Personal Tech

Spock-style gadget can SMELL my PEE! Weird gizmos of CES 2014

The urine analysis device may come signed by Leonard Nimoy. Seriously

By Tony Smith


CES 2014 The Las Vegas-hosted 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is still running, of course, but the majority of the announcements have been made: a fair few before the show even started, in a bid to get ahead of the rest. Like early morning shoppers, though, everyone figures out the pre-show press release trick soon enough and now everyone is back to square one. What next? CES announcements in October?

Not that the world’s consumer electronics and technology players had a lot to say that was new. Smartwatches and wearable devices have proved the key theme of the show, with lots of folk jumping on the bandwagon to try and get a piece of the action early, now well-known birds like Fitbit and Pebble have been enjoying.

It helps that Apple’s much-rumoured entry into the market has not taken place, probably for the same reasons that Samsung’s effort, the Galaxy Gear, was so poor: they’re trying to make a flash gadget that will wow non-techie punters, but the core hardware - the battery, chiefly - just isn’t there yet.

CES is always a showcase for wall after wall of tellies, but there has been little novelty this time round. Curved screens have been done, so too have 4K and beyond Ultra HD TVs. Smart TVs are so 2012. Steve Jobs may have figured out the secret of making TV hardware sexy again just before he died, but no one else has in the intervening period.

Intel went to town on Ultrabooks a couple of years ago, but the broad public apathy to the new platform resulted in a more modest showing in 2013. This time round, rather than start its own bandwagon a-rolling, the chip giant just did what everyone else has: it jumped on someone else’s, in this case wearables. Whether an Edison platform, a PC-on-an-SD-card based on the new Quark processor, will truly be suitable for wearables - in other words, able to deliver ARM-level power efficiency - remains to be seen. Announced now, it won’t be out until the summer.

So what did stand out? Here are some of the items that struck me, and don’t forget you can also check out El Reg’s complete CES 2014 coverage here.

3D Systems ChefJet

We’re a sceptical lot here at The Register and we’ve found it hard to accept that personal 3D printing has much of a future outside the homes of Shoreditch techno-hipsters and a few, more advanced makers. Until now. Additive manufacturing is now truly correctly named, after 3D Systems has announced a printer for printing sweeities.

Can-do candy: 3D Systems’ ChefJet
Source: The Verge

The company actually has in mind a broader array of printed foodstuffs – ChefJet is the first of “an entirely new, kitchen-ready 3D printer category for edibles” - but why not sugary treets or clever cake decorations. Scale models of the Empire State Building or Iron Man’s mask that you can eat, anyone?

There will be two models: the ChefJet is a monochrome, countertop sized job with a build volume of 200 x 200 x 150mm. The ChefJet Pro can do multiple colours and has a 250 x 250 x 200mm space for pastries and such. ChefJet printable nibbles come in a variety of flavours, including chocolate, vanilla, mint, sour apple, cherry and watermelon.

DIY tasty treats

Of course, you might quite reasonably think this kind of thing simply devalues the dexterity and skill required for truly amazing candy and icing statuary, but I can see this thing making primary school cake sales considerably more interesting than they are - not to mention more competitive, too. Well, for parents who can afford the “sub-$10,000” price tag for the Pro model or even the $5,000 or so 3D Systems is going to want for the regular version, that is...

Lenovo Miix 2 11

The problem with the Miix 2 is that it’s a Windows 8 machine, but this laptop-tablet hybrid was worth a second look nonetheless - which is more than you can say from most of its competitors. Tablet screens that dock onto a keyboard unit are nothing new - Asus pioneered the idea a few years ago - but Lenovo’s engineers have rigged up the Mixx 2’s screen to attach to the keyboard unit with magnets rather than latches.

Miix and match: Lenovo’s magnetic laptop

The upshot is that it’s easy to separate the two parts, but when connected they stay together. Separate magnets work to keep the screen upright and, when you’ve done working, stuck flat against the keyboard. What you can’t do, alas, is fix the keyboard section to the back of the tablet as if the Miix had a wrap-around hinge like Lenovo’s Yoga laptops do, but you can have the screen upright and facing away from the keyboard.

Specs-wise, the Miix 2 has an 11.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 display, dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 and optional 3G. It has a Core i5 processor. Lenovo also has a 10.1-inch, 1920 x 1200 model in the pipeline, this one with a Bay Trail Atom CPU.

