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Marketplace Morning Report

CES 2016: Where your connections have connections

Molly Wood Jan 5, 2016
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Two of the tech industry’s favorite trends are convergence and connectedness. At CES 2016, the connections are converging. 

Last year’s show could have been dubbed “Put a sensor on it.” There was a veritable extravaganza of connected appliances, wearables, flower pots, bracelets, eyeglasses, drones, and, well, everything, really. 

But if my early reconnaissance is any indication, this year’s show  will be about connecting connected devices to other connected devices — sometimes to the point of ridiculousness.

At Ford’s press conference early Tuesday morning, for instance, the company announced that its cars will be able to talk to the Amazon Echo connected appliance. The Echo, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a little WiFi-connected cylinder that can answer basic questions, tell you the weather, give you news, check stocks and TV listings, play music and podcasts from Amazon Prime, and, of course, let you add items to your Amazon shopping cart. 

Now, you’ll be also able to use it to start your Ford car, check the battery on your electric Ford, or, once you’re inside the car,  direct the Echo to turn on the lights in your home. That’s assuming you have connected light bulbs that are themselves connected to the Echo, which is then connected to your car. 

 Ford is also working with Chinese manufacturer DJI, and announced a developer challenge to get drones to talk to Ford vehicles, say, in a disaster scenario like an earthquake or flood. The drone could fly over an affected area, and communicate information back to a connected car. 

At CES Unveiled, the official preview event before the show opens officially on Wednesday, the best example of connecting a connected device comes from Sphero, which made the hyper-popular “Star Wars”-inspired BB-8 toy. The first generation of the toy was controlled by a smartphone, but Sphero just announced a wearable called the Force Band that will let you control the BB-8 with a wave of your hand. 

Then there’s just a whole new generation of creatively connected devices. 

The British tech company Smarter debuted connected kitchen devices like the Fridge Cam, which streams an image from inside your refrigerator (better hope that doesn’t go viral) to your phone or tablet, so you can manage your fridge inventory without opening the door. There’s also the Smarter Mat, which records the weight of what you set on it, so you’ll know when you’re running low on say milk, or orange juice (again, without opening the door).You can also put it in a cabinet to keep tabs on your flour, or cookies.  And if you do deign to open your fridge, the Smarter Detect will let you know if you’ve left the door open. 

The Orbitrec bike, billed as “the world’s first connected 3D printed bike,” combines two hot trends: 3D-printed components that can be re-printed if they break, and the ability to use your smartphone to send text messages if you crash, turn on the bike’s light in a tunnel or beam information about road conditions into the cloud, so you’ll know when there’s an obstacle in the road up ahead.  

There’s also the Digitsole, the “first connected insole.” (Nike is said to be working on a smart shoe of its own, in fact.) There are the SmartyPans, a line of connected skillets, and the PerfectBlend connected kitchen scale, paired with an app for making better smoothies.  

 If it seems like we’re well into the land of creating solutions for problems that no one actually has, well, we are. (A fashion wearable with built-in Bluetooth headphones called the Helix Cuff solves the problem of tangled headphones by… putting them in a bracelet.) 

But here’s a real problem. The rush to connect devices to other devices and then to things like cars raises serious questions about security, data collection and safety. At a panel about intelligent transportation, questions about security in connected cars and other devices were first and foremost, as both panelists and audience members raised the spectre of a stolen car whose driver could unlock the doors to your house or fiddle with the thermostat.

 It’s the nature of technology to push the limits, but as the industry searches for the next great way to sell new gadgets to more people, there’s a danger of veering into the ridiculous or the dangerous—or both at the same time.

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