Apple may be the world's biggest tech company, but it had only the second most exciting tech event on Monday.
While the iPhone maker focused on sensible-but-not-sexy updates to its iOS software, Asus played its wildest cards. Chalk the excitement up to three new announcements: the VivoWatch BP, the ZenBook Pro and — oh, that's right — a freaking two-screen AI laptop from the future.
Project Precog is built from the ground up to be an artificial-intelligence laptop. It's built for tomorrow. As such, there's no keyboard on this dual-screen laptop. No specifications were given, but the model shown on stage looked like it had two 13-inch touch displays.
Asus' said it was a prototype, but unlike Razer's CES prototypes that wow crowds but never make it to market, this one is coming. It'll be available in 2019, said Marcel Campos, global PC and phone marketing senior director at Asus, who proclaimed "a PC with AI capabilities must have a dual screen."
We've already seen vaguely AI features hit phones. The cameras in Huawei's Mate 10 and P20 range, for instance, know what the lens is looking at, be it a person, a dog, a cat, a plant, food and so on, and optimizes the settings accordingly. We've also seen early versions of a dual-screen laptop, with Lenovo's 2016 Yoga Book having no physical keyboard, but a digital one.
Asus Project Precog is basically the tablet from WestworldSee all photos
But Project Precog, from the looks of it, seems meant to converge AI design and technology in a much more substantial way. Here's a quick rundown of what Asus says will be in the final build:
- It knows whether a keyboard or mouse is near, and will automatically give you virtual, on-screen ones if needed.
- When you type on said virtual keyboard, it knows where your hands are placed above the chassis and can shift the keyboard accordingly.
- It'll eventually recognize what part of the day your meetings are, and conserve battery around them. (How this will be achieved wasn't specified.)
- There's AI compatibility with Microsoft Office programs. The example cited was that Excel would suggest the best ways for you to present data as you put it into a spreadsheet.
- It can work in book, laptop, flat and tent modes with a stylus. Plus, it'll have face and object recognition. These are existing laptop features, but promise to be more useful with a dual-screen, AI setup.
I'm optimistic, even if cautiously so. Typing on the screen of an iPad or a Yoga Book, while serviceable, has never been as tenable for long-term use as a good old-fashioned keyboard. Plus, a dual-screen laptop from the future sounds very expensive, and the AI will have to be smart — way smarter than anything we've seen in an allegedly AI-powered phone, to justify the price.
But it's something different, which is what the PC market needs. Gaming computers are thriving, because new games demand greater graphical grunt that can only be gotten from a computer or part upgrade, but for every other computer type, growth is down.
Something different is also what Asus needs: The PC maker slipped from fourth place in 2016 to fifth place in 2017. By the end of the year, it had around a market share of 9.5 percent, narrowly eclipsed by Apple's 9.6 percent, according to TrendForce data. The gap has only widened thus far in 2018.
This ZenBook Pro trackpad doubles as a display
And if it's something different you want, you don't have to wait until 2019 for Asus' risky concept computer. This year's ZenBook Pro range is equipped with a smaller risk — a trackpad that doubles as a 5.5-inch screen.
It's what Asus calls a ScreenPad. It's both its own separate display, one on which you can watch YouTube or browse Facebook, as well as a touch input. Asus has designed a suite of apps for it, like a calculator and a music player, and it comes with support for Microsoft Office programs, where it functions like a bigger version of the Touch Bar in Apple's newer MacBook Pro range.
In my regrettably brief time with the laptop, the ScreenPad wasn't a surefire smash hit — but it has potential. It took a few minutes for me to get used to the setup, since it's got a touchscreen plus left- and right-click buttons in a relatively small space. I was unsure if I should be clicking, touching, or drag and dropping. I did get used to it, but unfortunately only about the time my demo ended.
Razer tried something similar on its first laptop, but it wasn't particularly useful. That said, this looks to be a more fully featured, productivity-facing display, rather than Razer's, which was a supplement to gaming.
Asus isn't only shaking things up on the computer side, though. The VivoWatch BP is, according to Asus, the world's first medical-grade blood pressure monitor inside a smartwatch. (Rival Omron announced one at CES, but that's due later in the year.) Why is this impressive? Because to get a medical-grade anything into a watch, it needs to get FDA approval.
Eventually, with all the vitals they'll be able to measure, wearables will literally be lifesavers (even more than they are now). Having a medical-grade measurement is a big step in that direction.
I probably won't buy a VivoWatch BP. I don't need a new laptop, so I'm unlikely to buy a ZenBook Pro, either. I probably won't be able to afford the Project Precog, so that's almost certainly out too. But Asus is trying. Really trying. After all, this is all more exciting than WWDC, and I didn't even have to mention the Asus ROG Phone.
It's expected to be the fastest Android phone ever, by the way.
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