AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From the high-tech black hole of North Korea to the bright lights and wow factor of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. There, more and more devices are coming with built-in computer chips and sensors. And as NPR's Steve Henn reports from CES, that's bound to change how we interact with the machines around us.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: I was walking down a hallway yesterday at the Renaissance Hotel here, and this tiny little robot scooted out to meet me. It's sort of like a gosling, a little baby gosling that imprints or a puppy dog. Is that the idea? Oh, my God.
HENN: It's following me. Now, if I just walk away, do I get to keep the robot? Without me doing anything, this robot named Turtle attached to me. It followed me through the crowed hallway, just me, no one else. It didn't get confused. He only loves me. I stopped walking, and Turtle came up and nudged my foot. You start to feel protective.
ANDREA TUNBRIDGE: Yeah. It's like they're a little pet, and it's just a piece of plastic.
HENN: He just drove over my foot. Andrea Tunbridge works for PrimeSense. This company doesn't make the robot, but PrimeSense makes the 3-D sensors which allow Turtle to see, navigate in space and ultimately recognize my particular gait. Basically, PrimeSense makes Turtle's eyes.
YANIV VAKRAT: It requires actually quite a bit of work.
HENN: Yaniv Vakrat is an executive VP at PrimeSense.
VAKRAT: You know, our regular cameras can see the world in two dimensions and can capture the color and the image. What PrimeSense has done is essentially turn that into a three-dimensional view which is the way we actually see the world as human beings.
HENN: PrimeSense's cameras have already been built into Microsoft's Kinect for the Xbox. That videogame controller allows you to play games and control your TV with gestures, but Vakrat believes games just scratch the surface of what these cameras can do.
VAKRAT: And we believe that it's as revolutionary as anything that you've seen because it really is changing the way machines perceive their environment.
HENN: Later this year, PrimeSense will begin selling a new 3-D sensor to gadget makers. It's smaller than my pinky and will cost less than a third of what the first-generation sensors cost. It's little enough to be built into tablets or smartphones, really almost anything you can imagine. Attach one to a projector, like a television projector...
VAKRAT: And we've turned what is essentially a wall, right, into an interactive screen.
HENN: The wall - just a regular wall - becomes a giant touch-screen that works like the screen on your smartphone or tablet. And when these sensors are built into tablets and phones, it suddenly becomes possible to create detailed, accurate 3-D models of your house just by walking through and filming your home with a mobile device. You could take that model with you when you go shopping for a couch. You could send it to a 3-D printer and create a dollhouse for your kid, or you could play a videogame where the digital monsters you're fighting are running around your living room.
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HENN: And big businesses are eyeing this technology too.
RAUL VERANO: OK. We're Shopperception. We provide retail analytics.
HENN: Raul Verano is the CEO of Shopperception. His company is mounting PrimeSense cameras in supermarkets. So if you're standing in the cereal aisle, he'll know when you reach for a box, and he'll know which box you're reaching for.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wait. Did you try this cereal instead? It's 50 percent off.
HENN: So you reach for the Apple Jacks, and your mobile device, as you reach for it, deliver an ad for a different cereal.
VERANO: Yeah, exactly because, for example, Wal-Mart would be very interested in doing that because they take a higher margin from the Apple Blasts.
HENN: From the generic?
HENN: Retailers are not doing anything like that yet, but right now, the biggest consumer products companies in the world spend millions every year sending researchers to supermarkets to track consumer choices. These cameras could automate all of that, and already, one of the world's biggest beverage companies has signed a deal to test them. Steve Henn, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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