After two nights of cocktail receptions and a day of press conferences at the CES previews in Las Vegas, I can draw several premature conclusions that I will relabel here as insights about this massive technology show.
Generally, CES is absurd. There is an element of the late-night TV infomercial to electronic devices that claim to regrow hair, belts that promise pain relief, sensors the detect water leaks, the usual smartlock suspects, the game console for dogs and some sort of digital candle. Sending a humour columnist to CES is probably the best way to cover the show: There are many eminently mockable products, and some are even familiar faces (the hilarious Belty smart belt and the Kolibree smart toothbrush are back after making a splash last year). The absurd hubris of the hustle is everywhere.
In one sense, Vegas is the perfect spiritual home for a show about niche products that seem designed for those with money to burn and not much sense about how to do it. This is the city where you can get almost any food on a stick, where there are churros at the breakfast buffet, where you can buy some new personal massage device or an ugly hat right next to the slushy-margarita stand. Of course, all of this aimless consumption is enabled by vast floors where you can gamble on games of chance that are designed to help you lose a lot of money over time.
But all of this salesmanship and pitching is only the aggressively smiling, close-talking tip of the spear. It's worthwhile remembering that everyone at CES has a back-story.
Take Dr. Wei-Shin Lai, the CEO of AcousticSheep LLC, from Erie, Penn. After long shifts at the hospital she found it hard to turn her brain off and get to sleep. She liked listening to music but found earbuds or headphone cans irritating and awkward. Her solution is a fleece headband with wireless speakers inside (surprisingly effective at blocking out out other sounds). She founded her company in 2007 and now makes headbands for running or sleeping. Some are as cheap as $40 or as pricey as $130. They seem like a great winter product for Canadians, and maybe a retail buyer in Canada will see them on the show floor and think "that's just what I need next season."
Hopefulness is the subtextual theme of this conference. Almost everyone here is hoping to meet the right partner, the right promoter, the right distributor, to get the right buzz to take their product to the next level. There are a bunch of companies here who have tested the market with Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, gotten some wind in their sails and are pushing for the next big breakthrough. Like, say, PicoBrew (a microbrew beer-making device the size of a big espresso machine that can make a fresh batch in five days) or Pic (a cute bendable remote camera that can be its own tripod or wearable action camera).
In this world you are judging books by their covers, like the Makeblock robot kits showed off at Pepcom's Digital Experience event: a popular attraction because of their colourful robot. The outfit is from Shenzen, China, and had a Kickstarter campaign back in 2013, but there's still something wonderful about seeing a homemade-looking robot act in delightful ways.
Some of the players here have gigantic billion-dollar businesses already; the chip makers, the auto makers, some of the software companies and some of the device makers. The Samsungs and LGs of the world announce a dozen mass-market aimed devices with some "smart technology" in them that elevate the new fridge (Samsung's fridge has a tablet/TV built into it; LG's fridge that opens when you walk by) or tablet from last year's device. The vast majority of the companies at CES want to get into that league; another smaller subset of that group is really hoping just to survive the next few years.
CES is largely about niche products, many of which aren't going to define the future. But all of the founders, engineers, developers and salespeople standing at those booths really believe their solution or product is the critical piece of the digital economy that we are all missing.
Some of them might be right. The Oculus virtual reality headset was a big hit a few years ago at CES, and it kicked off a virtual reality arms race (Oculus sold itself to Facebook to fight that battle) that's on full display this year. By the same token, in recent years curved TVs were a big draw at CES booths, as well as vaping accessories. Neither have lit the world on fire.
So CES is silly, and a little gross, and overhyped. But for the smaller players, there is a core of sincerity you can appreciate if you're willing to take the time.