THE BLOG
09/17/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Writers Workbench: IFA Berlin 2014

IFA began life in Berlin 90 years ago as an expo for radio. It's grown vastly over the years, and changed even more, until today it's become a sort of a cross between the Consumer Electronics Show and... well...the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

If you had to draw a distinction between the two trade shows, CES is a bit more about what new tech products will be on store shelves in the coming year, while IFA edges slightly more towards the innovative direction that technology is taking.

In that regard, after my third year at IFA, I've noticed that the show also has a greater focus that CES on the technology of home appliances. Make no mistake: that's no small thing. These are the everyday conveniences of life. And it's amazing what can be done with vacuum cleaners and irons. I'm not being facetious. There are extensive rows devoted not just to cappuccino machines, but some that would make Capt. Kirk proud to have aboard the Starship Enterprise galley. Not to mention the innovation with Kühlschranks. Sorry, refrigerators.

The circus part of the show is no exaggeration either. IFA is held in in 25 buildings that surround a massive park, Sommergarten, complete with band shell and food vendors. All that's missing are trapeze artists. It's all together known as the Messe Fairgrounds -- and "Messe" is more appropriate than one could imagine. Think of show grounds designed by Rube Goldberg. It once took me 25 minutes to go from one building to my destination about two football fields away. Half the time was taken (literally, I'm not joking here) figuring out how to get to the right floor.

(This below isn't a fair impression of the exhibition, but it's nonetheless an accurate view of how to get to several of the halls.)

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It gets even more convoluted. At IFA, exhibition halls are numbered with decimals to note the floor you're on. Seeing a sign pointing to 18.2 means Hall 18 and the second floor. But...well, sorry, it's not that easy. Take this example: a friend and I were in the Media Center trying to find the press conference for Hisense, a Chinese TV manufacturer. The press office was 6.3. The event was at 6.2. So, just go down one level, you'd think. Hahaha, o ye of little understanding. IFA doesn't make it that easy for you.

It took us 10 minutes just to find the doorway. That's because there were no doors one floor down. We kept searching and then finally came upon this.

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Yes, there directly next to each other are two doors that lead you onto the first and second floors of the exact same building! No, one of them doesn't then go up (or down) a level. You just walk straight through. One has you on the second floor - and the other places you on the first floor. Alice in Wonderland never had it so bizarre.

Further, after a few days of press events, they open the trade show - but also allow in the general public. It turns the exhibition into something like the world's biggest Macy's on Black Friday.

IFA, you see, has an offbeat history. For most of its years, it was a local German show, and only in recent times has it grown to be an international trade expo. So, there are two factions tugging at one another. The international side was gaining prominence, but it seemed to backslide this year. A great many press releases were written only in German, and more press conferences were German-only, as well. (Some at least provided audio translators, but not all.) And when the show officially opened on the Friday start date, an overwhelming majority of the booths were in German. (As a result, most company press reps actually leave before the exhibition officially begins.) To be clear, it is IFA's right to use as much of the German language as they want - it's in Germany, after all. And nearly all the general public are local Germans. But if you want to present yourself as an "international" trade show and heavily promote that fact, it would seem to be deeply counter-productive to ignore that 98% of the world doesn't speak German. This isn't being American-centric. They don't speak German much in India, Spain, Japan, Denmark, Venezuela, China, Mexico, South Korea, or most other countries, either.

After three years, though, I've finally got a semi-sense of how IFA Berlin is somewhat, kind of structured, hurdles and all, and how to deal with it. This isn't a staid, boring trade show. It's like an amoeba, changing shape at any given moment. IFA is vibrant and energetic. And...well, for all the oddity and benefits that would come with improvement, it's actually fun. Hey, it's the circus!

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A word of warning. Being an in-depth look at IFA, this will be seriously long. So, you now know. That means no complaining. If you're hungry or need to go to the bathroom, take a break now. And with that disclaimer out of the way -

Welcome to the center ring. Sit back, put on your lederhosen and relax.

