, their eyes covered by virtual reality headsets.

A lot of the buzz at this year's show is about 5G — the next generation of much faster cellular networks. It promises to be up to 100 times faster than current networks, said Kevin Westcott, a vice chairman at consulting firm Deloitte.

5G is still in the early stages, but that's not dampening the excitement.

"It doesn't mean a huge amount today, because can I download a movie faster or do I get my traffic updates faster? That's not going to change my life," Westcott said. "What's going to change it is when people start envisioning new applications that use absolutely real-time data."

Thanks to 5G, self-driving cars will be able to communicate with each other — and to the roads they are driving on.

Among the companies at CES working on this is Valerann, a British-Israeli startup that puts sensors in roads.

The sensors detect traffic and weather, and can light up to direct cars around a vehicle pulled over onto the shoulder.

Shahar Bahiri, a co-founder of Valerann, says the company is already using 5G connections in some places because it's the fastest way to share data.

"When you know that you have this stopped vehicle, when you know that you have black ice on the road," he said, "your life is easier using data."

But CES is not all robots and futuristic cars. Health is also a big theme here, and many of the startups at this year's show are making apps and devices that bring the tools of the doctor's office to your smartphone.

At another booth, a company called Binah uses an iPad's camera to read a person's vital signs by scanning her face.

It looks for a tiny movement in the skin under the eye each time the heart beats.

"There's a change in the reflection of the light on your skin," said Mona Popilian, Binah's director of marketing.

"And we say OK, now there's been a heartbeat, and then there's another and another. And so we have the heart rate. And based on this, we continue to calculate the rest of the measurements," she said.

That includes oxygen levels, respiration rate and mental stress. Binah plans to add blood pressure measurements this year.

It's useful not just for individuals. Popilian says Binah's app can be used by doctors to remotely examine patients. A big Japanese insurance company is using it to monitor drivers' stress levels.

Popilian invites me to try out the app, so I step in front of the iPad and she starts the scan.

It takes a few seconds to deliver my results. My heart rate and oxygen levels are normal — but, after dodging robots and surrounded by flashing screens, unsurprisingly, I am mildly stressed.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's go to the land of flying cars and trash cans that change their own bags. That is Las Vegas this week. About 200,000 people are meeting there for the annual extravaganza known as the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. One of those people is NPR technology correspondent Shannon Bond.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: The first robot I meet at CES does just one thing, but it might come in handy.

GREGG WEAVER: So you're on the commode. You look over. Oh, no. Somebody didn't change a roll. Hello? Nobody home.

BOND: That's Gregg Weaver of Procter & Gamble describing the Charmin Roll Bot, as in roll of toilet paper.

WEAVER: You take out your smartphone. It's Bluetooth-activated. It finds you in your home, delivers a fresh roll of Charmin, saves the day.

BOND: Saves the day? That might sound a bit dramatic, but it could save you a few uncomfortable steps to retrieve a spare roll. You can't buy P&G's robot or a lot of the stuff here, but that's what much of CES is about - glimpsing the future of technology. Things like touch screens and voice assistants showed up here years before they became mainstream. The show is a dizzying display of tech in every form imaginable spread over almost 3 million square feet of exhibition space. I dodge rolling robots and people stumbling around, their eyes covered by virtual reality headsets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Are you ready to be awestruck, to try experiences enhanced in ways you never imagined? Are you ready to build on what's next?

BOND: This year in Las Vegas, a lot of the buzz is about 5G. That's the next generation of much faster cellular networks. 5G is still in the early stages, but that's not dampening the excitement. Kevin Westcott is a vice chairman at consulting firm Deloitte. He says 5G is about more than downloading a movie really quickly.

KEVIN WESTCOTT: That's not going to change my life. What's going to change it is when people start envisioning new applications that use absolutely real-time data.

BOND: Think self-driving cars talking to each other and to the roads they're driving on. One company here at CES working on this is Valerann. The British-Israeli startup put sensors in roads. They detect traffic and weather and can light up in the road to direct the flow of cars around a vehicle that's had to pull over onto the shoulder. Shahar Bahiri is co-founder of Valerann. He says the company is already using 5G connections in some places.

SHAHAR BAHIRI: When you know that you have this stopped vehicle, when you know that you have black ice on the road, when you know when you will have a congestion and you can switch the traffic lights accordingly, your life is easier using data.

BOND: Many of the startups at this year's show are making health care apps and devices that bring the tools of the doctor's office to your smartphone. At another booth, a company called Binah uses an iPad's camera to read your vital signs by scanning your face. It looks for a tiny movement in the skin under the eye each time the heart beats. Mona Popilian, Binah's director of marketing, explains.

MONA POPILIAN: There's a change in the reflection of the light on your skin, and we say, OK, now there's been a heartbeat. And then there's another and another, and so we have the heart rate. And based on this, we continue to calculate the rest of the measurements, like oxygen, respiration rate, mental stress. And blood pressure we're going to have very soon.

BOND: Popilian says Binah's app can be used by doctors to remotely examine patients. A big Japanese insurance company is using it to monitor stress levels of drivers.

POPILIAN: So stand here, please, in front. I will just click here.

BOND: It takes a few seconds to deliver my results. The screen lights up. My heart rate and oxygen levels are normal, but after dodging robots and surrounded by flashing screens, unsurprisingly, I'm mildly stressed.

Shannon Bond, NPR News, Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRUDER & DORFMEISTER'S "DEFINITION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.