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Intel's collaboration with Segway owners Xiaomi has created voice-controlled Ninebot, a robot butler hoverboard

CES 2016: Analogue revival fuzzies the future of digital

What was old is new again, as technologies past and future rubbed shoulders in Las Vegas at giant consumer tech extravaganza CES 2016.

Two of the key trends at this year’s CES (Consumer Electronics Show) came from opposing ends of the technological spectrum. From one end came the future-facing integrated digital life – the connected Internet of Things world; and from the other, a distinct retro analogue renaissance. Amidst all the 4K Ultra HD TV sets, VR goggles, wearable fitness tech and smart drones were gramophone horns, record players and film cameras.

This dichotomy arguably represents where consumers’ heads and hearts lie. Intel and Ninebot/Segway turned heads with their hoverboard robot butler collaboration, but Kodak won hearts with its revival of the Super 8 film camera, a technology not seen since 1982. Both concepts seemingly have their place in 2016.

Connected world

The ambition of companies to connect their products to all aspects of consumers’ lives was much in evidence. Smart beds and mattresses (for example, Sleep Number) monitor our sleep, while bodysuits (like Hexoskin) monitor our vital signs, updating us via our phones and laptops. Smart blenders (say, Perfect Blend) direct us in how to create the optimum smoothie and Bluetooth food scanners (such as SCiO) analyse the carbs and calories of the food on our plate.

Samsung in particular promoted the concept of “innovations that connect your world”, leveraging the Internet of Things to connect all our home devices – washing machines, ovens, air conditioners, TVs – which the end-user can control via the SmartThings mobile app.

The flagship result of this thinking is Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, a $5,000 fridge. Working on the premise that the kitchen is the hub of most homes, the Family Hub fridge has a 21.5in full HD LCD touchscreen that goes beyond basic food management (as demonstrated by three internal cameras photograph the shelves, relaying the information to your smartphone, so you need never run out of milk again) to offer online restocking options (in partnership with Mastercard); acting as the ‘Family Communication Center’, hosting notes, photos, calendars and artwork on its touchscreen; or streaming audio and TV content directly to its screen.

Other companies offered similar smart-home products, such as UK start-up Smarter, which showed its own standalone Fridge Cam (enabling us all to smartify our existing fridges without spending $5,000) and Mats, a system that monitors the weight of your food containers and notifies you to restock.

Samsung’s SmartThings capability will also be added to the company’s SUHD TVs, enabling users to control devices via the telly, and also to home alarm systems via a tie-up with ADT. From home to car, the SmartThings open platform extends to Samsung’s collaboration with BMW: at the show, Samsung contrived to get a BMW i3 car on to its indoor booth to show off the integration of in-car control of smart home appliances: automatically open the garage door, unlock the front door and turn on the lights as you approach your house.

Other car makers were equally keen to position themselves at the forefront of innovation and technology. With autonomous vehicles clearly in our future, car makers have realised that additional integration with users’ lives, beyond merely driving, is key to success. Accordingly, companies are coming up with cloud and platform solutions that better connect car with driver, such as Kia’s Drive Wise, BMW’s AirTouch, Toyota’s Smart Centre and Ford’s SyncConnect car operating system.

Ford also talked about future drone-to-car communication and voice control possibilities, also revealing more about its partnership with Amazon and in-car connectivity to Amazon Echo, the AI assistant whose Alexa voice-command system could let drivers check fuel or EV battery levels in their car from the comfort of their sofa or check on the status of home devices, doors and lights while out in the car.

Other companies were also tapping in to Alexa’s voice-control functionality at CES – such as Vivint, HomeAdvisor, Belkin, Phillips, Wink and Invoxia – enabling users to command Alexa to lock doors, operate security systems, play music or control the house thermostat and lights, all via remote voice operation.

Analogue renaissance

Amidst all the high-tech convergence, there was a clear sense of old-school divergence. The ‘Hi-Res Audio’ label was everywhere, marking a pivotal move back to quality of sound after years of downgraded digital audio formats and playback. At the show, Meridian debuted its MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology, a music file format that promises to package studio quality master files so they take up less space for hi-res streaming and downloads.

The pinnacle of this high-end analogue listening would have to be Bang & Olufsen’s Beolab 90 speakers (costing $80,000 per pair), prototypes of which were shown at the unveiling of the Danish company’s more reasonably priced BeoSound 35 soundbar. The BeoLab 90s would undoubtedly pair nicely with a valve hi-fi tube amplifier, such as VAC’s $10,000 Phi 170 model.

The ongoing revival of vinyl records as a listening format drove a sea-change in product releases, with dozens of new turntables on display. These varied from Victrola’s Dansette-style suitcase models (available in a range of suitably retro colourways) to Audio-Technica’s Bluetooth vinyl turntable, which can transmit music to as many as eight devices simultaneously, and Panasonic’s Technics resurrection of its legendary SL1200 turntable for a limited edition 50th anniversary model, to the delight of DJs of a certain vintage everywhere.

Sony, meanwhile, acknowledged vinyl’s revival but elected to kick things up a future notch with its PS-HX500 – a turntable with USB output and accompanying software, so you can play, rip and edit vinyl tracks in hi-res 24-bit Wav or Sony’s own hi-res audio DSD format.

However, it was Kodak that stole the analogue show with the news of its first consumer analogue camera since 1982, in the Super 8 format. The company plans to offer the full film stock “selling, processing and return to the customer” round-trip service, just like back in the analogue day. Like Sony, Kodak has wisely embraced the digital world and will also digitise the customer’s footage for retrieval from the cloud. The three-minute Super 8 film cartridges will also feature sound – something not all old-school cameras did.

Explaining the two worlds his company straddles, Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke referred to the return of Super 8 as “a complement to digital”, commenting, “People want the tones of audio and the grains of video.”

Naturally, the star of this particular analogue revival story was the Super 8 camera itself, a good-looking, creatively inspiring prototype of which was on display at the show. The return of Super 8 film, who’d a thunk it? What next: 8-track cartridges at CES 2017?

For many consumers, the myriad gadgets, platforms, formats, restrictions, conflicts and privacy concerns have become too complicated. Most people just want something that works. This is what keeps analogue attractive.

Watch E&T's exclusive interview with Geoff Martin, specialist acoustic engineer at Bang & Olufsen

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