As happens at most trade shows, there were a few thematic areas that made their presence known at IFA. I won't dive down into much detail because, honestly, they're so expansive and overlap so much that it becomes difficult to differentiate between things. Oceans of product. It becomes sort of white noise. But they're important because they're clearly directions the industry is hoping to go. Whether they get there is another matter.

Curved-screen and 4K TVs, for example. If you didn't know better these are both the imminent waves of the future. Whether that's the case is open to question.

Behemoths like Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, and Sony companies were ratcheting up their big push for their 4K ultra-high definition TVs. (4K refers to their resolution.) The picture resolution is spectacular. But as I've written extensively in the past, there is a big issue with 4K sets right now - they require content made for 4K. (Think of having the world's greatest Blu-Ray player - but Blu-Ray discs hadn't been invented yet.) And there just isn't much content today. The lack of content might change, but it's not here yet. And while you assume it will be...you don't know what other new technology might be developed before the 4K content arrives. That said -

Sony is starting to get involved offering some content. It's not just that they broadcast the recent World Cup in 4K, and some special-event productions (like the stage show War Horse in London), along with 100 movies now in the format. But they and Panasonic (and others) are opening another avenue for 4K - making 4K camcorders, such as Panasonic's elaborate X1000 (seen below) that can shoot 60 frames/sec, so now people can make ultra-high def videos and have a system to show them on. For the time being, that appears to be where most original content will come from.

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More practical is the arrival of "Curved" TV screens, which were being extensively promoted as the Second Coming, most notably by Samsung and LG. This point here with curved, explained by all with great flourish, is that by curving the TV screen, this supposedly give an "immersive" experience. In truth, curved does indeed become immersive if it's a Cinerama-style massive screen that wraps around a movie theater. But at 55", you probably would have to sit a foot from the screen to be just as immersed. (Or line a row of them together, like here from Philips...)

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Forgetting for a moment that curving a screen defeats the purpose of having a flat screen to take up less room, and that it doesn't remotely immerse you sitting on the other side of a room, and that most are being sold with 4K resolution with their aforementioned issues, and Curved sets can have viewing issues if you're not in the ideal spots - the question arises why then Curved screens? Well, it's important to know that until you're just a few feet away from any normal-sized 4K set (also known as Ultra High Definition, or UHD), it's near-impossible for the human eye to distinguish from across the room the difference between UHD and standard High-Def. (UHD looks spectacular when up close, or if the screen is massive.) So, when customers would go into a store to look at home TV sets, and stand as far back as they'd be in their living room, HD and UHD would seem very similar, but with the later far more expensive. Ahhh, but Curved screen do look like they're different. And their picture does have a different "sense" to it on the surface - but it just doesn't immerse you.

That said, LG promotes its line as the first curved OLED TV. Interestingly, I think the OLED part is the most interesting technology of all these mentioned, more even than Curved and 4K right now. Bringing the high quality of OLED to anything but small screens has always been the challenge, and that hurdle has now been jumped over.

As for all the hype about Curved and 4K, it's worth noting that the last Big Thing in TV - 3D with glasses - was almost nowhere to be found. There were a few displays here and there, but minimal. So, Beware the Hype. (It's worth noting that I keep hearing rumblings about glassless 3D, which I've seen in working operation and think it's remarkable. Whether it actually moves forward is for the future to determine. Though it may have application in other areas, like tablets and desktops. And movie theaters.)

And in the end, amid with endless fields of TVs, from HD to UHD to Curved, I can't begin to tell you the difference between one set and another. What I can tell you is that many of them are now connected to the Internet, and offer a fascinating array of choices, blending the Internet with the home TV experience.

Which actually leads directly into another of those themes that permeated IFA, but which I find perhaps even more convoluted than the world o' TVs, that of the Connected Home. This encompasses many different avenues - it's not just One Thing - but is growing in prominent leaps. And unlike the uncertainty of 4K and Curved screens, this is likely a wave that will be developed, though to different degrees.

