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Unveiling the future

Companies show off new tech at expo

LAS VEGAS — Flying taxis and a robot that can fetch toilet paper when you’re stranded on the loo. A wristband that will help you say “no” to junk food. A machine that will mix drinks for you.

These were among the gadgets showcased this past week at the CES technology conference in Las Vegas aimed at making life easier — or more like The Jetsons.

The four-day show, which opened Tuesday, was a place for companies to unveil their products and services for the coming year. Streaming services and surveillance technologies are among the hot topics this year.

Here are some highlights from the show:

NUTRITIONAL DNA

A London startup believes it can help you make healthier diet choices at the grocery store — using your own DNA.

DnaNudge collects your DNA through a cheek swab and sends data related to nutrition to a wristband.

Have a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure? Maybe the wristband will tell you to stay away from salty snacks. You scan the barcode on a product, and the wristband turns red or green to indicate whether it may be good for you.

A few services have popped up to map DNA in the hopes of helping people make better diet choices, though some scientists say genetic makeup is just one of many factors in living a healthy lifestyle.

Currently, DnaNudge does cheek swabs only in-person in London, but it’s working on a mail order service. The company says it destroys all DNA records after giving you the wristband.

ROBOT FOR THE LOO

Charmin wants to solve a familiar feeling: being stranded on the toilet with an empty toilet paper roll.

Its solution: a two-wheeled robot that can fetch a fresh roll. The robot, around 6-inches tall, has the face of a bear — like the cartoon ones in Charmin’s commercials — and toilet paper sitting on top.

But don’t expect it to roll to your bathroom anytime soon. Procter & Gamble, the company that owns Charmin, said the robot won’t be for sale and was just an example of what’s possible.

“Car companies have concept cars, but P&G has concept bathrooms,” said Marc Pritchard, who oversees Procter & Gamble’s brands.

TRACKING THE ELDERLY

What are your grandparents up to? Startups are pitching a way to keep an eye on the elderly from afar.

The new sensors can tell if a loved one has moved around and eaten — for instance, by detecting when the fridge is opened.

The efforts come as the U.S. government expects adults over 65 to outnumber children for the first time by 2034.

“We want to enable loved ones to live on their own,” said Ryan Herd, founder of Caregiver Smart Solutions.

Caregiver’s sensors tracks the elderly through motion detection, though the product also can tell if someone has showered by measuring humidity. Another company, CarePredict, has a wrist-worn device that can detect falls and alert caregivers. It also tracks how much the person has moved around and what rooms they’re spending most of their time in.

Tracking isn’t cheap. CarePredict’s device, for instance, costs $450, plus a $70 monthly fee.

BOOZY BOTS

No need to shake or stir. These machines will mix cocktails for you.

They’re like Keurig coffee machines, but for booze. Drop in a pod filled with ingredients, slide in a glass, and less than a minute later, you’ll have a martini or a Moscow mule.

In fact, one of the gizmos is made by Keurig. Drinkworks by Keurig sells for $299 and can make cosmopolitans and fizzy drinks, such as vodka sodas. Each pod makes one cocktail and costs about $4.

Another robotic bartender, the $350 Bartesian, sells pods for $2.50 each, but they don’t have alcohol. Instead, you fill canisters with your own whiskey, vodka, gin and tequila. The pods mix in juices, herbs and other flavorings. A touchscreen on the Bartesian lets you choose how stiff you want your drink. There’s even an option for alcohol-free “mocktails.”

Both machines sit on a counter or table at home. The companies hope to target those who like to host parties but don’t want to stock a bar, don’t know how to make drinks or would rather push a button then spend time putting together a mojito.

A ROBOTIC FRIEND

Samsung’s idea for your new robot friend is a simple ball that rolls along beside you. Its name: Ballie.

The technology within Ballie is anything but simple. The artificial intelligence companion has a camera that can record and send video. Ballie can communicate with other smart devices around the house.

In its keynote at CES, Samsung showed the bright yellow ball — about the size of a baseball — rolling behind H.S. Kim, CEO of the company’s consumer electronics division. It kept its distance from Kim when asked to, and a video showed Ballie as a companion to pets at home alone.

“It’s a vision of technology as an all-around personal life companion,” Kim said.

Ballie’s unveiling was part of Samsung’s efforts to show how AI can offer conveniences, peace of mind — and in this case, companionship.

Samsung didn’t say when Ballie would go on sale or how much it would cost. Samsung’s chief research scientist, Sebastian Seung, said Ballie would come with strict privacy standards, but didn’t offer details.

UBER’S AERIAL RIDE

Uber and Hyundai are teaming up to build a fleet of flying taxis.

Uber, the ride-hailing giant, said its four-passenger “Uber Air Taxi” initially will be piloted, but over time will become autonomous. Uber says it wants to conduct flight demonstrations in 2020 and make such vehicles commercially available in 2023.

The goal is to help riders breeze over traffic in shared air taxis between suburbs and cities and eventually within cities. Uber plans to launch the aircraft in Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia. The air taxis, which look like a cross between a helicopter and a small airplane, will be all-electric.

The air taxis are designed to take off vertically and cruise at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. They’re designed to fly up to 60 miles at a time.

