CES is usually a mixed bag. It’s a great place to see where the tech sector is heading, or at least where it thinks it’s heading. There were several trends from previous years that are starting to pay off in big ways, and some showstoppers that have created a lot of buzz. But what really caught my eye, and what you might have missed, ran the gamut from low light solar cells to apartment-ready home energy storage to some tech that has a direct impact on our lives and health. Along with renewed interest in…hydrogen of all things?
Trade shows are often full of vaporware and empty promises. But this year felt different. So, what were the highlights that I think are worth watching? And what new tech surprised me most?
Before I give my two cents on the best of what CES had to offer, let’s talk about clarity. Or rather, transparency. I’ve gotta bring up what many of you have already heard about through tech news and social media: transparent TVs. Why transparent? That was the question that went racing through my mind when I first heard LG bring it up during its keynote. I definitely wasn’t asking for that feature. Were you?
But then I saw it.
It worked way better than you might think. I also got to take a look up close and personal on the show floor and was still blown away. Would I want this in my house? No, my TVs are already fine — but it was interesting to hear LG’s pitch for why we’d want one. Instead of looking like a giant black slab when not in use, it literally disappears off the wall.
The way it works is actually pretty clever. It has an opaque black backing that can roll up and down to either look like a traditional flat panel screen or the new see-through mode. When transparent, it can act like an art screen displaying what looks like objects sitting on the table, or smart TV apps floating in space.
The transparency was a seamless effect that worked really well, but that whizbang feature is going to come with a high cost right now. It’ll be interesting to see if this is a trend that sticks with us and trickles down to affordable models, or if it will fade into obscurity the way 3D support did for most TVs.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me get into what really captivated me. So, low-light solar panels aren’t exactly new. They’ve been around for decades, and you’re probably already familiar with seeing them on small things like keyboards and calculators.
However, the US-based company Ambient Photonics has something new they’re bringing to the market right now. And from what I’ve seen, it’s actually novel enough to change the game. It’s a new type of dye-sensitized solar cell (DSSC), which is able to capture full spectrum light, so anything from compact fluorescent lights, to LED lights, to ambient sunlight in a room can be converted into electricity. What sets their technology apart is the power density they’ve accomplished: 3 to 5 times better performance than a typical DSSC cell.
Why does that matter? Well, think about all the devices in your life that use AA or AAA batteries or built-in lithium ion cells. That includes all your remote controls, wireless keyboards, mice, trackpads, Internet of Things devices like motion sensors, and so on. You get the idea. Those same devices, when combined with Ambient Photonics solar cells and a supercapacitor, would never need to have a battery replaced … because they’d never actually need a traditional battery in the first place. That means gadgets that use fewer materials but are longer-lasting and more robust, all without having to replace batteries.
The solar cells you usually see on devices like this have to be linked together in series in order to get the voltages and power they need. Buf if you shade one cell, you knock the entire array down — as I’m sure many of you found out by fiddling with solar-powered calculators in school. Unlike those, Ambient Photonics’ technology involves one uniform cell that can come in a range of sizes. I saw examples of wireless mice that had a single large solar cell on the entire surface of the mouse. You could barely see the cell through the surface. The matte texture design was nuts. They showed me a bifacial solar cell integrated into a streaming box remote, like the Amazon Fire TV. No matter how you set this remote down on the couch, whether face up or face down, it’ll always be able to charge.
There’s a lot to this tech I don’t have time to get into here, so let me know if you’d like a deeper dive in a future video.
I’m a huge fan of wearable technology and how it can positively impact our lives. I’ve been wearing Apple Watches from the very beginning, and I bought them for my parents to be able to call out for help if they fall down and aren’t able to get help. So, when I came across the company OrCam, a couple pieces of tech really grabbed my attention.
I personally demoed the OrCam Hear, which is a device to help people with varying levels of hearing loss. It looks like an ordinary pair of earbuds, but there’s some wildly sophisticated technology at play here. There’s a companion smartphone app that lets you activate and deactivate targeted noise cancellation. When I put them on, it tuned out all of the noise from the show floor and I could only hear the voice of the person giving me the demo. There were three people at the booth talking to me, but I could only hear the one. With a couple of taps on the phone app, I could then hear two of the three of them. Then all three of them … but the rest of the show floor was still muted out. Their noise-canceling is able to discern between specific voices! Safe to say that demo blew my mind.
Staying on the more personal, healthcare side of things, there was also a new device from Withings called the BeamO. This is like our first step towards a little tricorder, so you know the Star Trek geek in me was loving this one. Using a single device, you can perform an ECG and monitor your heart, check your blood oxygen levels, and take your temperature. It even has a built-in stethoscope that you can share with your doctor for remote diagnostics for your heart and respiratory system. I really want to get my hands on that one.
