CES Gives a Peek at 2020 Technology

The Reachy robot appears on display at the Pollen Robotics booth during CES Unveiled before CES International Jan. 5 in Las Vegas.

The Reachy robot appears on display at the Pollen Robotics booth during CES Unveiled before CES International Jan. 5 in Las Vegas. John Locher/AP

It’s more difficult to predict the next great advancement in government technology but you can spot trends.

With the dawning of a new year and decade, I got to watch quite a few news programs interviewing people who have lived a long time and experienced profound change. Some people talked about their first automobile, their first time seeing color television or the moment they began to experience diversity in their workplace and government. 

Watching that, it occurred to me that change happens slowly while we are living it but then seems like the blink of an eye when looking back. And change, especially technological, is accelerating. Case in point, it was almost 20 years ago when I first saw wireless technology demonstrated to me at the Comdex computer show.

The funny thing was that the demonstration wasn’t even very impressive. It took place in a backroom allotted to vendors working with Intel. They had an 802.11a wireless hub, which was about the size of a lunchbox, set up on one side of the room and a desktop computer with a wireless receiver and a big antenna on the other. There was about 30 feet of empty space between the two systems. They even kept people from walking between them so as not to mess up the wireless transmission.

On command, the person at the remote computer typed a message and sent a small file wirelessly through the hub to us. We opened the file and were told to grab a free gift from a little chest, which turned out to be a silver dollar. I still have the dollar. I would like to say that I was impressed by the demonstration and immediately saw what it would be like today where everything from offices to homes to coffee shops is wirelessly networked. But I remember asking if it would have been simpler to just run a network cable across the tiny room. Oh well, we can’t always recognize the future, even when it’s demonstrated for us I guess.

For those of you who don’t know, Comdex was an amazing trade show that took place every year in Las Vegas. It was highly specialized and centered on new enterprise, business and government technology. At its peak, the show would welcome over 200,000 visitors and have more than 2,200 exhibitors. The show infamously imploded and died in the span of just a couple years, with the remnants moving to the much more general Consumer Electronics Show after 2004.

It’s more difficult to predict the next great advancement in government technology at CES compared to Comdex. CES is less “business-like.” As the name implies, the show is focused on consumer electronics like big televisions, video game technology and weird stuff like intelligent toasters. But you can spot trends that might make a difference for, or at least find their way into, some government agencies.

Foldable PCs 

When you first see a foldable PC, you might be like I was during that aforementioned wireless demonstration and ask if we need the technology. Notebooks already fold along a hinge, but when you think about it, a lot of space is more or less wasted by the keyboard. New technology will allow the monitor to take up the entire length of the notebook because it will be able to fold in the middle. So you can have a desktop-sized monitor in the same space as a normal notebook today.

In a telling move, Intel was showing an example of what such a notebook might look like with what they call a Horseshoe Bend Device. Intel doesn’t make PCs, but it likes to show concepts so that manufacturers can follow suit. That’s what they did with all-in-ones and, many years ago, with wireless technology. So at least Intel thinks that foldable PCs will be the next big thing. Their horseshoe device is impressive too, boasting a 17-inch screen on a relatively tiny laptop.

Quite a few manufacturers were showing off folding PC concepts, but only Lenovo had a working system that is due to go on sale later this year. It’s a ThinkPad model called the ThinkPad X1 Fold. It has a 13-inch organic, light emitting diode (OLED) touch screen that folds down when not in use. It runs Windows 10. While you can use a virtual keyboard, you can also place a physical keyboard over the bottom half of the screen and use the X1 like a regular laptop.

I think it’s a safe bet that by this time next year, folding PCs will be heading for the mainstream, with interesting and useful applications to follow.

More and Better Drones Take Flight

Recent events have proven that the United States is heavily invested in drones for everything from surveillance to projecting military power. But drone technology has kind of hit a plateau lately. Existing drones are good, but they could always be better. One company called Zero Zero Robotics is trying to do just that, not by making them bigger, but by making them smaller, smarter and more efficient. 

They introduced their V-Coptr Falcon drone at CES, and it’s one of the most impressive that I’ve seen. It only has two rotors where almost every other drone has four. And those two rotors mount special propellers designed to generate lift with higher efficiency and less noise, perfect for stealth operations. It’s almost completely silent when hovering. It comes equipped with an HD camera that can compensate for motion and deliver crystal clear images that it captures with 8G of internal storage or up to 256G of data using a microSD card.

It’s flight characteristics are even more impressive. It has enough power for 50 minutes of continuous flight time. And its radio and base station are powerful enough that an operator can control it at a distance of up to four and half miles away. 

It’s even smart enough to perform certain tasks like avoiding objects in its path, watching over a particular area or even following someone. How many three letter agencies are going to want to add the V-Coptr Falcon to their arsenal?

Open Source Robotics

There were a lot of robots at CES this year. They included everything from a flying car made by Hyundai to a toilet paper dispensing robot from Charmin. But I think one of the most impressive was a robot with truly limitless potential.

Reachy is a robot from Pollen Robotics that resembles a human torso. It has a lot of similarities to a human. It uses cameras for eyes that can track distances and help to recognize objects. And it has arms and hands that allow it to practice very fine motor control.

At CES, the robot was challenging all comers to games of tic-tac-toe. It wasn’t very good at the game, or at least it could be played to a draw fairly easily. But that is not what makes Reachy special. What Pollen Robotics has done is to create a robot with human-like features that runs on an open-source Python-based API. That means that it could, potentially, do almost anything. 

I think this might be the first time that a robot with fine, human-like abilities and control has been coupled with an open source programming backend. Who knows what Reachy could ultimately do? It’s only really limited by the imagination of the user and the skill of its programmers.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a robot like Reachy, a concept like folding computers or a drone like the V-Coptr Falcon will one day strike it big, breaking out of the trade show floor and into government service. But given the potential of these three interesting technologies, they are certainly ones to watch.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys