Robot Hell

CES Was Full of Useless Robots and Machines That Don’t Work

This year’s electronics expo promised a ‘better life’ and ‘better world.’ It instead offered a folding machine that can’t fold sweatshirts.

Steve Marcus/Reuters

There’s a woman in Sweden named Simone Giertz who makes a living building shitty robots. Her well-intentioned creations fail comically at waking her up, brushing her teeth, washing her hair, applying lipstick, and making her breakfast.

At CES in 2018, any number of these robots would have been right at home.

CES is a massive annual trade show in Las Vegas where hundreds of thousands of people gather to see the latest and greatest new products in consumer tech. In recent years, the show has transformed into a sprawling behemoth that dominates the entire city for a week.

The event is meant to deliver a vision of the future. The technology on display is supposed to show you what the next generation of cars, TVs, computers, cameras, etc. will look like. At best, the products deliver a rough sketch.

Take the FoldiMate, a giant robotic machine that costs $850 that can supposedly fold your clothes. The machine, which took up more space than a washing machine, might be worth it if you could dump a huge pile of laundry inside some chamber and have your garments returned to you in neatly folded stacks. But that type of machine has yet to be built.

In order for the FoldiMate to work, you must individually button up each shirt then manually clip it onto the machine, which could be more time consuming than just folding everything yourself.

The machine can only fold certain items too. Dress pants and traditional button up shirts are fine, bulky sweatshirts, baby clothes, socks, or undergarments are off the table.

The FoldiMate fit right in with the other “smart home”-type products at CES, where the primary innovation in the past year seemed to be adding Amazon Alexa to absolutely everything.

The Haier smart mirror caught my eye as I stepped into the Central Hall of the convention center. It promised to help me dress by recommending outfits for travel, work, or a date. It could also give detailed washing instructions for different garments and track where it was sitting in my closet.

Intrigued, I asked how it would know so much about all my clothes. “Do I dump all my laundry into a big scanner?” I asked naively.

The cheery brand ambassador laughed. “The mirror gets all its information from RFID chips in the clothing, which all clothes will come with in the future.”

I asked how this product would help someone who buys their clothes in the year 2018 and still wears a not insubstantial amount of sweaters from college.

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Her face dropped and she explained that for the time being I would have to manually enter all of the information by hand by tagging every item in my wardrobe. “The mirror also plays workout videos,” she said, as I walked away.

As I walked down the long corridors between booths I saw walls of TVs, rows of massage chairs, and many, many cars.

One man dressed in shimmering red coattails and a red top hat explained the intricacies of different types of Kicker amplifiers and speakers to a group of auto industry marketers.

Finally, I was confronted by a small robot dance crew. The 3-foot-tall, white, child-shaped bots were meant to provide companionship for seniors and children. Naturally, they were broken.

As they swayed back and forth, the iPads affixed to their chests all read “Sign into Chrome.”

I asked how frequently the screens on these robots malfunctioned and a woman standing in the booth area she didn’t know.

But many companion robots didn’t seem to work. Their touch screens either didn’t recognize my finger, couldn’t execute basic voice commands, or their high-pitched robotic voices were too difficult to understand.

These are the robots technology companies want old people to rely on, but trying to connect with them was like attempting to extract emotional support from a broken Windows tablet.

One companion bot called the Loobot can supposedly be controlled with your mind. “It can even read a child’s facial expression,” the man at the booth told me. But in order for it to work, the user has to wear an uncomfortable metal headband.

Drone cages were set up all over one area of the South Hall. One drone whizzed by and a loud voice came over the loudspeaker. “Amigo drone, it’s your friend,” the voice said. “Take it with you everywhere you go.”

I wondered how I would take it anywhere I normally go in New York City, or most other places where drones are restricted by no-fly zones.

Then there was the self-driving luggage.

90Fun’s Puppy 1 self-driving rollaway, which uses Segway technology to roll behind you, couldn’t go 10 feet without falling on its face. A Chinese competitor I observed in action kept losing its owner and was abysmally slow. I couldn’t imagine running late for a flight and trying to keep any of these in tow.

The United States Post Office had a giant booth with a game set up where you could pretend to deliver a package. A Kodak booth was set up to promote its new cryptocurrency. American Express kept trying to airdrop me marketing materials every time I walked by.

A giant banner in the main hallway read “A better life. A better world.” But all I could think of is how much I wanted to be back home in the real world where, even if it’s primitive, most technology just works.