Japan’s top tech show, CEATEC, was held this week in Chiba, just outside Tokyo. And although it has always been traditionally known as a consumer electronics event, this year the show’s organisers took a sharp turn and focused on IoT instead.
The result was a futuristic show with many companies showing off prototypes and future tech. We were there to check them out.
Getting right into the spirit of things was Panasonic with a large display of its latest innovations and aspirations for the next three to five years.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Bendy batteries
A flexible Lithium-Ion battery was a real show stopper, mainly because it's due for release at the end of the month. The battery can be flexed or twisted repeatedly without degrading and will most likely be used in wearable devices or smart clothing. Maybe we'll even see bendable phones come to fruition too, as have been talked about for a while.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Panasonic's future smarthome
Panasonic also showed several concept technologies that could really improve home life.
We particularly warmed up to its future kitchen. It included a snazzy drinks fridge/wine cooler which not only stores your drinks at three different optimum temperatures but also displays information on the ideal serving temps and glasses. It also gives you background information such as the origin and ingredients of your booze. You should never be at a loss to accurately describe your wine or sake collection again.
For those with smaller kitchens or who like smooth uncluttered lines Panasonic does away with ugly stove tops, proposing a conductive unit that doubles as a regular surface when you’re not using it to cook. If your kitchen is even too small for that, how about cooking your food straight on the plate? Simply pop off the protective cover and your dinner can be microwaved right on a tabletop.
Future living room
Forget flatscreen TVs, within five years you could have a clear glass display that transforms into a television screen. One minute you’re displaying an antique vase and giving off the impression of being super sophisticated and highbrow, flick a switch and you could soon be enjoying Netflix.
In the bedroom, Panasonic showed off a prototype Smart Mirror which can assess your skin’s condition, map blemishes and then print out nano-metre thick cover patches to allow you to achieve a flawless complexion without piling on the make-up products.
It can also assess the condition of your skin, including wrinkles, fine lines and not yet visible damage. While it all sounds great there are a couple of complications. The printer is large and presumably only serves that one function. And the company is still looking for a partner to develop this concept with. We imagine it will get both smaller and more sophisticated when that happens. Hopefully.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Lenovo's own smart mirror
Lenovo was also showing off a smart mirror: the ThinkMirror. This one is more focused on lifestyle with an accompanying smart scale which feeds your body stats, such as BMI and bone density, to the mirror which then displays them.
It can also suggest exercises and inform you of how many calories you burnt carrying them out. Again, the one on show was only a prototype, and not one that the company's representatives were comfortable with demoing on actual people, so that suggests it is far from ready.
However, the developer thought that it is something that could be ready by next year. If that's the case, it seems like both Panasonic and Lenovo will be pipped at the post by a third option: Cal-Comp’s HiMirror. It combines skin analysis and a smart scale, and it's set to launch this October.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Fancy a massage?
Also on the home front, we’ve been to Asia often enough to get used to electronic massage chairs but we have to say that Inada’s Lupinus is in another league.
The chair has large pads in the foot and leg well which act like hands applying pressure along your limbs. The same goes for your arms, which are usually neglected.
We really liked the way the chair manipulated your body by stretching it out before applying different massage techniques. It also has pads to press down on your shoulders, which allows pressure to be properly applied. There's a display on the side showing you which actions are coming up next and all-in-all it was a thorough massage. We started off the day with a stiff shoulder and have to say after 15 minutes in the chair it was totally gone.
It’ll set you back a pretty penny though at a shade over £3,500.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Kirobi - Toyota's mini robot
Toyota's biggest draw at the show was the adorable Kirobi; the firm's new mini robot. The tiny companion was officially announced on 3 October and will launch in Japan in early 2017. Pre-orders are now currently being accepted.
The thinking behind the Kirobi is that Toyota would like to get closer to its customers by providing a personalised experience. The genderless, child-like robot fits in the palm of your hand. And we have to admit that, when held, it did mange to feel cute. The size, weight and slightly oversized head do inspire certain protective instincts - maternal even.
However, when we asked the engineer who it is designed it for, rather than immediately referencing young childless women – as much of this week’s coverage pointed to – they instead said young women, the elderly who might like a bit of extra company, and families with small kids.
Kirobi only speaks and responds to Japanese at present but it cleverly recognised our rather poorly-pronounced attempts. It responds in a voice reminiscent of a five year-old's. We asked it how it was ("very well") and it then announced it felt like going to see some animals. When we asked which was Kirobi’s favourite animal it said it wasn’t sure yet.
As you communicate with your mini robot it sends information back to the cloud and begins to develop its own memories. Not only will it realise and comment on arriving at a place a second time (using GPS, but shhh don’t tell the kids or grandpa that) but each Kirobi will eventually have different personalities. After three years, say, should you take one person’s Kirobi and swop it with another, they will have totally different memories stored and therefore have developed differently.
Kirobi can also recognise moods through the camera between its overlarge Kawaii eyes and at one point in our demo – admittedly when we were trying hard to remember some Japanese – suggested that we ought to cheer up and try to smile a bit.
Its just 10cm tall and weighs 180g – although when we asked Kirobi how much he weighed he considered the question for a moment and responded, "About the same as an apple."
It was a lot more certain of its birthday though, gleefully declaring it to be 3 October. Kirobi mini is currently only confirmed to be available in Japanese (which is great if you need a language partner), but Toyota isn’t ruling out introducing other languages in the future.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: VR hangliding
We tried virtual parachuting last June at Taipei’s Computex, so we couldn’t resist trying out a VR hanglide at CEATEC. The graphics were far more complete than the student-developed version we previously tried.
Players are strapped onto a platform with a control bar to hold onto. Although the flight was preset it was fun to be lifted up for real, then swooping down into a volcano in the VR world and through rocky arches across the sea. The demo booth even had a fan going to imitate air flow.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Robot table tennis tutor
Keeping on the gaming theme, fancy playing a game of ping pong against what essentially looks like a giant Tripod?
Forpheus is the world’s first robot table tennis tutor, as certified by the Guinness Book of Records. We had a go and while our skill level was pretty rubbish to begin with, we soon improved. Unfortunately, so did our opponent. The mammoth machine actually adjusts its skill level as you get better yourself.
Although Omron, the company behind it, is pushing smart machines to intuitively help in factory production we have to say we were glad to be taught a lesson or two ourselves. Sadly our skill level was pretty low, climbing to just four and half, but it would be great to see someone with real skills take on Forpheus.
Best gadgets of CEATEC 2016: Honda's 3D printed electric car
Honda is pushing the boundaries of 3D printing with a printed electric car, also shown at CEATEC.
The model on the showfloor was produced for a Kanagawa-based biscuit company, in conjunction with design agency Kabuku. That's why the single-seater delivery van was decorated in an intricate 3D pattern from the company’s boxes.
It only took 20 hours to print out the shell which is then assembled and placed on the axle and car base. Neither company was willing to disclose how much the cars retailed for but should you want to spot one they should be buzzing around Kamakura town from early next year - subject to approval from Japan’s department of transport.
Other designs showed included one with a surfboard holder on the side. As the designer from Kabuku pointed out, the great thing about 3D printing a car is the freedom that it allows in terms of shape and form.
Although CEATEC is still a relatively small tech show, the push towards the IoT is a welcome change and we hope that the organisers will build on this to grow as a more innovative show in the years to come.