Ah, tech shows. How glad I was to return to your loving, slightly too-warm embrace. During the COVID-19 lockdowns across the world, physical tech expos had to go away for a while. Some said they might never return; that the growth of live-streamed digital-only events would replace them. But the industry wants what the industry wants, and after a few false starts, I was pleased to see them make a resounding return.
Do you know why I love tech expos so much? It’s not the big new product reveals, and it’s certainly not the economy flights. No, my favorite thing about attending these events is venturing beyond the big-brand stands and into the halls furthest from the entrance, where the tiny booths of companies doing really niche stuff lie.
At the Gran Fira expo center in Barcelona, Spain, I delved into the murky depths of the 2023 Mobile World Congress (MWC) to find the strangest bits of tech I could, and oh boy did those companies deliver.
Here, I’m going to list all the things I saw at MWC 2023 that made me go “wow, that’s cool!” and also the stuff that made me go “wow, that’s… odd.” It’s also basically all the stuff I wanted to research and write a full article about, but didn’t have time. If you’re looking at everything, these expos generally have more to offer than a single person can explore in just three or four days. Let’s start with a weird one, shall we?
This terrifying surgery machine
Okay, I don’t actually know if I’m terrified of the robot or the surgery itself, but I definitely don’t like the size of those big tubes being jammed into that fake human stomach. This robotic surgeon made use of four robotic arms that were controlled via a set of joysticks and a touchscreen at one end.
Setting aside the fact that it reminded me of the horrible Stroggification scene from Quake 4 (watch at your own risk), this sort of technology could be beneficial for enabling a single medical professional to perform multiple tasks at once during surgical procedures, which is pretty cool. Just give me plenty of anesthesia first, yeah?
This police Tesla
Have you ever looked at a police car and thought boy, I sure wish those things could autonomously pulverize a dummy child? Then have I got the product for you. The police should drive Teslas! Yes, let’s give erratic billionaire Elon Musk more power over our society. What a wonderful idea that could in no way backfire.
In all seriousness, it’s very interesting to get an in-depth look at the technological capabilities of a modern police vehicle. Everything is sleek and modern, with the central display found in every Tesla showing dispatch details while a conventional police scanner is mounted underneath. The whole vehicle bristles with blue lights and cameras, and an LED display mounted to the rear window allows for messages to be displayed to other drivers. While I might object to the notion of police Teslas, it would be nice to see police forces fully adopt electric vehicles - surely better for stealthily approaching criminals, right?
This mechanical barista
There were a whole bunch of robot arms at MWC, as there are at most tech expos, demonstrating various simple operations such as stacking boxes. This one, though, was a bit more complex. I found it on VMWare’s stand (along with the above Tesla: Cop Edition), where it was presented with a full selection of barista equipment and could be ordered to make specific caffeinated beverages via a connected touchscreen.
As I later confirmed with my partner (who once trained as a specialty barista in London), the machine went through all the proper steps in the process of making me an Americano with milk and chocolate syrup. I recorded the whole endeavor for posterity before settling down to work with my robot-blend coffee. It tasted pretty good, too - though I do think an experienced human barista could do it faster.
This robotic security guard
I’ve seen security robots at events like MWC before, and I’ve always regarded them as something of a pointless novelty. If they’re as great as the manufacturers claim they are, why isn’t every company using them? Oh right, it’s because the average burglar could probably just tip it over or otherwise incapacitate it, essentially turning it into an extremely expensive alarm system.
Plus, there’s the fact that they all look so goofy. If I wanted a robot to guard my warehouse full of precious goods, I’d want that mech Hugh Jackman piloted in CHAPPiE, not this shaped-like-a-friend box on wheels. It’s even got a little blue police light attached to its head, like that robot cop from Futurama. I’d rob somewhere guarded by this mechanical fool any day of the week. (Disclaimer: I wouldn’t really. I’m no master thief, promise.)
