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What to expect at CES: Fringe, futuristic, and emerging technology

I don’t care who you are or what you’re interested in — the most exciting part of CES is inarguably all the crazy, cutting edge, emerging technology on display. I’m talking about the far-flung futuristic stuff that we get to peek at during the show, but that might not manifest in a consumer product for years — if it ever does at all. Think autonomous drone taxis, robotic exoskeletons, and brainwave-reading prosthetics. This is the stuff that makes CES great. So what can we expect from CES 2021 when it comes to emerging tech? Here’s a quick preview.

VR beyond sight and sound

Following a big burst of progress a few years ago, the VR space has cooled off a bit in recent years. But despite this relative slowdown in hype, VR innovation is alive and well at CES — and I don’t expect 2021 to be any different.

The thing I anticipate seeing the most here isn’t VR headsets, but unique peripherals that make VR more immersive by engaging your senses with more than just sights and sounds. Haptic feedback tech in particular has been slowly progressing for the past few years, and helping bring your sense of touch into the equation. This year, I expect to see more refined versions of the exotic ideas that popped up in previous years, like the SenseGlove haptic feedback wearable, or the KorFX vest.

University of Chicago

Decentralizing the dream of the do-it-all robot

For as long as the field of robotics has existed, there has been this sort of unofficial race going on: The race to build a holy grail humanoid machine that can do our bidding and complete virtually any task we throw at it — be it making a cup of coffee, taking out the trash, or playing a game of chess. This race is still alive and well and roboticists are still chasing that dream, but recently there has been something of a departure from that all-in-one paradigm. Now, instead of having one robot to do everything, we’re embracing the idea of having many robots that are good at one thing — like a Roomba that vacuums your floors or a Robomow that cuts your grass.

Expect that trend to continue at CES 2021, but with a twist. In addition to branching out to cover an even broader range of specialized tasks (get ready for robotic pool cleaning, countertop scrubbing, and bots that chop your food), the coming generation of household robots will be equipped with Alexa, Siri, and Google Home compatibility. In other words, you’ll finally be able to string all your robots together to create the do-it-all bot you’ve always dreamed of. It’ll just be more decentralized than we originally anticipated.

Autonomy-enabling automotive attachments and A.I.

Over the past few years, CES has become the convention for showcasing autonomous car technology. All the big car brands (as well as a lot of little ones) show up to show off their self-driving shuttles these days. But generally speaking, the big brands also only provide a look at what’s possible today, not necessarily what’s coming tomorrow. For that, you’ve got to look to the autonomous car OEMs — many of whom are also in attendance at CES. These are the companies that make the sensors, the software, and advanced A.I. that help autonomous cars interpret the world around them.

This year, you can expect a lot of evolution in this space, with few revolutionary ideas that challenge the status quo.  In particular, keep an eye out for new environmental sensing technologies that go beyond the standard lidar/computer vision setups.

A shortage of startups with wild ideas

One of my favorite parts of CES — the chaotic smattering of startups known as Eureka Park — isn’t happening this year, and unfortunately, that means we’ll likely see a slight decline in the number of weird, wild, and downright crazy ideas at CES 2021.

It really is a shame. Last January at Eureka Park, we stumbled across some of the best stuff that CES had to offer — including a laser-powered mosquito blaster, a hydrofoil e-bike, and a mind-bogglingly dextrous robotic prosthetic arm.

This year, there’s almost certainly going to be some oddball announcements in this same vein, but without Eureka Park, it’s also a safe bet that the strange and unusual gadgets will be a bit less numerous.

Still, despite this year’s low exhibitor count, we have it on good authority that there’s still plenty of strange gear set to debut. Unfortunately, we can’t provide details quite yet, but be prepared for oddities like kitchen robots, VR workstations, and one-handed drone controllers. Weird and wild technology will be on full display at CES 2021 — you have my word.

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