WIRED takes its pick of the most weird, baffling and entertaining products at IFA 2015.
IFA 2015 has been a typically strange show. Berlin’s assembled masses have seen gluts of new smartwatches, smart homes and smart, er, rugs, though there have been fewer smartphones than in previous years thanks to Samsung, Motorola and HTC launching their devices earlier, more easily to buffer against the iPhone 6S onslaught that begins like clockwork on 9 September.
WIRED’s pick of the new releases would include the new Moto 360 — pitched by Motorola as a piece of jewellery more than an actual gadget, and as such offered mostly on the quality of its materials and design than what it actually does. The Samsung Gear S2 also impressed with its neat rotating bezel, but as with every other smartwatch on show it didn’t feel like a game-changer for a market still struggling to justify its own existence.
As ever the halls of the ludicrously huge and unwieldy Messe Berlin convention centre have been filled with ever-more-luminous TVs, metric tons of headphones and Bluetooth speakers, dishwashers and juicers. But between the cracks a few more interesting, and entertainingly strange products have also emerged. WIRED has played with a smartphone made by a guitar amp brand, a real-life rolling Star Wars robot and a TV with 10 inexplicable projectors built into the back. We’ve even seen WIRED’s Katie Collins turned into a cyborg herself, inan incredible act of bravery and trans-humanist optimism. Amusingly, the biggest social hit of them all on WIRED.co.uk turned out to be Panasonic’s new analogue turntable.
With Apple, Google and other giants still waiting to make their Christmas pitch, it’s impossible to ignore the sense of IFA being an intake of breath, rather than an exhalation of creativity. But it’s been a varied and at times delightful show, still capable of surprising the most cynical of onlookers.
Here are WIRED’s favourite strange products from IFA 2015 that we’d actually consider paying money to use:
This isn’t the first Windows PC-on-a-stick, but it might be the best so far. Most obviously, it’s ridiculously cheap — just £85 — comes with two USB ports and a headphones jack, 32GB of storage, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0, and it’s powered by a decent Cherry Trail processor. Who knows how it will work in person, but for the right customer or minimalist in your life, it might be a perfect way to have access to a full computer via your TV’s HDMI port, without any fuss.
Philips AmbiLux TV
Philips has offered TVs with integrated, dynamic LED colour lights designed to sparkle on your wall for years, but the AmibiLux takes that concept and makes it, frankly, untenably ridiculous. This is a 65-inch screen with 10 separate LED pico projectors which throw stunning, or garish, or just annoying light in all directions as you watch the screen, filling the room with colour.
The idea is that what you’re watching becomes more immersive and engaging, and that it can also react to music sources like Spotify and connect to Philips’ Hue Wi-Fi lights too, for even more overwhelming displays of colour. It’s not quite Microsoft’s IllumiRoom holodeck concept, but it’s entertainingly close in a baffling sort of way. There’s no price yet, but Philips said it will be released this year in Europe.
Lenovo’s ‘Smart Cast’ Projector Phone Concept
Although it’s not technically a product yet — Lenovo insists it’s just a year from reality but that could change — Smart Cast stole the show at IFA, at least in the minds of people willing to embrace probably impractical light keyboards as the next possible road out of the smartphone wilderness.
The demo on Lenovo’s booth is impressive: the keyboard cast by the projector at the top of the phone is bright and responsive to the touch, and though there are obvious problems — if you ‘press’ a key at the top of the keyboard it blocks the light from casting other keys — it’s still a fun idea. Will you buy a phone with a bulky ridge on the end just for this? Probably not. But at a show largely devoid of inventive new mobiles, it was the most interesting idea on the stands.
It says something about modern media and marketing that the biggest news in gadgets and tech this week did not originate at IFA, but rather an extended, online toy unboxing held by Disney to ‘celebrate’ its merchandising brand, and movie, Star Wars. At least those of us stuck in Berlin were able to have a play with BB-8, however, as a few of the little Sphero-based robots were present and rolling around on the show floor. And yes, they’re delightful, animated and sprightly, with a controller app filled with nice touches like the ability to record and play augmented reality hologram messages.
There will be millions upon millions of them sold this Christmas, and possibly discarded by New Year, but the good news is that BB-8 will also retain (and eventually extend) the coding possibilities inherent in the original Sphero, meaning that for those kids interested enough to explore a bit deeper, it’s not just a toy — it really is a robot.
Marshall London music phone
Smartphone design and innovation has plateaued shockingly quickly over the last 18 months, and it is increasingly obvious that even the highest-end Android devices are virtually indistinguishable for the average consumer. The upside is this makes it easier for quirky manufacturers to launch unique, high quality devices themselves with more verve than Samsung, Sony or LG might be able to justify given the lack of profit on offer. The Marshall London phone is one of the best.
Although in the main this is every inch a top-end Android device, the amplifier legend has used its trademark leather-and-gold design to give its phone a genuinely different look and feel, while adding strange but — for the right customer — interesting features like dual headphone ports, a volume dial, a button dedicated for its custom music app and excellent front-facing speakers. It’s not for everyone, and many of the features are more gimmicky than they might first appear. In person the phone is also slightly larger and gawkier than it is in photos. But the very fact that smartphones are so boring right now is the reason the London can exist. Every cloud has a gold, black and leather lining, apparently.
Panasonic CZ950 4K OLED TV
There are an abundance of televisions every year at IFA, and for some reason manufacturers think the best way of showing them off is to place dozens, side-by-side on a wall, playing the same clips of food preparation, forests and nighttime cityscapes on endless loops. As such it can be difficult to even feign interest when listening to the PR bluster about each megacorp’s latest panel, while simultaneously having your eyes burned out by ultra-bright High Dynamic Range (HDR) demonstrations.
Panasonic’s CZ950 is a little different, however; not only does it tick all of the AV zeitgeist boxes (it’s got HDR, 4K, it’s an OLED screen — Panasonic’s first — and is curved) but it’s also been specifically tuned by Hollywood colour artist Mike Sowa to be as accurate to a director’s vision for their movie as possible, out of the box. With an attractive stucco-effect matte grey backplate, and no pesky vignetting on the sides of its curved screen, the CZ950 makes a good pitch for being the TV of IFA 2015 — though obviously it’s impossible for WIRED to accurately judge, given that our eyes are still hurting from watching the same insanely luminous ‘AV demo’ frog leaping from lily pad to lily pad on screen, over and over, from a distance of about six inches.
Samsung Gear S2
Samsung does not have a tremendous track record in making smart watches, even though it is now six devices into its Gear-branded campaign to ‘own’ the wrist. Luckily for the increasingly beleaguered South Korean tech giant, the latest attempt, the Gear S2, represents its best shot yet to break through to the mainstream and actually sell some units (that aren’t bundled free with smartphones).
With its mature construction and use of materials, especially the leather-strap and timepiece-styled Gear S2 Classic it’s an attractive gadget, but it also has a sensible and intuitive interface founded around a rotating, clicky bezel that acts as a giant scroll wheel for the entire Tizen OS. The Gear S2 is compatible with non-Samsung Android phones, and will have 1,000 apps at launch. It won’t change your mind about smartwatches as a whole, if you’re not already into the idea of wearing one, but it’s looking like one of the highest quality products to be launched in this still-young category.