Gadget Show: Inside Tesla, Pac-Man in VR and 'Soft' robots

Virtual Reality and drones were a big deal at the Gadget Show in Birmingham. But there were plenty of other offerings too.

VR and drones were predictably the main attraction at the Gadget Show at the NEC in Birmingham this year. The HTC Vive booth was booked up for users wanting a play with the massively popular Google’s Tilt Brush. Drones were showing off their skills in nets placed around different parts of the venue. Parrot Bebop 2 comically did a synchronized dance with flips in the air to the “ooohs” and “aaahhs” of the audience watching. But there were plenty of other offerings too. In a talk “Engineer your future” kids were given career advice on how to get into technology and there were competitions like Guitar Hero where even the adults got involved. And then you had strange wristband headphones and even makeup booths. 

Below are some of the highlights from the event.

Taking a spin inside Tesla Model S

Tesla’s Model 3 electric car has been hitting the headlines with pre-orders totalling 276,000. I got to see what all the fuss is about by checking out its Model S range. The dashboard has a 17-inch screen that responds well to touch and has an ‘insane’ feature under acceleration. The seats are comfy and you can even put kids in the boot with rear-facing seats (which I am told is completely safe!). The big talking point for the car has been its ability to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.8 seconds. It was this part that we were all looking forward to when we got taken for a spin, and when the driver hit the accelerator, it was pretty damn good.

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A visit around a mental asylum in VR

The Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear and HTC Vive have received a lot of coverage in the Virtual Reality world but a less known headset is the Freefly VR headset. It is compatible with most phones and comes with a Bluetooth controller. It’s supposed to be a more affordable option for users, a one-step up from Google Cardboard but not as high end as the likes of the Oculus Rift. I try the Catatonic VR experience where I am taken around an insane asylum in a wheelchair by a nurse. It’s freaky as you see patients peering at you closely. The Sisters VR experience is set in a creepy house and is full of jumpy moments. The only drawback is that the headset does not have buttons to control the phone (unlike the Samsung Gear). This is a small price to pay for otherwise a pretty decent VR headset.

The uniwheel is a hard balancing act

Perhaps it would have been wiser to try out a hoverboard first, but the uniwheel was attracting a bit of attention on the test track so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s an electric unicycle geared for the ‘free-spirited’ but had me clinging on to the poor guy taking me around the track. I reckon with a bit of practice, I would have got the hang of it eventually.

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‘Soft’ robots for artificial muscles

The rise of robots among us might be a real fear, but one robotic research project has its mind on other things. The use of soft materials is an emerging area in robotics and Robosoft is looking at using dexterous rubber materials for different purposes like charging batteries while you walk or using it as an artificial muscle.

I got to be Pacman in VR

A big restriction with VR is trying to walk around while wearing the headset without bumping into things. WizDish ROVR have come up with a locomotion platform where users wear special slippery shoes and can then freely ‘move’ within the game without falling over and hurting themselves. I play Pac-Man where I run around corridors bumping into ghosts and collecting objects. It’s actually quite fun even if I look silly.

Augmented Reality is the real deal

In the talk “Augmenting the future” developer INDE demonstrates how augmented reality can be used in broadcasting to overlay animations on screen. We then see an alien animation called “Sean” placed next to the presenters on screen whose motions are controlled by an actor backstage, wearing a special suit with sensors.

Alex Poulson, CEO of INDE explains how this type of technology can be used in education, for instance, “[Shakespeare’s anniversary is coming up] so we are trying to bring him back to life so that people will be able to interact with Shakespeare.”

The  presenter jokes whether due to advances in machine learning, Sean the ‘real-life’ actor will soon be out of a job, and Sean the ‘animation’ will take over? Poulson jokes that the possibility is “not that long away”.

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When asked about why Google Glass was a failure Poulson responds by saying “Google Glass was really an inward facing experience. The future of wearable glass is an outward looking glass.”

“This year will be about VR,” adds Poulson.