Scanadu Scout

No, it’s not a Star Trek tricoder or Feinberger, but it’s arguably the closest thing we have to Doctor McCoy’s handheld bio-sensor and readout. For the latter, the Scout makes use of - guess what - a smartphone, but the interesting part is the round sensor that’s able to take your temperature, measure your heart rate and blood oxygen level, monitor ECG and blood pressure, and even sense 12 different chemical signatures in your wee.

Boldly sensing urine signatures never sensed before. Sort of

All this in a small, 16mm high, 55cm-diameter disc that uses Bluetooth Smart - aka LE - to communicate with the host phone and has a micro USB port to keep its on-board battery topped up. When using it a few times a day, it will last for about a week, says Scanadu.

Scanadu’s been seriously on the case since it sailed past its Indiegogo crowd-funding target last year. That means it’s now on course to ship the gadget and its accompanying iOS and Android apps this coming Spring. Keener on Trek than Tech? Scanadu hopes to have a limited edition model on sale signed by Leonard Nimoy.

SeeSpace InAir

Here’s an interesting take on the smart TV: a $99 dongle for your telly that superimposes a UI and information on top of what you’re watching - or somewhere between you and the screen, if you’re watching through 3D glasses. The idea is you use your iOS or Android phone or tablet as a no-need-to-look controller rather than as a second screen.

InAir: Dynamic info overlayed on your viewing...

Cute, but that’ll be a hard sell. Punters like the second screen because they can glance it it without disturbing other viewers. Who wants to miss Sherlock’s death-defying plunge because a fellow sofa surfer immediately filled the screen with Wikipedia’s Arthur Conan Doyle pages?

The InAir sits between your TV and an HDMI video source, so presumably it won’t overlay its UI on top of content picked up by the telly’s own tuner

...via an HDMI dongle

Still, it will be interesting to see what SeeSpace can do to make the UI accessible yet undisruptive. More to the point, perhaps, I’m curious too see whether its planned Kickstarter fund-raising campaign will show there’s demand for kit like this - or that punters are more than happy with what smart TVs are already delivering in this area. If the funding comes through, InAir could be out in the second half of the year.


With no Apple iWatch launch to divert attention, established smartwatch player Pebble could launch its new design, Steel, without fear of being sidelined. Steel marks the company’s attempt to break out of the nerd ghetto and enter the mainstream. It’s a metal cased watch design to be attractive rather than practical, though it’s no less water resistent and functional than the current, plastic-cased Pebble. No more functional, either, unless you count its LED battery charge and alert type indicator.

Pebble’s Steel: with Sapphire glass? No, it’s Gorilla

Steel shows Pebble willing to grasp a key smartwatch nettle: people buy watches more for looks and perceived quality than for functionality. The problem is, no matter how useful you think a watch might be, you’re not going to buy one you think is ugly. That hasn’t been an issue for smartwatches so far; the current audience buys for functionality first. But it’s going to become more of a problem as vendors seek to draw in non-techie buyers.

Steel is a good step forward, though it’s not a design I find attractive. Martian Watches’ new model, Notifier, is. It drops previous Martians’ faux-fancy square design and cramped, half-height analogue watch face for a round, full-face watch into which the company’s trademark single-line OLED readout has been placed. It also retains the ability to integrate with a host phone’s voice control.


Steel ships at the end of this month - supply is limited, Pebble warns - for $249 and comes with both metal and leather straps. Notifier will cost $129 when it ships in Q2.

Give me Steam

Valve Software chief Gabe Newell's slow-burn launch of the company’s Steam platform as the next big thing in living room gaming fizzed and sparked its long black trail a little closer to the stacked barrels of gunpowder with the announcement that 12 more vendors have lined up to make and sell Steam Machine PCs... er... consoles. We already knew about iBuyPower, which leaked its own offering last year, but it has now been joined by Alternate, CyberpowerPC, DigitalStorm, Falcon Northwest, Gigabyte,, Next, Origin, Scan, Webhallen and Zotac. But the biggest name on the list is Dell subsidiary Alienware.

Some Steam Machines, such as Alienware’s, look like consoles...