While Uber has been working on the air taxi concept for years, Hyundai brings to the project a company with experience manufacturing cars on a global scale.

The companies said Hyundai will produce and deploy the vehicles while Uber provides airspace support services and connections to ground transportation. Uber will not own the air taxis, but the aircraft will be permitted to operate as part of Uber’s transportation network.

SENSING WATER LEAKS

New sensors promise to stop waterleaks before they ruin your home.

Monitors from Alarm.com and Flo Technologies connect to homes’ water lines and track usage. If the systems sense more water than usual is flowing through the pipes, they send an alert through their apps — after all, it could just be a long shower. But if something really seems off kilter, the monitors will automatically shut off water.

Flo used CES to launch its newest sensor, a raindrop-shaped device that looks like a smoke alarm and can detect any water or moisture when attached to toilets, washers or other leak-prone areas. Each detector costs $50.

PRIVACY BY VOICE

Google is adding a privacy “undo” feature to its Assistant voice technology.

Just tell Assistant to disregard something if you happen to notice the device was listening when it wasn’t supposed to. By saying “Hey Google, that wasn’t for you,” Assistant will delete whatever you just said. Although Assistant is supposed to send voice commands out for processing only when it hears “Hey” or “OK, Google,” it can mishear other conversations as the trigger word.

Another new feature will let you use your voice to ask Google about your own privacy settings.

The new features supplement privacy controls Google rolled out last year to let people delete their voice recording histories with voice commands. That came after pushback that Google and other companies were using human transcribers rather than just machines to listen to some audio recordings.

Assistant also will debut new tools such as household notes, which lets people leave virtual notes with voice commands for other members in their families. The notes will show up on Google’s smart Nest Hub displays as reminders.

GADGETS FOR YOUR EAR

Nearly 67 million wireless earbuds are expected to be sold this year, according to projections by organizers of this week’s CES gadget show in Las Vegas. That’s up 35 percent from 2019, making it one of the fastest-growing categories in consumer tech.

According to the organizers, the Consumer Technology Association, much of the growth will come from Apple’s AirPods and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, both of which play music and take calls without any wires. But others are vying for your ear canal, too. Amazon started selling its own buds late last year, and Microsoft plans to have one in 2020.

Also popular: smartwatches, fitness trackers and other devices that track and monitor your health. The CTA expects 64 million health devices to be sold this year, the first time the group has counted the category.

Smartphones and TVs will see slower growth. Both are expected to rise just 2 percent.

Overall, revenue in the U.S. consumer tech industry is expected to grow 4 percent to $422 billion, the CTA said. But the group warned that its numbers could change significantly if the trade war with China escalates or if tariffs are expanded. Much of the world’s electronics are put together in China, and the CTA has said that steeper tariffs could hurt the industry by making gadgets more expensive for consumers.

ALEXA AT THE PUMP

If swiping a credit card is too much of a chore, you’ll soon be able to pay for gas by voice.

Later this year, those who have Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa in their cars will be able to drive into Exxon and Mobil stations and say, “Alexa, pay for gas.” Alexa then will ask you to confirm what station you’re at and which pump you’re using. The card on your Amazon account card will get charged.

Sorry, but Alexa won’t pump gas for you. You’ll need to get out of the car for that.

The new feature is part of Amazon’s push to get into more cars. At CES, the online shopping giant announced several deals with automakers, including bringing Alexa to Lamborghinis and its Fire TV streaming service to BMWs.

Amazon says the gas station feature will be available at 11,500 U.S. locations.

WATER ME

Not all of us can tell when a plant needs more water, less light or perhaps is too warm.

For that, Luxembourg startup Mu Design has created the Lua smart plant pot to give greenery an animated face. Emotions, such as thirsty, sick or cold, are displayed on a digital screen.

“It transforms the needs of the plant into emotion that you can easily understand,” said Vivien Muller from Mu Design. “So you won’t be able to kill your plants. You just have to look at it and you’ll know exactly what it needs.”

An accompanying app lets users generate information specific to that plant. The pot itself is fitted with sensors to monitor moisture, light and temperature.

The device is expected to ship in March for $110.

BODY ASSIST

Flying cars and self-driving trucks, stand aside. Companies at CES are also trying to help the mobility of your own body.

Samsung showed off an exoskeleton system called GEMS, or Gait Enhancing & Motivating Sytem. It uses small motors connected to your hips or knees to help you lift those limbs and complete exercises.

The company envisions GEMS will be helpful for people with limited mobility and those in physical therapy or rehab from surgery. But GEMS is still early in development and doesn’t yet have a release date.

Meanwhile, Startup Unlimited Tomorrow has designed a prosthetic arm created with a 3D printer. The arm senses grip and is connected to the cloud for regular, personalized software updates. Those updates help fine-tune grip and movement for each person. The arm goes on sale later this year for about $5,000.

Segway has a completely different approach to helping people with challenges getting around.

The company, known for its stand-up motorized vehicles, unveiled the S-Pod, a motorized seated scooter on two wheels that somewhat resembles the chairs from futuristic movie Wall-E. Riders sit in the pod and steer with a small controller.

The S-Pod will go on sale later this year to commercial customers. The company envisions it being used in airports or enclosed corporate campuses.

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