Coming to Berlin for the 2016 IFA electronics trade show, we expected wearables, smart everything and virtual reality devices, and that’s pretty much exactly what we got.
Still, seeing all the “smart” and “connected” home appliances in one place gave me a sense of how much this technology will permeate our everyday lives in a few years.
Smart iron? Check. Smart toothbrush? Check. Smart fridge that takes photos of its contents with three cameras and then sends it to your phone every hour so you always know what’s inside? Check.
While that last one might sound like something I made up, it’s an actual Samsung product, originally unveiled in May 2016. Besides spying on the fridge’s contents, the Family Hub wants you to use it to do all sorts of things: shop for groceries, watch TV, write and share notes.
And a connected iron prototype, presented at IFA by the Swiss company Laurastar (top photo), has an accompanying app that gives you the iron’s vital stats, and even teaches you how to iron properly.
We’ve seen smart gadgets before. But each year, they get refined with new features, sometimes preposterous; a new Acer pet camera, for example, lets a group of eight people play with a pet. At the other end of the “smart home” spectrum, features get automated.
A Philips motion sensor turns your smart light on automatically as soon as you enter the room; no need to do anything, it just works. And a Sony projector turns any surface of your house into a touchscreen.
If it sounds like overkill, it is; but once the price point on such devices drops to the point where everyone can afford them, the non-smart appliances could simply fade into the background to make way for the new, connected ones.
Put on your VR headset, time for a massage
The somewhat utilitarian nature of IFA — you wouldn’t believe the amount of enterprise-grade air purifiers and washing machines we’ve seen here — is good for assessing how, exactly, upcoming technologies will affect our everyday lives. At any other electronics show, pretty much every VR headset you see will be tethered to some sort of gaming computer; here at IFA, the virtual/augmented reality helps you ease into a massage or pick up the right package in a warehouse.
There were a few surprises as well; Alcatel launching a standalone VR headset (meaning it’s not tethered to a computer or a phone) unexpectedly put the Chinese electronics maker on the VR map.
But despite all the headsets we’ve seen in Berlin, I still can’t shake the feeling that what we’re seeing now is just an early prototype stage for a vastly more refined VR experience that’ll arrive in the future. The world’s first (in terms of actually shipping, an XMG rep told me) VR-ready backpack computer works well, but looks amazingly clunky. You would not want to be seen with this thing anywhere; my colleague Ray (see photo below) had no choice.
So when will VR crawl out of the gaming niche and truly become something everyone can use for leisure and entertainment? It might take a generation or three; a lot of these devices are still too big, too hot and too bulky for my taste. Once you’re able to put on your headset and forget about it, as you do with your glasses, it’ll be a different ball game. The push behind VR is so strong — Facebook, Samsung, Google, and even Apple (which doesn’t have a VR product yet) swear by it — that you’ll see a lot more of it in the next couple of years.
OLED gets cheap; smartwatches start looking like regular watches
Big screens on fridges and VR headsets aside, we (unsurprisingly) saw plenty of regular TV screens in Berlin, and guess what: they were mostly OLED 4K screens.
In fact, LG had built an entire tunnel out of those screens, and in the booths of companies such as Samsung, Sony and Panasonic, the large OLED 4Ks got the most prominent placement.
But the fact that OLED TVs are great-looking and thin is not new. What’s new is that the price is finally coming down to make them a viable replacement for your LCD. Perhaps $55,000 for a 98-inch, 8K OLED TV doesn’t sound cheap, but such devices easily cost twice that amount a year ago.
Wrapping up this year’s IFA, two more things need to be mentioned, even though they felt like an afterthought: wearables and smartphones. There was a lot of smartwatches at the show, with Samsung’s huge Gear S3 leading the way, and if there’s one trend I’ve noticed, it’s the tendency to make these look like analog watches. Samsung did not hide this intention when it presented the Gear S3, especially its Classic variant. Withings also launched an elegant fitness watch.
Perhaps the most interesting take on that idea was an upcoming watch from the Fossil-owned, Danish brand Skagen — a smartwatch that looks exactly like an analog watch, notifying you of messages, emails and meetings with vibration and various (customizable) movements of its hands.
As for phones, we didn’t see that many new ones, save for some solid mid-rangers from Huawei and ZTE, and that’s probably a good thing. Within days, Apple will show its new iPhone 7, and any flagship shown at IFA would likely be all but forgotten.