Though they do so in many different ways, the core function that these products and services offer is to keep people's homes accessible wherever they are. Some are done by simple apps, like Worldline, which lets you control your home appliances from anywhere. There are also larger services that actually will set up your home and virtually learn your patterns to know when to light and heat and cool and lock your home. And you even reach the truly elaborate like Panasonic's test case study, which connected the entire town of Fujisawa City, in Kangawa Prefecture, 30 miles west of Tokyo, as a Sustainable Smart Town, bringing together a range of like-minded companies to utilize electric cars, electric bikes, solar energy and more. Sensors at road blocks would send signals to cars to warn drivers of impending danger. And sensors connected in homes helped adjust energy use, appliances and additional safety message. The challenge here is how to connect peoples' homes with Smart technology, while keeping their personal living patterns personal and private.

Wearables keeps trying hard, as well, to become theme that permeates into our lives, and at some point I'm quite sure it will. At the moment it appears more a niche market. For all of Google's push for Google Glass, products that like were hard to find at IFA. I suspect they need a bit of fine-tuning before acceptance kicks in. SmartBands (mainly for fitness) are gaining a foothold. But Smartwatches are the biggest and most highly-visible hope in this field to break through for the general market, with the Samsung Gear, LG's new entry the G Watch (which makes a concerted effort to look like a reasonable watch, as seen below, though it's still huge on the wrist, like most), the Sony SmartWatch, and even smaller names like My Kronz - along with, of course, Apple's entry. (Apple wasn't at IFA, but I've followed their announcement.)

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Alas, I'm again underwhelmed by them all - at least for now - Apple's included. They're big for men and huge for women, have tiny screens, they require owning a mobile phone, and mobile phones do everything better. It's an obvious product to create, but for now it's best to ignore the start-up hype and keep an eye on how they develop - it's still the infancy, remember - and whether they can overcome these hurdles.

Having said all this, there are nonetheless a couple of interesting developments on the Smartwatch/wearable front. For example, I saw a couple of products designed to make the small screens on Smartwatches more readable, albeit in totally different ways. E-ink, which is best known for its high quality text for e-readers, is adapting the technology for Smartwatches. And while another company, Spritz, has a variety of uses, its "one word at a time" approach to display text (though fast, adjustable up to a bizarre 1,000 words a minute) is especially well-suited for the miniscule screen of Smartwatches.

The other development is the use of the aforementioned Smartbands, conveniently small devices most often used in the health & fitness field for tracking things like one's pulse, heart rate, calories burned, and other aspects of one's activity. It's a substantive market, though still niche in comparison to the hopes for full Smartwatches.

(Though not precisely for Smartwatches, I saw an interesting application from Endomondo, which tracks athletic activity, though mainly for mobile phones. But it had one of the rare twists in the field. The company has created a social network with news feeds and personal stats, but most intriguingly lets you share them while in the midst of your activity, whether for moral support or perhaps long-distance competition. The apps are free, but if you want their personal training features, those will have a monthly fee.)

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Themes aside, it's difficult to go to a technology trade show and not immediately have thoughts of computers. They were at IFA in force, but it's not really the strength of the show. Still, a few products did stand out - mostly tablets. Desktop computers and laptops still are strong in sales, but they aren't generally fodder for showcasing innovation (though thin laptops and Android-based Chromebooks show their face).

With the introduction of Windows 8.1, Windows tablets had a higher profile at IFA than one might have otherwise expected. In part that's perhaps because Windows Phones have done stronger in Europe than the U.S., and so the platform for tablets has more familiarity. Also, a lot of the major vendors at IFA simply have strong Windows tablets in their portfolios, along with the growing market of convertibles. (Convertibles are devices that tend to run Windows 8.1 and can serve as either a tablet or laptop. Some fold or twist their screens to lie flat on top the keyboard, others separate completely, leaving the touch screen to serve now as a tablet.). And there are some impressive devices

Toshiba in particular has a very intriguing 7" Windows 8.1 Encore Mini tablet, which is coming out in the Fourth Quarter in Europe, but has just been released in the U.S. Being that small, it's not something you'll use much for Desktop work, though you could. (More to the point, it could be used for having access to all your Office documents, to read or print out.) It makes a nice e-Reader, as well. But what's most interesting is that it retails for $120. Now, that might not sound so remarkable until you realize something critical - it includes a one-year subscription of Office 2013 (under the company's Office365 plan). And what's so special about that? (And believe me, it is.) If you buy the full Office Professional 2013 under Microsoft's normal subscription plan, it costs $70 a year. That means you're getting the tablet for...$50!! This is a bizarre price. And understand, too, that with the subscription, you get Office for two devices - you can install it on the tablet and your desktop. (To be clear, the subscription is only good for a year, but the Toshiba rep said you would be able to re-subscribe to Office365 for a reduced rate.) This is a very nice little tablet all on its own, at an excellent price - but it's a near-unbelievable deal with Office365 included.

