At the Gadget Show: Curved Phones, Smarter Homes, Fuel Cells


Toyota executive Bob Carter announced Monday at the International Consumer Electronics Show that the automaker will allow others to use several thousand of its proprietary patents – and some still pending – for free to speed the development of its hydrogen-powered car dubbed Mirai, due to be sold in the U.S. by October.

Elsewhere, would-be novelists rejoiced as Lenovo launched AnyPen, which lets you write on a tablet with any ordinary pen or pencil. And LG unveiled a new curved smartphone.

The International CES show in Las Vegas this week isn’t typically a major forum for mobile products, as many manufacturers wait a month or two for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But it’s hard to separate mobile from other technologies these days.

Here are some highlights from the gadget show on Monday.


Toyota has been working on a hydrogen-powered car for some time. But now it’s opened up the playing field to anyone, even its competitors, in the hopes of speeding the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles and their fueling stations.

Toyota executive Bob Carter said his company will allow the free use of several thousand of its proprietary and pending patents to develop its Mirai hydrogen-powered car.

Carter compared Mirai’s development to the gamble the company took on the electric Prius, which now has become a ubiquitous sight on most roads.

“We can speed the metabolism of everyone’s research and development,” he said.

Don’t expect a rush of carmakers to line up, though. Quite a few have their own hydrogen fuel-cell cars in the works. But like the Prius, there’s the quandary of the car and the fuel station. Which comes first?

“We cannot have the car without the refueling stations,” he said.

Toyota’s patents include 70 designs for hydrogen refueling stations, the plans for which are also now royalty-free.

Carter said California is on its way to building 100 stations with some $200 million the state set aside. The carmaker offered one of the main station developers a $7.2 million loan for maintenance and operations, and has partnered with another company to develop stations in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.


Sometimes, it’s easier to write or draw something than to type. Some tablets, including Microsoft’s Surface and Samsung’s Note series, come with styluses to do just that, but that means having an extra item to carry around and potentially lose.

Now, you can write on a tablet screen with just an ordinary pen or pencil. Lenovo is introducing a technology called AnyPen in its new 8-inch Yoga Tablet 2. Lenovo says the pen or pencil will even make touchscreen navigation easier than using a finger.

The tablet is built to withstand normal pressure, but don’t press too hard, or you might scratch the surface.


LG’s new G Flex 2 has a slightly curved screen, as the name implies. LG says that makes phones easier to hold and the display easier to read. Even more notable is the fact that LG is also making the Flex 2 smaller than its predecessor, countering a trend toward bigger and bigger phones.

LG says it got complaints that the previous, 6-inch version felt too big. The new one will be just 5.5 inches, which LG considers the “sweet spot” for smartphones. That’s the same screen size as Apple’s new iPhone 6 Plus, though it’s actually slightly shorter when placed side by side.

LG is also making the back of its new phone “scratch-proof” by adding self-healing properties. Scratch or nick it under normal use, and the mark disappears in seconds. The screen itself isn’t scratchproof, but LG says it’s more durable than usual with a special chemical layer applied to Corning’s Gorilla Glass.

The Flex 2 has improved screen resolution over the original Flex, at 1080p high definition, though that’s still behind LG’s G3 in sharpness. The Flex 2 also introduces some selfie features and a way to quickly check the time and notifications without turning the entire screen on.

Curved-screen phones remain a niche product, and LG doesn’t expect to ship as many Flex 2 phones as its flat G3 smartphone. A price hasn’t been determined, but it’s expected to be more than the G3 and other high-end phones, which typically cost $600 to $700 without a two-year contract.

Meanwhile, Sharp plans to release a 5-inch frameless phone – the screen goes right to the edge. It actually uses an optical-lens trick to make the front panel appear to extend to the edge. Magic or not, the trick keeps the overall phone smaller.


Many of the smart-home products out so far haven’t been that smart in the sense that they communicate only with their own app and products from the same manufacturer. That’s starting to change.

AT&T, for instance, said its Digital Life home-security and automation system will soon work with products from Samsung, Qualcomm, LG and Lutron. AT&T’s app, for instance, will be able to control Lutron window shades and Samsung’s security cameras, while consumers will be able to see on the LG TV that someone is at the door.

AT&T officials say that such collaborations are needed to drive greater adoption.

Other companies are using CES to showcase compatibility with Google’s Nest smart thermostat and Apple’s HomeKit – two of the emerging hubs for controlling the smart home. That will allow a new Whirlpool dryer to run slower and save energy, for instance, when Nest senses that no one’s home.

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