Samsung’s CES 2020 keynote wrapped up last night, and it was a wild, rapid-fire showing of things that may or may not ever come to market. Samsung called the keynote its “vision for the future of tech and innovation” so I guess these are “concepts” and not “products.”
The company ran through several devices, each of which got about three minutes of presentation time with no price or release date, and then it was on to the next thing. The devices all seemed pretty early in development, and nailing down exactly how anything would work was a challenge, but here’s a roundup of the things Samsung talked about at CES.
The Bixby speaker lives!
Before we dive into Samsung’s futuristic concepts, let’s point out that this is all coming from a company that is currently struggling to bring a smart speaker to market. Samsung wants to compete with the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple Homepod, so in 2018 it announced the Samsung Galaxy Home, a smart speaker with the company’s Bixby voice assistant built-in. It’s almost a year and a half later, and the Bixby speaker still hasn’t launched. The last thing we heard about the Galaxy Home was in June, when Samsung gave the speaker a vague release window in the second half of 2020. This would be something like two years after it was announced and six years behind the launch of the Amazon Echo.
Apparently the Galaxy Home will no longer be the first Bixby speaker Samsung releases. Samsung is also working on a Galaxy Home Mini—a smaller, cheaper version of its Bixby speaker. Yesterday, the company told Bloomberg that this device is scheduled for an “early 2020” release, so it will beat the bigger Galaxy Home to market.
Samsung is primarily a hardware company, and while it sells no shortage of smartphones, those are all packed with Android—somebody else’s software. For products like Bixby, where Samsung has to develop the software all on its own, Samsung has struggled to compete with more software-focused companies. Samsung’s biggest software project is its own Tizen OS for smartwatches and TVs, but that has been called “maybe the worst code I’ve ever seen” by one security researcher. It still seems like anytime Samsung is going to have to build its own software, it’s going to be a struggle, and that’s something to keep in mind for these futuristic concepts.
Ballie—A ball robot… pet?
The furthest-along concept was probably “Ballie” (Not Ball-E?), a ball robot that follows you around the house. Ballie is a camera robot and smart speaker, so besides recording everything when you’re not at home, it will respond to voice commands. LG demoed a nearly identical concept in 2016, but that was the size of a bowling ball. Ballie is closer to baseball or softball size.
Ballie got a live demo on stage, where it chased the presenter around like a loyal puppy, and Samsung even called it a “personal life companion.” Ballie has facial recognition and tracks your motion, following you, adjusting to your pace, and keeping a bit of distance. There’s wasn’t much useful functionality demoed, and instead the ball bot was treated like a pet. It is certainly cute.
In a video, Ballie was shown controlling a variety of smart home gadgets, like opening blinds in the morning, controlling a TV, and starting a smart vacuum. The video did its best to anthropomorphize the little ball and have it do things like wheel into the bedroom and look at the smart blinds while they are opening. But this is a smart home—you don’t actually need the little robot to be in the room when everything is networked and remotely controllable. One maybe-legitimate use case for a roving camera in the video happened when a dog knocked over a bowl of cereal, and Ballie, after noticing the mess on the floor, started the robot vacuum. Another time, it initiated a video call to the owner on its own. Why did it do that? Maybe because it noticed a noise?
On the background screen, Samsung had the text “Some functions may differ from the actual product.” This suggests that there might, someday, be an actual product. Again, Samsung was not clear on the market-readiness of a lot of these demos.
AR Goggles and a fitness exoskeleton
The wildest demo at the keynote was a demo of “GEMS,” which Samsung’s “Gait Enhancing and Motivating System.” This is a combination of Samsung AR glasses and an “exoskeleton” that puts bands around your waist and thighs, looking like a high-tech pair of boxer shorts. This entire getup seems to exist solely for fitness tracking, as the single demo showed a virtual fitness instructor walking the presenter through some lunges.
The presenter was wearing a ton of Samsung gear: the glasses, exoskeleton, a Samsung watch, and an arm-mounted Samsung phone. The system was described as “an integration of an exoskeleton, with powerful software, all connected to Samsung AR Glasses, a Galaxy smartphone and watch, and other devices.” But it’s unclear if all of this gear is required for fitness tracking to work or if it’s optional. The exoskeleton provides leg tracking, and the AR glasses are the display, but the glasses also needed to be tethered to a wire in order to work. Where does the wire go?
The wire suggests the AR Glasses (how are these not called “Samsung Galaxy Goggles?”) are not a standalone device, and they require remote power and/or remote computing to work. If you aren’t going to build a standalone device and are going to require a wire, you might as well offload as many components as possible and just make the AR glasses a display, allowing them to be as light and compact as possible. In this case, the wire probably goes to the Samsung phone, which could provide power and a video feed. The watch could be there to track arm movement, allowing for a wider range of fitness tracking.
After the leg workout, the presenter mentioned the fitness data could be synced to the phone, where she could get “professional feedback” on how the workout went.
Again, it’s not clear how serious Samsung is about making this a real product. Between a $1,000 smartphone, a $250 smartwatch, and the unknown cost of the glasses and exoskeleton, we could be looking at $2,000-$3,000 to track your fitness movements.
Listing image by Samsung