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Acer was presenting all their Latest and Greatest tablets, Chromebooks and laptops -Android and Windows - but it was a small feature that they largely flew past at their press conference which most impressed me. It's a technology called AcerEXTEND. If one has an Acer SmartPhone and an Acer computer, you can link the two, and the screen of the phone will appear on your computer's monitor! Not only can you read them both at the same time, but you can drag and drop items from one device to the other. Keep in mind that this is in Europe, so it might be hard to find an Acer Smartphone in the U.S.

Lenovo is a brand that has been releasing some solid tablets and thin laptops in recent years. But a new convertible, the Thinkpad Helix, was a particularly intriguing entry, not just for being nicely designed - able to pull apart to be a standalone tablet, for folding to five different positions - but because it is one of the first devices on the market to use the new Intel Core M processing chip.

What makes the Core M chip so noteworthy in the mobile world is that it's tiny and more powerful than previous processors. As a result, the Core M (also known as Broadwell) allows systems to be more powerful, yet lighter, thinner and with a longer battery life, running cool enough in fact that no fan is even required. Battery life should be increased by 20% - providing maybe two additional hours for a run time of around eight hours. A system like the Helix will be 15% thinner and 12% lighter than before. And it uses almost 50% more transistors for greater performance.

Speaking of tablets and PCs, I came across a couple of interesting accessories related to them. Touchjet is an application that, bizarrely, can turn any surface into a touchscreen. A tabletop, wall, whatever, if you're giving a presentation, for instance. It can project an image of up to almost seven feet. Though the screen will work for any commands, at the moment the only apps it's configured for are Android, though others will follow. That's the good news. The bad is that it retails for $500, so it seems the expected use is the business environment.

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Also, Logitech introduced a Multi-Device Keyboard, the K480. This Bluetooth keyboard can be converted to work with iOS, Android, Windows, Mac and Chrome devices...but more notably it can connect with three devices simultaneously. (You may have a Windows desktop, Android phone and iPad. If you're working on all three at the same time, flipping a switch on the keyboard instantly changes the connection.) There's also slot for holding your mobile devices. It retails for $50.

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And before leaving the world of tablets, it's worth mentioning Kobo, a lesser-known maker of ebook readers and tablets. Though the company sells in the U.S. its bigger focus is around the rest of the world. Their new Auro H20 might be a lowly ebook reader, but it's one of the few products that are waterproof where the feature actually makes great sense beyond just being a marketing gimmick. People read their ebooks at the beach or around a pool - or even on a mattress floating in the pool, or read in the tub. So having a device that is waterproof for up to 30 minutes in three feet of water (provided the USB port is closed) actually makes sense. The Aura H20 retails for $180.

Okay, I think this is time for an intermission. Take a bathroom break or get a sandwich to replenish your energy, or just sit back a moment to rest your eyes. The end is in sight, but we still have a ways to go. Fine, we're back...

When dealing with the world of portable electronics, it's critical to keep an eye on developments in portable charging - not that I need much of a push there. I can't explain it, but I love these portable chargers for their inventiveness. And two stood out, oddly both related to cars.

Cobra's JumPack looks like an ordinary portable charger, smaller than a sandwich, but not only can it charge your Smartphone or tablet (something that requires more power than most portable chargers can provide), but it actually is able to jump your car battery - really! - and comes with a small set of jumper cables. This is small enough to keep in your glove compartment for pretty much all emergencies. (This is similar to the Juno Power Jumpr I reviewed a while back, though that was still in Kickstarter status.)