Shelly – Energy Monitoring
Next up for me was in the smart home realm at the Shelly booth. I’m a big believer in energy monitoring technologies because with knowledge comes power. In a previous video, I showed off how I’m using a Shelly relay I hooked up to my home’s Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) to link it into my smart home. I’ve got one automation that ramps up the ERV automatically if my house detects power draw from the range hood fan.
Well, Shelly has a range of new Gen 3 devices that are way small, about the size of a quarter. One is like a miniature version of the relay I’m using on my ERV, but that’s not the one that really got my attention. This little guy is an energy tracker and would be extremely easy to add to any outlets or devices around your house. In a very tiny and affordable box, you can track basically anything you want. Think dishwashers, washing machines, dehumidifiers … This can help you track down wasteful use cases or trigger automations, like the one I’ve got set up with my range hood fan. It’s really slick. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that one to test out.
Home Energy Storage
The next highlight for me shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s probably not going to be a shock that I spent a lot of time jumping between all the battery companies and booths that I could find … and there were a lot. There was a clear trend that came through this year and it’s pretty exciting news for home energy storage options out there. No, it’s not hydrogen, but there’s definitely some surprises with that too, which I’ll get to in a minute. It was actually modular and easily expandable energy storage that seemed all the rage this year. Every company under the sun had a similar setup.
EcoFlow has probably the most impressive of the bunch, with their new Delta Pro Ultra power station. It’s a modular and portable system that can work for anything from RVs to your house. You can plug directly into the unit or link them into the EcoFlow Smart Home Panel 2 for energy monitoring and automatic backup power switchover for your house. It uses a lithium iron phosphate battery chemistry, which is what most of the companies were using. Each module has 6kWh storage and you can combine them together for up to 90kWh of storage. That would last the better part of a week for most American homes. That’s just staggering.
That modular approach extends to Anker, who launched some new entries into their SOLIX line, like the Anker SOLIX F3800 Portable Power station. It’s very similar to EcoFlow, but starts at 3.84kWh and can scale up to 26.9kWh with a total of 6 modules. Then you can combine multiple groups for a total of 53.8kWh of storage.
The main takeaway is that these systems are very adaptable to a wide variety of setups, and offer some pretty granular scalability. With a Tesla Powerwall you’re probably starting in that $15,000 – $20,000 range, but with these you’re starting at $5,799 for EcoFlow and $3,999 for Anker. That makes it easier to get into home energy storage and scale as needed.
But this is where another trend starts to crop up. It’s one that I’d really like to see take off here in the US, but it’s only really taking hold in some parts of Europe right now, like Germany. It’s often referred to as balcony solar — which is appropriate, seeing as it’s literally just hanging a couple of panels over the edge of your balcony. Tie those panels into a small battery pack and plug into a home outlet and you’ve got instant apartment power backup.
Anker had the SOLIX Solarbank E1600, which has 1.6kWh of storage. It’s not a lot, but for an apartment that could get stretched out a long way. Another company called Marstek had something similar that I saw. I’d love to do a deeper dive on balcony solar and why it’s not really a thing everywhere yet. Let me know if you’d be interested in that.
That brings me to what surprised me the most. It’s a divisive topic every time I talk about it on the channel … and that’s hydrogen. I was shocked at how many companies talked about going big on hydrogen in their keynotes.
“We are focusing in particular on hydrogen. We believe it’ll be central to meeting our future climate neutral energy needs.”
For example, Bosch talked at length about their innovations generating green hydrogen to their PEM fuel cells and how it’s essential for the clean energy future. Panasonic said something similar, and also spoke about how their facilities are using hydrogen and solar panels to make their climate neutral goals. On top of this, Hyundai discussed how they’re expanding their HTWO brand from just fuel cells to their entire hydrogen value chain (production to use). From their waste to hydrogen technology where they can take literal sewer sludge and turn it into clean hydrogen.
As if that wasn’t surprising enough for me, both Bosch and Hyundai brought up hydrogen for transportation. I thought the hydrogen car talk was done by now, but nope. Bosch is going to be releasing their hydrogen-burning engine and Hyundai has a new version of their Nexo hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
That raises a big question: why? Reading between the lines, there’s a sentiment that there’s not enough equity or availability for batteries or their components for the entire world. Hydrogen can, in theory, open up more equitable access to clean technologies around the world. It’s a nice sentiment, but I’m a bit skeptical that they can pull it off. I’ve long thought that we shouldn’t write off hydrogen across the board because it does have some really compelling use cases, but they were championing the use cases that I thought were kind of … well … dead.
Aside from that, I was also pleasantly surprised to see every company talking about their sustainability plans and goals. More importantly, many were actually discussing their progress based on the goals they’ve laid out over the past year or two. I was happy to see that it’s not just lip service, as we got descriptions of follow-through. That could be a video on its own.