The actual King of Spain
Sorry, I don’t have a photo for this one. They wouldn’t let me near him. It’s true, though; as the Spanish staff I spoke to confirmed, a member of the nation’s royal family is almost always seen at MWC. It's not surprising when you consider this is one of the biggest industry expos Spain hosts.
We were rebuffed from the Telefonica stand while King Felipe VI was in attendance there, and there was extra-heavy police presence around the event - including a circling helicopter and snipers on the rooftops. As a Brit, I did find it odd to see so many people with big guns just walking about, but it was still pretty interesting to know that I was in the same room as royalty.
This robot dog!
Forget the King of Spain - the robot dog was there! And yes, I got to pet it. Xiaomi’s CyberDog (along with the humanoid CyberOne) was a popular fixture at MWC, consistently drawing crowds of people who wanted to see a mechanical Good Boy.
In fact, it seems Xiaomi let the programmable pooch off-leash to roam around by itself at one point; on my way out of the event at the end of the second day, I found it meandering in one of the courtyards between the event halls, seemingly without a supervisor. A few people were filming it as it explored; one woman approached, and it rested on its haunches obligingly for her to pat its little metal head. Truly the pinnacle of modern technology.
This Hyperloop TT shuttle
Don’t worry, it’s not the one Elon is never going to actually build. This underground tube train was designed by Hyperloop TT, an American firm that is explicitly not connected to the Twitter-obsessed billionaire. TT did, however, like his idea of ultra-fast intercity transport, and so this train was born.
I’m a train lover, personally, and I’d love to see this sort of thing implemented beneath the ground of our rural areas. Hyperloop TT’s low-pressure train allows for speeds of up to 800mph; for comparison, Japan’s ultra-fast cross-country L0 maglev has a maximum speed of 374mph. The company is currently engaged in a development project in the US's Great Lakes region, which could hypothetically take riders all the way from Cleveland to Chicago in a staggeringly fast thirty minutes.
This VR quadcopter experience
Who wouldn’t want to fly in a helicopter (sorry, quadcopter) in VR? Me, actually - but only because I didn’t have time to queue for a ticket. It looked like fun, though; the attendees I saw ‘riding’ inside the replica aircraft were clearly having a good time. The whole unit, while presumably not able to actually fly, did have spinning rotors and was mounted to a gyro base that tilted it to provide a more realistic VR experience.
Although flight-sim rides might be dying out along with arcades as a whole, which is genuinely tragic, VR does present a very tangible replacement to this particular pillar of my own childhood. More of this, please.
This tiny kart racetrack
Heck yeah, go-karting! Everyone loves go-karting. I did have time to take one of these Segway-designed karts for a spin, even if the track itself wasn’t exactly the Nürburgring. There were also electric scooters and a very flashy electric bike, which I would’ve loved to test out but unfortunately wasn’t available to demo.
I did find it just a little bit amusing that Segway - now named Segway-Ninebot since its 2015 acquisition by the latter company - wasn’t actually displaying a single one of the classic upright two-wheelers the brand is famous for. Perhaps it has something to do with the company’s former owner accidentally driving one off a cliff. We may never know.
This, uh, statue of Godzilla?
Okay, I’m not really sure what this has to do with tech. According to a staffer I spoke to, this was actually a genuine prop from the 1954 Godzilla movie, which I find both unlikely and impractical in equal measure.
Why did it need to be there? What purpose did it serve? I searched but I found no answers. Maybe they just thought it was cool (and to be fair, it was).
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Christian is TechRadar’s UK-based Computing Editor. He came to us from Maximum PC magazine, where he fell in love with computer hardware and building PCs. He was a regular fixture amongst our freelance review team before making the jump to TechRadar, and can usually be found drooling over the latest high-end graphics card or gaming laptop before looking at his bank account balance and crying.
Christian is a keen campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights and the owner of a charming rescue dog named Lucy, having adopted her after he beat cancer in 2021. She keeps him fit and healthy through a combination of face-licking and long walks, and only occasionally barks at him to demand treats when he’s trying to work from home.