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And TYLT, whose Vu wireless charger I reviewed recently, has a new model upcoming - the TYLT Vu Car Charger. The advantage of this is that with most charging in your car, it's easy (and potentially dangerous) to get tangled up in a mass of wires. Not all mobile devices today are Qi-enabled (that's the protocol standard for this area of wireless charging), but it's growing.

I was also intrigued that there seems to be a big push by a great many companies for improving the quality of audio. Panasonic announced that they were bringing back their classic Technics line, specifically to focus on more high-end sound, and Sony was heavily promoting what they called "high res audio" - releasing albums and 300,000 titles (songs) in this high-res format, and making a high res audio Walkman ZX1 - yes, the Walkman - having brought it back a brief while ago, along with adding supporting headphones. And Sony talked about partnering with Spotify to let you connect music to play simultaneously on all Samsung devices.

Earlier above, I mentioned Intel's advancement with the Core M (Broadwell) chip. The company also introduced a technology line they're developing called RealSense. The premise behind this is to bring "human sense" to your devices. It's still in the early stages, but there company showed some interesting demos.

The technology is created to get hardware and software to work in ways that efficiently simulate how humans and the human brain work. The point of much of this is to let you interact naturally with your devices With 3D RealSense cameras, and using mere facial features, hand gestures, and even tiny finger movements, as well as voice commands, a person's actions can be recognized which can be used for game controlling, for example, or other activities. Depth sensing via RealSense lets you separate physical environments, allowing full foreground images to be switched out for changing backgrounds, which can enhance video-conferencing. 3D object scanning lets you create full-figure statuettes from nothing more than photographic images. Photos can also be created with motion effects. A sense of depth can be built into images. Distances between objects can be determined purely by the sense of perspective in a photo. And more. Currently, the RealSense technology is in the early stages of being built into tablets, such as the Dell Concept Tablet.

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(Hardly the same thing, but on a much more fun level - though with real-world practicality - 3Doodlers is a strange product that has applications for designers, artists, engineers - and parents who want to make toys with their kids. This is sort of a "heat gun" - think of a can of Cheese Whiz - that heats strips of plastic and lets you create shapes and figures by "drawing" with it on a table...or in the air, hence the 3D quality of its results.)

And that at last brings us home. Or "to the home," to be more precise.

My first year at IFA, I largely skimmed past the housewares/lifestyle exhibitors and halls, though I was intrigued by the flamboyance of what I saw. It was only with the passage of time that I realized that this is one of the more fascinating aspects of IFA. Some of the innovation is seriously impressive. And it's also borderline frustrating, because much of these products are available only in Europe, not in the U.S. (But then, if you're reading this in Europe...hey, you're already covered.)

Yes, yes, I know, I can hear eyes being snapped shut, but really, the world o' home appliances is a fantasyland of its own standards. Really.

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I can't even begin to tell you what Panasonic was promoting here. But it almost didn't matter. Because turn the corner and they are bowling you over with the latest techno wizardry magic for baking bread, squeezing juice, making cappuccino (more on that in a bit...), vacuuming, ironing and most anything whizbang they can think of.

How seriously do they take their innovation for the kitchen? No, this below isn't a presentation for breaking the code of the genome, it's from the Miele exhibit explaining how impressive and important its technology is for the company's new washing machine.

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Siemens tweak to their dishwasher was Open Assist, whereby you can open the front without pulling, just touch it (albeit a hard touch). In fact, you can't pull it open even if you wanted to, since there's no handle. My first impression was, "Gee, y'know, it's not hard to pull open a dishwasher." But then testing this I realized how convenient it is when your hands are full of dirty dishes to just tap the door with your knee or elbow and have it slowly pop down.

Bosch's dishwasher provided so much helpful information on an LED panel on the door that's more than most airline pilots require. Pre-rinse status, progress update, temperature icons, time left, an array of settings, and even tips to guide you for a safe landing - er, help you through the process. And it's all done with Einfach Klar Text. (Simply Plain Text.)

Last year, there had been just one display of a prototype for induction stoves. This year, they were everywhere, and in full-production models. These are stoves that (depending on the design) have no knobs, just flat tops with icons for control in a panel along the burners. While it would seem there is a high likelihood of getting burned, in fact there's no risk. Everything is cool to the touch of your hand, the stove tops only conduct heat through metal.

