Like so many other major events, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was different this year, insofar as there was no floor in Las Vegas. And despite the switch of venue to cyberspace, one thing that remained unchanged was the prevalence of surprise appearances — all hoping to be the next big thing that, in the philosophy of Steven Jobs, will step up to the plate and show consumers what they want.
And the options this year were myriad, ranging from flying cars to soft-serve ice cream served up Keurig style and ready to roll on your Kitsch Counter. Some of the highlights of the rollout were spec-only options, not likely to be available for mass-market purchase for many years to come; others are ready now and clamoring for consumer spend and attention.
Because pandemic or not, lockdown or none — the future will keep right on coming. And CES aims to make sure that when it arrives, we’ll already be wired in with the right set of gadgets.
Starting with the one we’ve all been waiting for since the Jetsons premiered in 1962: the flying car.
The Only Thing Better Than a Connected Car: A Connected Car With Wings
Car technology was an expected part of CES in 2021, as vehicles are a big part of the big show every year — particularly for the last few years, as consumer interest in connected car technology has spiked alongside a growing enthusiasm for a possible future where cars can drive themselves and the humans just tag along for the ride.
But General Motors managed to be the big winner of the headline war this year — because while other makers BMW and Mercedes came with upgrades to their infotainment systems and voice technology platforms, Cadillac had the true “go big or go home” moment this year by bringing a flying car to the party.
Well, sort of. GM’s offering at its Exhibit Zero (as they called it) doesn’t look much like a car, and is more accurately described as a “personal aircraft.” Based on the available sketches, it doesn’t look much like anything driven by George Jetson (or Doc Brown in “Back to The Future”), but more like a very souped-up jetpack that a consumer could theoretically crawl inside. According to GM, the line of air taxis is built to be sleek, leveraging electric vertical take-off and landing capabilities with a four-rotor aircraft powered by a 90-kWh battery. The craft is estimated to be able to fly at speeds of up to 56 mph.
And while GM is the latest making a big splash with its aero-taxi plans, it’s not alone in the game. Hyundai and Aston Martin have also staked out claims in this new mobility space. And while it’s not clear from GM’s presentation whether the company has actually built a working prototype of its flying car, it seems that an awful lot of automakers are looking at the sky — and wondering whether their growing pile of advanced batteries, motors and networking technologies can be combined to make the dream of flying cars a reality.
The Smart Mask Revolution
The COVID-19 vaccine is now officially out and being distributed — but according to the world’s medical experts, we’re all going to be wearing masks for a while, as it takes time for the vaccine to begin working its way through the population and meaningfully bringing down case counts. So, why not build a better mask?
That was the question the team at Razer came to CES set to answer with their new “smart” mask technology, designed to deliver the “highest degree of safety” for those who wear it. Among its features are an N-95 medical-grade respirator, and a detachable and rechargeable disc-type ventilator that can supposedly regulate airflow, while also filtering “at least 95 percent of airborne particles.” The prototype displays come with a wireless charging case lined with a UV lighting rig to sanitize the mask while it charges.
To combat the main practical problem with masks — muffled voices — the upgraded Razer also comes with a built-in mike and amp to boost the wearer’s voice. It’s also clear, to make the mask feel more “social.” It even has lights that automatically switch on in the dark, so users can express themselves visually when wearing it. Users will have the choice of 16.8 million colors to choose from to customize the color of the lights.
“Razer acknowledges the uncertainty in the road ahead, and so it was our duty to help protect our community members and prepare them from invisible threats,” Razer CEO and Co-Founder Min-Liang Tan said. “The Project Hazel smart mask concept is intended to be functional yet comfortable, and useful for interacting with the world, while maintaining a sociable aesthetic.”
Because nothing says sociable like a disco-lit mask.
I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for On-Demand Ice Cream
High-tech masks are practical, and flying cars will fulfill millions of childhood dreams someday — but the question consumers come to CES with every year is, “What fun can I have right now?”
And while there were many answers offered at CES this year — smartphones from LG that expand into tablets, 8K TVs and pocket translators that bill the ability to let consumers converse in 82 languages instantly — we at PYMNTS have to hand the win for fun this year to soft-serve ice cream.
And that was obviously not rolled out to the world during CES this year. Soft-serve ice-cream was invented in the 1930s — either by Tom Carvel, founder of the Carvel brand, in 1934 in New York, or by Dairy Queen in 1938 in Illinois. The two brands have been fighting about who really invented soft-serve for roughly 82 years. But the sweet treat saw innovation this year at CES: A machine called ColdSnap has come to bring soft-serve to our kitchen counters, where it has always belonged.
The machine, according to reports, looks and functions like a Keurig coffee pot — users pop in shelf-stable ice cream and ColdSnap freezes it in about 90 seconds before dispensing it into a cup or cone. The machine reads a QR code on top of the pod’s label to find the specific freezing temperature for each product.
And soft-serve is only the start for the product, which is still in the prototype phase and won’t begin to ship for at least another year. The firm is also working on creating pods for more products, including smoothies, frozen coffees, protein shakes, non-dairy ice cream and frozen cocktails such as mudslides and daiquiris.
The initial price point will be an expensive $1,000 — though the firm has noted that its goal is to bring that down by roughly half, as they roll more units into mass production.
“This is challenging and requires significant development and engineering expertise,” the product’s developer, Matthew Fonte, told CNN. “In the beginning, a lot of people didn’t think it was [scientifically] possible to create ice cream like this in about a minute or so.”
The idea, he said, came from one of his daughters who wanted an in-house ice cream machine and wasn’t fazed by the explanation that in-house soft-serve involved a lot of labor and a big mess to clean-up. From there, Fonte said, they built a business.
“It’s been really fun with my daughters, who have seen the whole beginning of starting a company, purchasing a 2,500-sq.-ft. building and getting patents, and they have shares in the company,” he said. “I’ve been explaining how the investors invest in us and how we can’t let them down.”
As it turns out, full-grown adults have also been into the idea of easy, quick and clean soft-serve in their homes: Fonte reports getting emails to their website that simply say, “Hurry up, I need this.”
Honestly, we can’t disagree with that soft-serve fan. Because after 2020, and the year we spent mostly inside, it is impossible to argue that soft-serve on-demand in our kitchens wouldn’t have been a massive upgrade.
But then, that is what CES is about every year — showing us the massive upgrades that are possible, and then spending the rest of the year figuring out which ones will be plausible and popular enough to get past the prototype phase. We’re hoping for the flying “cars,” but we’re betting on the ice-cream.