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File photo AFP
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CES 2021: From toilets to coffee tables, the best smart-home gadgets hide the tech

  • At this year’s virtual tech extravaganza, a new wave of home tech aims to blend in, not stand out

CES is an all-virtual, pared-down affair this year, featuring new versions of many usual suspects. So far, we’ve seen filmmaking drones, dishwashing robots, rollable phones and other kinds of gadgetry ranging from clever to crazy. The annual conference’s main value proposition is that it offers a little glimpse into the future—yet the most compelling new smart-home gadgets don’t look futuristic at all.

That’s precisely what I’m excited about: tech that is at its best when it just blends into the woodwork, sometimes literally.

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There’s a device to make any coffee table a wireless charging station, a standard-looking deadbolt lock that unlocks with a touch, a bed with a disappearing, transparent TV, and a faucet that can dispense exactly two tablespoons of water on command. My personal favorite—a toilet with a lid that automatically opens as you approach and closes when you walk away—solves one of the longest, ongoing quarrels in my home.

Living with technology can often mean a mess of different cables, apps, adapters, remotes and confusing interfaces. Gadgets that can tuck themselves away or have hidden smarts, unlocked with a word or a hand wave, are an especially nice idea, especially now that we’ve been spending more time at home.

A hidden wireless Qi charger, called UTS-1, can be mounted to the underside of a nonmetallic surface using the included tape. Plug it into the wall, and you’ve just added wireless charging to your furniture. It keeps your desk tidy and prevents your housemates from stealing your charger.

Kew Labs, the company behind the product, claims the 30-watt charger can beam power through tables and nightstands up to an inch thick. It patented a method to ensure safety and efficiency over the relatively long distance. (With wireless charging, alignment and proximity are typically key. Even a bulky case can interfere with proper charging.) The UTS-1 retails for $105 on Kew Labs’ website.

Level Touch is a smart deadbolt with phone-sensing near-field communications (NFC) technology, the same powering contactless payments at the grocery store. As long as your phone is on your person, a simple touch of your finger unlocks or locks the door. Alternatively, you can tap your phone or a registered keycard—like the kind you get at hotels—to the deadbolt.

The $329 system doesn’t have a Wi-Fi antenna, which in this case is a perk rather than a flaw. Low-power NFC tech means you don’t have to worry about the battery for a year. (Other smart locks, like August, need battery replacement every three to six months.) When there’s no power, a plain ol’ key works, too.

The touchless faucets and toilets you’d normally find in public spaces are making their way into home kitchens and bathrooms as a germ-reducing update that’s apropos during a pandemic.

Don’t expect a mere airport sink. Sure, a hand wave will turn water on and off on new models by Moen and Kohler. But a nearby smart speaker unlocks more functionality. A special hand-washing skill by Moen briefly turns on the water then shuts off for the CDC-recommended 20 seconds while you lather; when it’s time to rinse, the water runs again.

“Alexa, ask Moen to fill the baby bottle." When you say that, it warms water to a preset temperature. “Hey Google, ask Kohler to pour three cups of water." With that, you get the exact amount, no measuring cup necessary.

The smarts aren’t exclusively for convenience. Under the sink, new whole-home water monitors—Flo by Moen and a co-branded one from Phyn and Kohler—work with smart faucets and other sensors to collect usage data from around the house, detect leaks and automatically shut off water in case of emergencies.

Kohler’s Innate toilet similarly provides touchless functionality by way of a proximity sensor that automatically opens the lid as you approach, and a hand-wave-activated sensor in the flush lever. Critically, the toilet self-closes when you’re done. You do need to press a button to lift the seat on this model: To do so, you press a button on the toilet’s remote, which also includes bidet cleansing and heated-seat options. (Bidets, by the way, are finally popular in the U.S.)

The model is the company’s new “entry-level" offering, starting at $3,100 when it’s available June 2021. A higher-end version called Numi 2.0, starting at $7,000 and available in a few weeks, features hands-free seat opening as well, enabled by a laser that can be triggered by a foot.

For those with Bruce Wayne-level budgets, there’s also Kohler’s $16,000 smart tub. Featuring Google Assistant or Alexa voice control, so you can start your bath remotely, it also has an essential-oil-dispersing aromatherapy tower. Water flows over the bath’s edge into a surrounding wooden moat, where it’s reheated and recirculated back into the tub. Oh, and it also produces its own fog.

Alexa, please buy me this luxurious water vessel. And also maybe a bigger apartment.

LG Display, sister company of LG Electronics, is showcasing a 55-inch transparent OLED display built into the foot of a smart bed. The screen can collapse completely, and appear in partial or full view, depending on what you’re looking at. And it won’t obstruct the view outside your actual window if all you really want on screen is the time and weather.

LG Display announced a see-through billboard in 2017, and has imagined the tech embedded in subway windows and other public spaces. But the smart bed is the first time the company is showing a home use for the screen. And there’s evidence we’re going to see more of these kinds of screens in residential settings. (See Mirror, the at-home fitness portal that transfigures into a full-length mirror when not in use.)

Because I’m covering CES from a couch in California, I can’t touch or test any of these products in person for now. But I am dreaming about my ideal future smart home. It may look low-tech to the untrained eye, but it’s got an Alexa-controlled, fog-producing aromatherapy soaking tub. Or at least a self-closing toilet.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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