Jan 17, 2013

Robots, Refrigerators, and (Virtual) Reality, Oh My! A Report from CES 2013

Anisha Jain's picture
Anisha Jain
User Experience Designer

I just returned from the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), that annual tech behemoth in Las Vegas. Before I forget the blur of walking through a seemingly never-ending labyrinth of rooms and booths (Note: CES is massive. It takes organizers a month to build it. Wear comfortable shoes.), I’d like to share my personal highlights and takeaways:


There were some really wonderful startups, and a lot more hardware startups than I expected. There were also a TON of non-Silicon Valley startups, which was refreshing. Some particularly playful ones:


  • Displair, a computer "screen" that works by projecting the screen onto a stream of tiny water molecules in the air, which you can interact with like a normal multitouch screen! Maybe a novelty, probably a complete waste of water, but cool nevertheless.
  • ZBoard, an electric skateboard—enough said.
  • Oculus Rift, a super immersive virtual reality system.


Android digital cameraAndroid digital cameraAndroid is everywhere, connecting everything together. There were Android gaming consoles, Android digital cameras, Android smartwatches, Android tablets to plug into car systems, etc. Watch out, Apple.

Ubuntu for Phone

Ubuntu for Phone is a Linux-based OS for smartphones. "Why another OS?!" you might ask. Well, Ubuntu had some surprisingly wonderful user interface innovations. I especially enjoyed that it had streamlined all forms of communication (besides email), whether an SMS, a Skype call, or a voicemail to a single “messages” section. I also liked the seamless ability to browse and choose settings for any application by shifting your finger around the top of the screen but never having to lift or move it.

(Too Little) Tech for Good

We often look to technology to solve many of our social and sustainability issues. But that impulse wasn’t really reflected at CES. Honestly, I was expecting to see more companies/products using technology in more sustainable or socially-beneficial ways. Nevertheless, here are a few memorable examples of technology-for-good that were on display:

  • Moneual's Smart Care System for the deaf, which detects a range of sounds for the user and transmits them via a wrist band.
  • Logitech’s wireless solar keyboard
  • A lot of very affordable interactive storybooks for the classroom
  • Hapifork, which monitors your eating habits (hilarious)

The Connected Home

Fridge with built-in displayFridge with built-in displayThe "connected home" was all over the place, with big manufacturers like LG and Samsung showcasing many different takes on the idea. All in all, the tangibility of the demos was great, but I found them generally underwhelming. Companies seemed to be a bit too literal about the connected home, with fridges and washing machines with displays built in doing things like asking you what items you have in your fridge so that your fridge can remind you when they will go bad. In short, though I appreciated the illustration of the connected home, the execution often seemed unrealistic and not user-friendly. For the connected home to work, it must be much more seamless (the best interface is no interface, after all) and not involve screens built into every device that force the user to interact specifically and laboriously with each individual machine. Imagine the possibilities of a house whose lights and appliances turn on and off as you enter and exit, stoves that ensure your food never burns, and devices that seamlessly save energy when not in use.

Car and Robot Coolness

Lexus self-driving carLexus self-driving car

  • Lexus and Audi both had versions of self-driving cars, though the Lexus version was definitely janky-looking and its technology was not as seamlessly integrated into the car.
  • Beam—very well-executed telepresence robots—finally showed me the potential value of telepresence. I tried driving one around and interacting with someone in Palo Alto. It's pretty amazing to give the person sitting far away physical controlWindow-cleaning robotWindow-cleaning robotin their remote environments. I toured a remote conference room, interacted with two people I'd never met before, and docked my telepresence bot to charge, all from Vegas!
  • Ecovac had window-cleaning robots that worked really, really well. Very cool.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, CES was a whirlwind glimpse into the not-so-distant future. It became clear that the experience design winners of the future will be the companies whose products are able to seamlessly, sustainably, and thoughtfully connect devices together. In addition, experience designers will be pushed more and more to shift from the comfortable realm of 2D screens to the world of 3D displays and physical-digital integration, as the boundaries between the digital and physical worlds continue to blur.