These are all custom gaming PC makers - the very folk who already make desktop and laptop systems for Steam fans to run their games on. That means they know what PC gamers want and how to design kit that will excite them, but it also means they’ll be selling Steam Machine to the very customers who’d be buying high-end gaming PCs anyway. Where’s the market expansion in that?

...but Next’s looks like the PC that it is

No one expects Valve’s Linux-based PC-as-console box to take Sony or Microsoft head on and win - they reported PS4 and Xbox One sales to the end of 2013 of 4.2 million and 3.0 million units, respectively, by the way - but it would be nice to see Valve give it a shot. Expanding the market for PC gaming is goal enough; it doesn’t have to make a bid for the top three. That said, the way the Wii U is doing, perhaps it does have a chance after all...

Ultra HD... and Beyond

While Samsung and LG continued their tit-for-tat ‘our telly is better than yours’ fight, Toshiba upstaged them both with its 105-inch 5K Ultra HD TV. A 4K, 3840 x 2160 panel isn’t enough for Toshiba, it seems - its bosses want to watch their movies on a 5120 x 2106 job, which more closely matches the 2.4:1 ratio of cinema releases then the 1.78:1 ratio of widescreen TV. Of course, whether it’ll ever sell the thing is another matter. I suspect this set will be like the 2.4:1 ratio laptop Toshiba showed off a few years back: just a gimmick with with to impress the masses.

Sharp went further: an 8K, 7680 x 4320 job, differing from past Sharp 8K TV showings at CES and IFA by adding glasses-free 3D. Nice demo, but no basis for a real product: that’s a lot of upscaling all your 1920 x 1080 content has to go through.

Widescreen: Toshiba’s 5K TV
Source: Engadget

Sony, meanwhile, said its regular 4K TVs will support Netflix’s upcoming UHD service - in the US at least. Ha, said Samsung, so will ours - and Amazon, Comacast, DirecTV and others besides. But what the South Korean giant really hoped would impress us is its flexible 85-incher: an OLED TV that can warp from flat to curved at the push of a button. Why? Because we can. Ditto its 105-inch curved UHD TV. Panasonic had sets that bent both ways.

LG UHDs will get Netflix 4K support too, but of more interest to me was its use of WebOS as the basis for future smart TVs. The Palm-created, HP-crushed mobile operating system at last finds a home, though ultimately does it matter a darn what OS a TV is running unless it’s made sufficiently accessible for anyone to code for it. I can’t see that happening with any television platform - the CE world is too used to being a closed one. Still, maybe there’ll be more work now for one-time WebOS developers. Will Panasonic have any more luck with Firefox OS?


Wearable computing was undoubtedly a key theme at CES this year, as representatives of companies large, small and all sizes in between rolled up their sleeves to show a huge variety of wrist-wrapped straps with on-board sensors. Most monitor basic bio data: heart rate, steps taken, deepness of sleep, that kind of thing – Epson Pulsense; Garmin’s Vivofit; LG’s Lifeband Touch; Scosche’s Rhythm Smart+; and Sony’s tiny, Shine-like Core

Sun shield: Netatmo’s June

Netatmo was one of the few who stood out. Its June wearable not only looks different - it’s being pitched more as jewellery than tech, something Fitbit, CSR and others are also now looking into - but also does something different too: it measures sun exposure, and its accompanying app tells you how much cream of what factor to slap on to stay safe. Not a trivial application, given rising melanoma incidences in Europe. The Aussies will love it. Release TBD.

Another interesting variation on the wearables theme, this one avoiding the wrist-strap form-factor: Intel’s bio-sensing earphones. Only a concept design, not a real product - and almost certainly won’t ever be - but it’s interesting in that it shows wearable tech can perhaps should be integrated into existing products not new ones.

Razer’s Nabu: why have two wrist bands when one will do?

Game accessory maker Razer deserves a mention: its Nabu wearable is notable for doubling up as a smartwatch. It has all the customary motion and bio sensors, but it will also relay phone notifications Pebble-style, on a 32 x 32 “public” OLED panel and a 128 x 32 pixel “private” screen. An SDK for app developers is promised.

Razer’s sensible thinking is, why wear two devices when you only need wear one? Then again, this one connects to other wearers in your vicinity. Who wants to be tapped on the shoulder by a strange PC gamer? And do we really want to ‘gamify’ our daily lives? Razer thinks we do. ®

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