January 18, 2016      

Earlier this month, I traveled to my first Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2016) in Las Vegas. While it was easy to be overwhelmed by the number of exhibitors and attendees spread across four locations, there were lots of interesting robotics developments.

There were some impressive robots, such as the modular CellRobot and Double Robotics Inc.’s affordable telepresence system. ABI Research predicts that the consumer robotics market will reach $17 billion within the next 10 years, so anyone interested in robotics can learn from CES. Here’s a look at some of the hits and misses from this year’s show.

A glimpse into the future — maybe

From the mainstream news coverage of CES 2016, one could understandably conclude that all kinds of wondrous gadgets are coming soon, from refrigerators that can order food to clothing that will improve your workout. However, the reality is a bit less certain.

Many of the companies at CES were looking for partners, investors, or buyers, and many of their products were still at the concept stage.

With connected vehicles taking an ever-larger share of attention, it’s no surprise that Ehang’s passenger quadcopter or Faraday Future’s Batmobile-like concept car got more coverage than, say, GoSun’s solar oven or Opcom’s smart garden, even if the market for electronic cars is still small.

Speaking of autonomous vehicles, Amish Parashar, venture partner at Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory in Silicon Valley, showed videos of the robot intended to replace humans for motorcycle testing.

As implied by its name, CES is mostly devoted to consumer technologies, but there were a few industrial robotics demonstrations. They included Empire Robotics Inc.‘s VersaBall gripper, SynTouch LLC’s tactile measurement as a service, and Nidec-Shimpo Corp.‘s autonomous ground vehicle system.

In addition, Bosch Group had a robotic arm making coffee as part of its smart home and Industry 4.0 exhibits, and Carbon Robotics brought its KATIA modular robotic arm.

French firms take over Eureka Park

The Techstars startup accelerator and the U.S. National Science Foundation sponsored Eureka Park, which took up a large portion of one floor at the Sands Expo Center. More than 200 French organizations were present, and Emmanuel Macron, the minister of economy, industry, and digital affairs, and his entourage visited the booths.

Why did France have a bigger presence than other countries? The French made a splash, but their products were no closer to market than those of others in Eureka Park. It boils down to organizational ability, willingness to do self-promotion, and government support. How does the rest of Europe figure into robotics and tech innovation, and what can other nations learn from France?

Other countries that had pavilions included Germany, Israel, Italy, and South Korea. Of course, there were many exhibitors from China, as seen by the number of companies with “Beijing,” “Dongguan,” and “Shenzhen” in their names, but they were dispersed.

Not surprisingly, Japanese businesses were well-represented, while India and Russia were present more through the diasporas of talent from those nations.

Social robots wow crowd at CES 2016

During the third session at the Robotics Conference held by Robotics Trends (a sibling publication to Robotics Business Review), attendees crowded to see Aldebaran/SoftBank‘s Pepper (soon to be enabled by IBM Watson) and Blue Frog Robotics‘ Buddy together.

“It is the year of the social robots, drones, and vacuums,” said Rodolph Hasslevender, Blue Frog CEO.

Richard Shinn, CEO and founder of AiBrain, had some difficulty with his presentation, but his Tyche robot, which looked like a smartphone docked in a toy car, showed an impressive level of natural conversation, even calling Dr. Shin “my creator.”

Even more limited robots showed potential. Leka, a “smart toy,” is designed to help children with developmental challenges.

“We don’t have a ‘killer app’ — a general-purpose robot — yet,” noted Mark Bunger, vice president of research at Lux Research Inc., during the “Robots Come Home” session. But there is incremental improvement, he said, and the division of labor within homes worldwide needs to be addressed.

In some ways, Flower Robotics‘ Patin promises to be closer to the multifunction domestic robot that many envision doing chores rather than or in addition to keeping people company.

Related tech: 3D printing and IoT

Although 3D printing has yet to enter homes, additive manufacturing is improving. The 3D printing zone showed a wider variety of materials, smaller and cheaper printers, and new software to more easily share and use designs.

For instance, South Korea-based Daelim Chemical Co. exhibited a 3D printer capable of using biological materials.

In addition to conventional thermoplastics, Daelim offers eco-friendly printing materials made from plant starch. These materials are biodegradable and don’t emit the dangerous fumes of petrochemical-based polymers.

3D Systems Corp. showed off printed clothing and food, and Airwolf 3D Printing demonstrated multimaterial printing. Mcor Technologies Ltd. claimed that its Arke is the first full-color desktop 3D printer.

3D printing is much more likely as a service for prototyping or small production runs than as a home appliance, as the UPS booth understood.

The Internet of Things was all the rage in this year’s household and healthcare marketplaces. Appliances that gather and share data, such as Samsung’s touchscreen fridge or Whirlpool’s connected kitchen suite, looked impressive — even if such products could experience differential rates of obsolescence.

Tech-No-Logic Corp.’s OneCook and Sereniti‘s Cooki were other examples of kitchen automation. Someday soon, food could be grown, delivered, and prepared all by robot.

However, does a remote-control thermostat or a security dashboard app on your smartphone count as IoT? What about clothing that tracks your vital signs during virtual reality-enhanced exercise? As useful as they might be, do Myle‘s wearable personal assistant and Orbii’s remote-controlled spherical monitor count as robots?

True IoT will arrive when all that data is analyzed and used in ways that make our daily lives easier, as described by Lux Research’s Maryanna Saenko during the first session at the Robotics Conference within CES.

Aerial drones are fairly mature, but researchers are taking separate routes to the goal of self-driving cars. In addition to the technical challenges, there are social, regulatory, and business roadblocks that are just beginning to be addressed.

Not enough robots?

According to one attendee from a California robotics company, if one were to remove drones and self-driving cars from the list of more than 270 robotics exhibitors, only about 10 “pure-play” robotics companies were left.

Aside from Pepper and Ubtech’s Alpha 2, there were relatively few humanoid or personal assistant robots at this year’s CES. Jibo wasn’t present, and while Amazon Echo didn’t have a booth, some smart-home products are intended to work with its Alexa.

In fact, for more focused networking among robotics suppliers, investors, and users, several attendees agreed that the fall RoboBusiness conference in San Jose is a better venue.

In the meantime, catch our free “Sweet Sixteen for 2016” report and our exclusive webcast later this week, as my colleagues and I discuss more observations from CES 2016!