Say hello to smart gadgets

Voice-controlled gear take centre stage at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, along with bigger, smarter TVs and wearable medical devices

A future where people can talk to appliances in their homes - be it a fridge, television or even toilet - and get a response could soon become a reality, given the buzz around smart, voice-controlled assistants at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world's largest consumer tech trade show.

The annual mega electronics show in Las Vegas is typically seen as an indicator of the biggest tech trends for the year.

And this year, the two big names in smart assistants - Google and Amazon - ramped up their efforts to bring voice-controlled assistants into every room in the house. They were everywhere in various forms at the show.

The battle was all the more notable, given that Google does not typically make a strong showing at CES.

"Voice assistants stood out this year, particularly since it wasn't just Alexa this time, but particularly Google, as well as Bixby and even Baidu," said International Data Corporation (IDC) analyst Bryan Ma, vice-president for devices research.

Amazon's Alexa voice assistant is widely seen to be leading the race, but Google's Assistant is fast catching up. Firms such as Samsung and Baidu have also come up with their own variants, such as Bixby and DuerOS respectively.

Tech giant Google was everywhere at the convention this year, plastering support for its Assistant software throughout the convention halls and even on the Las Vegas monorail train that runs in front of the convention space. It has partnered at least 15 companies to integrate Assistant into speakers, televisions and toilets.

Companies also unveiled a slew of new smart screens that respond to voice commands and present information on-screen. These include the JBL Link View, Lenovo Smart Display and LG ThinQ Google Assistant Touch Screen Speaker.

More details of these screens, including price and local availability, will be released over the year.

"The reason why voice interfaces are increasingly going to be important is when you think about the adoption of both wearable devices and automobiles, where it's impractical to use a finger on a touchscreen like we do with smartphones today," said IDC's Mr Ma. "The smartphone will still remain central to our lives in the next decade, but voice assistants will augment that."

Other big brand names have also developed their own assistants for their devices. South Korean electronics firm LG unveiled CLOi (pronounced Chloey), a smart robot assistant, even though its debut was marred by it coldly ignoring the attempts by LG's marketing chief to talk to it during the press conference.

 
 
 

Fellow Korean electronics giant Samsung announced plans to integrate its Bixby assistant beyond its Galaxy smartphones and into the company's other devices, starting with televisions and eventually into its refrigerators and washing machines.

This year's CES contained the largest show floor in the convention's 51-year history, with more than 3,900 exhibitors showcasing their tech wares in more than 2.75 million sq ft of exhibit space - or the size of almost 40 football fields across 11 different locations in Las Vegas.

The advances in smart assistants are further boosted by developments in the chipset industry.

Industry leader Qualcomm, which develops the processing chips that power modern smartphones, announced at CES that it is opening up its Home Hub platform to support Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana, making it easier for manufacturers to develop devices that can talk to one another seamlessly.

Medical technology and wearables also made a resurgence at CES as companies sought to put devices on other parts of the body other than the wrist - from the radiation-shielding underwear by apparel maker Spartan to smart shoe insoles by French company Zhor Tech, which track the wearer's standing position and activity.

CES would not be complete without major announcements on televisions. TVs are set to be bigger, smarter and, yes, more expensive, as major players such as LG, Samsung and Sony race to deliver bigger displays at higher resolutions.

LG and Samsung upped the ante in the TV resolution wars with 8K displays, such as LG's massive 88-inch Oled television and Samsung's upcoming 85-inch Q9S QLED display.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2018, with the headline 'Say hello to smart gadgets'. Print Edition | Subscribe