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The most bizarre things I saw at Europe's biggest tech show

A chef appears on a large OLED.
A chef appears on a large OLED.

BERLIN—Sometimes, the technology on display at an event like IFA, Europe’s giant electronics gathering, testifies eloquently as to what engineers and developers can do when inspired to solve human problems. At other times, the gadgets and features shown off here may only serve as a warning to others.

Our IFA coverage wraps up with some examples of that second genre of product launch. We’re pretty sure there isn’t much of a market for these things, but there’s always the chance that CES—the big tech expo in Las Vegas in four months—will prove us wrong.

See-through displays … in refrigerator doors

At this January’s CES, LG put on a spectacular display of the possibilities of OLED (organic light emitting diode) displays that included a transparent screen. Why bother? Here at IFA, LG offered one answer: a prototype refrigerator that included an OLED touchscreen in a door running a copy of Windows 10.

You can use apps to look up recipes, edit a shopping list or cue up a Pandora web-radio station. But since you can also turn the screen partially transparent, you can see what’s inside and set expiration dates that float in front of those items.

That may not address a real problem. But at least it makes the Family Hub compu-fridge Samsung introduced at CES (now on sale for $5,600 and up) look slightly more proletarian.

Panasonic (PCFRY), not to be outdone, set up a kitchen-of-the-future display featuring a wine and sake fridge with its own see-through OLED screen—perhaps the most ruling-class technology I saw all week—and a window that doubled as a display for cooking shows.

Watching a chef appear on that OLED while still seeing the real background behind him made me think “holo-chef,” which will probably be a hot kitchen-tech gift in 2020.

Huawei’s selfie-ness

To introduce its new Nova and Nova Plus Android smartphones and tout the capabilities of their cameras, Huawei turned to Instagram star Xenia Tchoumi. She then regaled the audience with a lengthy bout of selfie coaching, including the insight that as you take more selfies, you will learn about yourself and therefore love yourself more.

The audience, largely comprised of people way too old for Tchoumi’s “selfie generation,” did not appear to be going for it. By the end of presentation, I don’t think anybody’s selfie game had gotten any stronger despite Tchoumi’s cheerful coaching in such advanced techniques as the one-hand selfie.

On the upside, we did learn that Instagram, owned by Facebook (FB), sees 1,000 selfies posted every 10 seconds, and that 74% of Snapchat images were selfies.

(Those of you about to speculate about the remaining 26% of Snapchat photos: Get your minds out of the gutter!)

Sony Xperia Ear: a SMH moment

Sony (SNE) introduced this device at Mobile World Congress in February but didn’t let anybody try it out then. But at IFA, the electronics firm allowed visitors to pop one into an ear to experience something the Ear can do that a Bluetooth headset paired with a phone running Apple’s Siri, Google Now or Microsoft’s Cortana can’t: respond to head gestures.

As a synthesized voice read out a text message from a friend asking about dinner, I could shake my head no or nod yes to confirm it. That worked as advertised—but only if I exaggerated my head’s motions to a distracting degree. In two words: human bobblehead.

This device, shipping in November, also has to start from scratch in getting your data and your trust, something that’s been enough of a struggle for Cortana. I’m not convinced it will do any better than the two new Walkman high-resolution digital-audio players Sony also introduced here.

Samsung’s nonchalant Note 7 presentation

The Galaxy Note 7
The Galaxy Note 7

Samsung did not launch a new phone here; in a break from its practice of the past few years, it confined its IFA introductions to the Gear S3 smartwatch. But then the Korean gadget giant had to… let’s say, reverse-launch a phone when it recalled its new Galaxy Note 7 after reports of a few catching fire or exploding during charging.

How would the company adjust its building-filling exhibit here to account for this retreat? Not at all. On Friday and Saturday, IFA attendees continued to crowd tables featuring Note 7s they could try out firsthand. And no, I did not see any members of Berlin’s fire department standing by.

I can’t actually fault Samsung for that. Since a large fraction of that gigantic setup consisted of the Note 7 and accessories for the phone, there wasn’t much to be done short of walling off a quarter of the room. And the virtual-reality bungee-jumping simulation nearby was probably more dangerous anyway.

Disclosure: IFA’s organizers are covering most of my travel expenses and those of a group of U.S. journalists and analysts.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.