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From Bosch, one of their stove lines features Bosch Assist, which is a wide range (no pun intended...) of auto-settings that provide such things as the ideal heating mode, cooking temperature and prep time. And another line of their stoves comes with the ability to steam your food directly inside the oven, to retain moisture and flavor.

On a smaller utility level, there were a couple of "air fryer" products - looking somewhat akin to R2D2 - which were impressive from both the utility and health perspectives, and far more intricate and versatile that related devices I've seen in the past.

The Air Fryer from Philips isn't a brand new item, though it's been improved and made larger. Basically this lets you cook without fat - make French fries, for instance, by using intense air heat. It cuts the fat content by 80%. (For fries, you do have to dribble a small amount of oil. Just one tablespoon for a pound of potatoes.) You can use it as an oven, as well, and cook much more quickly. A breast of chicken only takes eight minutes.

Similarly, DeLonghi was showing its MultiFry MultiCooker which also used almost no oil. While I was there, they gave demos cooking French fries (which were delicious), schnitzel (also good, though a touch dry), eggs, chicken breast and even pizza (quite tasty, though it won't replace a brick oven). I believe the Philips Air Fryer is now available in the U.S., though the DeLonghi people weren't certain of theirs, no matter who I tracked down to ask.

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Though as sci-fi space agey as the air fryers were, I don't think they held a candle to what I saw from Miele with their ironing board system.

Wait, say what??!, I hear you cry. A high tech, gizmodic freaking ironing board?? Yes, IFA loves them their irons, with shelves and shelves of them, each looking more high-toned techie than the next, with demonstrations on how to iron wherever you turn. And this below is, indeed, actually an ironing board system, with a fold-up board, hidden compartment for your Miele iron, and a portable power charger so you can wheel around and iron wherever you want to your heart's content.

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But ironing doesn't even compare to vacuums. Companies seems to live for dumping all manner of junk on the IFA floor, just to show you how incredibly well their vacuum cleaners can do most anything - and they can, sucking up dirt, gravel, liquids even and probably small arboreal animals in their way, and all done quietly enough to not wake up a tiger. (I'm not joking, that's how Bosch promotes its vacuum system.)

They really do take vacuuming very seriously at IFA. How serious? This isn't a science museum display on how the carbon-emission car engine works. This is LG's explanation on why their vacuum cleaner is better than anyone else's.

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By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not singling out any particular model as especially noteworthy and worth your attention, it's because - well, take a look, this is just one part of the vacuum line-up from Bosch alone.

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But all of these vacuum and ironing wannabees are mere pikers at IFA when it comes to the King of the Houseware Appliance. All hail the Cappuccino maker!!

I can't even begin to explain it. It's like God smote the earth, and out sprang the Land of Cappuccino Machines. Dozens of models, from just a single manufacturer. Now multiply that by dozens of manufacturers. Each model remarkably designed so that it won't go out of style when mankind and aliens are making their cappuccino and espresso on Alpha Centuri. And each manufacturer putting on exhibits and drawing crowds sipping away all day in numbers that would make Starbucks envious.

If someone created a Cappuccino Machine Museum, it would be modeled after the show floor at IFA. But wouldn't be nearly as good because hands-off museums wouldn't have all the brewing and tasting that permeates IFA. No, no, honest, they take their cappuccino and espresso really seriously. Like this from Nespresso.

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Yet for all the high-end, remarkable technical convolutions, one of the simplest items impressed me for its thoughtful and every-day practical cleverness. It was nothing more than an app from Philips that they call Brush Busters. This a game for little kids, most all of whom are notorious for hating to brush their teeth. With the app, a kid chooses an avatar and then helps the characters win by doing certain actions with the child's toothbrush. The point is to get children to learn and enjoy to brush their teeth, who'd otherwise avoid it like the Plague. (Or perhaps that should be, "like the Plaque...")

And with that we came again to the end of IFA Berlin. And brings me, as always, to one of my favorite sights at the Messe Fairgrounds.

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To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.