News & Views

CES 2013 / Small Standouts

by Nick Parish

Nick Parish highlights two small products that stood out among the Consumer Electronics Show's giants

Among the flashing and din at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, big was everywhere you looked. Big companies made big news. 

Electronics giants fussed over their suites of connected devices, smart fridges and appliances that promise efficiency. Televisions and displays showed off their elaborately constructed interfaces and systems underlying every feature, while an army of attendants primped them and arranged for their upkeep like prize heifers.

But among the 3,000 displaying companies, some of the smallest products, simple enough to seem homemade, stood out the most. 

Just around the corner from glaring displays by giants Bosch and Audio-Technica in the Las Vegas Convention Center's South Hall you could stumble onto the two-person Good Night Lamp team, in a sparse booth with a banner and two tables, each with a pair of small house-shaped lamps. 

Their concept is simple: the lamps are linked, and turning one on will activate the other. Long-distance partners can know when the other is awake, or an elderly family member can signal their well-being.  

They're a prime example of how the timing and economics of the electronics product launch has become completely fluid. They have no product to sell, yet. The team came to CES to help meet its Kickstarter goal of £360,000 by early February. 

'I'd like to think we're a little bit special in a place like this, that's full of tablets and full of cloud services,' says founder Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino. 'We're hoping to really entice people to look at the Kickstarter page, as opposed to just rely on our existing networks of people we could find on Facebook and Twitter.'

The main disconnect at CES seems to revolve around a lack of accountability to human behaviour, and products and inventions that arise out of a specific need or a problem that needs a solution. Nearly all the stuff on display comes off an engineering road map rather than from an insight.

'We're not trying to do anything that's very technologically complicated, but it's about trying to get people a way to express themselves that's a little bit different,' Deschamps-Sonsino says. This push for human expression through networked products is different than other expressions of the Internet of Things, the champion buzzword of this year's festival.
'A lot of the Internet of Things solutions here are very much domotics or home automation in a new form, with a new term. It's cloud services, rewrapped. Like people are saying "we'll stick Internet of Things on it and we can still sell the same things we've been selling forever."'

'For us, this is a way to connect with someone that's very subtle and doesn't seem hypertechnological. It's a little house. It's wood. It's warm. You can give it to your mom or grandma. And I can't say the same about a lot of things I've seen here.'  

Further down the Strip, in the portion of the sprawling show held in the Venetian casino complex, across from Lego's new Mindstorm robots, Swedish company Teenage Engineering showed off its OD-11 speaker system, the latest in a series of high-design products launched by the dozen-person company. 

A frequent partner to communications companies (see Absolut Machines or the IKEA KNÄPPA cardboard digital camera, featured in Wildfire 31), Teenage Engineering made a splash in the past with its OP-1, a music-making device that became a favorite of the Venn diagram of design nerds and electronic musicians. This time, they're launching a more mainstream product in the Las Vegas limelight.

'Many of the OP-1 fans refers to that they saw it at NAMM or read about it in connection with NAMM,' says Teenage Engineering's chairman Anders Halvarsson. 'CES is for speakers what NAMM is for musical instruments so we thought that the same logic would apply. And judging for the reactions so far it seems correct, although CES being so large would be much more challenging in terms of getting attention.' 

The speaker system is unique in that it's aiming for both connectivity and ultra-high fidelity. Music streams from the cloud, in an always-on situation. A basic moveable knob, called the Ortho remote, controls power and volume. Multiple Orthos can be assigned to multiple styles of music, so a red knob can activate the cooking playlist, and a white knob can activate the party playlist.

'Most people go to shows like this to chase exciting new products rather than to make business there. We think that we have something exciting to present in line with that,' says Halvarsson. 'We've received a lot of positive reactions for the form factor on the speaker as well as on the wireless volume knob.'

The system's UI, which the group was reticent to show publicly before a summertime launch, is able to incorporate submissions from all streaming services, so playlists can be composed from tracks at Spotify and Rdio and Pandora, and can be built collaboratively across devices and locations. 

The speaker system, meanwhile, is built on the legacy of Swedish audiophile and designer Stig Carlsson, who aimed to use the natural geometries of people's rooms to build all-around ambient fidelity, rather than a single sweet spot.