Fake furry friend: Petit Qoobo, a headless animatronic robot cat pillow with a taila therapeutic robot in the form of a cushion and a tail during a press event for CES 2020Getty Images/David Becker
Fake furry friend: Petit Qoobo, a headless animatronic robot cat pillow with a taila therapeutic robot in the form of a cushion and a tail during a press event for CES 2020Getty Images/David Becker

It’s the time of the year when the tech industry unveils its big-ticket items at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

But some of these displays seem more fanciful than serious.

Last year there was a $9,000 toilet (with a heated seat, mind you) and this year didn’t disappoint on that front either. The Kohler Numi 2.0 intelligent toilet turns itself on when it senses you standing next to it. And, of course, it has Alexa integration.

The toilet is a place that gadget manufacturers seem to believe is in need of automation. Charmin, a maker of toilet paper, is now making a wheeled droid to bring you a spare roll of loo paper when you run out. No information was available on whether this wheely wonder knocks before entering, or even if it can open the door, nor whether it can go down stairs to get to the ground floor loo.

An automated vehicle that stole the show was Segway’s prototype lounge-on-wheels, called the S-Pod. It is a self-balancing electric wheelchair. Sadly, the chair, which is designed to keep people secure and right side up, crashed during a demonstration at CES. The rider accelerated the vehicle and crashed into a wall.

Crash course: The Segway S-Pod. Picture: Getty Images/David Becker
Crash course: The Segway S-Pod. Picture: Getty Images/David Becker

It’s worth noting that the chair’s top speed is 38km/h. No-one was hurt during the incident, but egos may have been damaged.

Though we may think technology is advancing purely in the interest of practical solutions for human problems, CES 2020 produced some bizarre and fun things. Did they demonstrate anything that will serve a real purpose?

PuduTech, a Chinese company that designs intelligent delivery robots for the service industry, was an exhibitor. It unveiled BellaBot, a cutesy delivery robot with the face of a cat. BellaBot is part functional, part cute, and pretty much all weird. It has large four-layer trays on which to carry food to patrons in restaurants.

Upon delivery, BellaBot meows at customers to alert them to take their food off its tray. I have never felt the need to be served food by a robot cat, but thanks.

And then there was the demonstration of a self-cleaning litter box for cats, made by Whisker. The $500 litter box is egg-shaped and can sense when the cat is done with its business, after which it rotates to remove the waste. A standard litter tray will set you back R25 — but it won’t have Wi-Fi. Apparently there are some people in the world who love their cat enough to buy it a R7,000 rotating throne.

Because many new gadgets showed off at CES are the first of their kind, they are rarely priced for the public. If you’re planning to get your cat a Wi-Fi-enabled litter box, wait a few years. That’s when the tech will probably be more widely implemented, which is bound to push down the price.

The same goes for Heatbox, the self-heating lunchbox that costs the equivalent of R2,100. Is it the perfect gadget for South Africans when load-shedding strikes?

It will warm your food without needing a microwave or other oven. But one charge will heat up only three lunches. It seems like the useless gadget you never knew you needed.

Sea here: Robosea’s Robo-Shark surveillance robot, right, and Seaflyer underwater scooter are displayed at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show. Picture: AFP/David Mcnew
Sea here: Robosea’s Robo-Shark surveillance robot, right, and Seaflyer underwater scooter are displayed at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show. Picture: AFP/David Mcnew

What you might need, though, is a shark — or that’s what the Chinese company Robosea thinks. It developed an underwater surveillance robot aptly named Robo-Shark, which is just less than 2m in length. Perfect to keep in the pond in the front yard of your lovely Cape Town townhouse, perhaps.

Robo-Shark uses its bionic tail to propel itself through water at speeds of up to 18km/h. Apparently it can be used to execute scientific investigations underwater by means of internal sensors.

As demonstrated by sharky, the word "consumer" in the term "consumer tech" isn’t accurate across the board. Many products showcased at CES turn out to be far more suitable for industry.

Microsoft HoloLens, which is now used to train people in the field of mechanics and those doing heavy physical work, is an example. It is especially true of robotics — very few of the products at the show will end up in our homes; most will carry out industry-related tasks.

Probably the most bizarre of all the robots that came out of CES this year is the Petit Qoobo. We’ve seen Qoobo at tech shows before, and it hasn’t become any easier to understand this trend. Similar to the full-sized Qoobo, Petit Qoobo is a terrifying headless animatronic robot cat pillow with a tail.

Apparently people love it so much they want one to fit in their bag and take it … where? Not only does Petit Qoobo react to touch, it now has a microphone and will move its tail in response to sounds.

The main goal of the show, of course, is to drive new ideas and solve solutions. Hyper-expensive litter boxes may not solve every person’s problem, but they should drive more people to think about solutions in practical, more affordable ways.

And that is what these tech shows should be about.