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Displays Hardware Technology

CES Recap: Gadgets and Blisters 53

I was in Las Vegas last week to see the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show. (Officially, it's the International Consumer Electronics Show, but no one calls it "ICES.") I've been to CES just a few times before, but usually as the finish line of a marathon drive from Seattle, rather than a plane flight from Tennessee as it was this time around. I've also never arrived with an armload of video equipment, which brings its own hassles. (Did you notice our videos?) Following are a few thoughts about the experience.

I started my trip with a friendly rubdown from a TSA functionary in Knoxville, whose carefully narrated prodding ("Now I'm going to be touching the inside of your waistband ...") failed to scan the recesses of my brain for what evil may there lurk, or take much notice of the should-be-suspicious bundle of batteries and radio-equipped mics in an evil-looking hard-shelled case that smells of gun oil, but did take a while to poke through ("check out") my bag of unremarkable clothing, paper, and sundries. It is a nice bag, after all, and one must have priorities: I could have had cupcakes.

Rooms are typically cheap in Vegas; the city is still America's gambling mecca, but gambling has become so widespread elsewhere that the draw is weaker -- and there are all those hotel rooms looking for occupants. But because CES is the biggest event of the year, even overbuilt Vegas fills up and prices are high that week. So I stayed at the Sin City Hostel, which has a friendly staff, an eclectic clientele (of young international travelers, mostly), and some of the most uncomfortable beds I have ever slept on. On the other hand, it was a thousand bucks cheaper than I was quoted for a room that week at a decent mid-range hotel on the strip, and I have a high tolerance for unusual accommodation. Unless you're actually going to CES, and would rather have a reasonable, luxurious room than a hammock-shaped lump of foam, any other week is probably a smarter time to visit.

Things to note about CES:

It's huge.

CES takes up not just an enormous convention center, but spills over into hotels both nearby and not-especially nearby. Just to touch every booth, suite, and temporary meeting corral would probably take a full-time effort for the whole run of the show, and it might not even be possible (that would make an interesting video game!), especially since some of the dealers are in town for CES, but not officially part of the show as exhibitors. When I met with Steven Isaac of TouchFire, for instance, it was in the lobby of an adjacent hotel. "Nearby" in this case still means a walk of 20 minutes or more just to cross the convention center grounds; it can take nearly that long, too, to walk entrance-to-wall in any of the several large halls at the convention center.

And you'd want to walk all the way back, too. The flashy kiosks operated by companies like Samsung, Nokia, and Motorola tend to be right near the front of the exhibit halls ("them as has, gets"), but back in the low(er) rent districts toward the back of each hall is where a lot of the most interesting stuff collects. Some of these booths might not be that interesting in themselves, but it's fascinating to see the modest public face of companies that sell the bits (LEDs, copper wire, blank circuit boards) and services (custom molding, circuit board layout, high-end fabric embroidery) that underlie even seemingly simple goods. This is also the place to find interesting devices like a ring-mounted mouse, helmet- and google-mounted video cameras in great profusion, and a wireless silicone keyboard cleverly molded to fold into what looks almost like a translucent billfold.

For pure technological art, it's hard to beat the industrial sculpture of the High End audio world. But the show is too big: I didn't get a chance this year to see the biggest trove of that, which is at the Venetian rather than the convention center. $50,000 speakers, and amplifiers in the same range, aren't in my budget (see above re. Sin City Hostel), but if you want to see where Monster Cable and Best Buy get their ideas of how to price electronics, it's enlightening to ogle some of the beautiful components and then their price tags.

It's not just electronics.

In fact, it's not just "consumer" electronics, either, as that term is generally used. No mistake, the consumer end of things isn't neglected: there are plenty of TVs (one of the crowd draws this year was LG's super-thin OLED panel (video), which I didn't have time to properly appreciate), plenty of computers and accessories, and a fair number of white goods -- stoves, refrigerators, and washing machines, all of which are ever more "electronics" in their own right. And Yes, there are shipping containers' worth of MP3 players, cameras of all descriptions, blinking and hovering toys for all ages, robots, headphones, cell phones from the mundane to the exotic, and stacks of tablets from familiar names as well as unknowns (most of them Android, and a surprising number running Android 4.0). But much of the stuff on offer is aimed squarely at institutional buyers or business users. Fancy your own collapsible walk-through metal-detector, or some high-end eye-tracking technology? A $1300 pointing device? (Or, arguably more consumer-friendly, a $900 skateboard perfect for getting around a factory floor?) This is the show for you.

And lots of the goods on display are meant for end-users, but aren't electronics themselves. There are easily thousands, probably tens of thousands, of phone cases, not to mention USB drive casings, computer bags, tripods for cameras, stands for tablets, and other accoutrements. (You can even buy the world's fanciest piece of string.) I overheard a confident claim that there were more than a hundred vendors selling computer bags; I don't doubt it, but I haven't tried to count, and it's probably a fool's errand: not every company's entry in the massive show directory gives much of a clue just what they sell.

Speaking of selling: show rules (and, I was later told, Nevada tax rules) prohibit sales of goods on the show floor itself, but they go on just the same, ranging from furtive (sideways glances and handshake-with-money) to blatant (large, handwritten sign: "Show special! $499!"). For vendors who've made the trip to CES to show off their wares to potential buyers from companies like Fry's and Best Buy as well as smaller dealers, the inventory they've brought as samples can drop in value as soon as that chance is gone; I ended up with a few iPhone 4 cases that the vendor was trying to foist on anyone not bold enough to refuse. (I don't own an iPhone, and have no plans to. Anyone want a few cases with geometric designs in red and grey?)

Besides vendors, there are organizations on hand, too. I ran short of time, or I would have have a chance to ask the folks at the EFF what a nice bunch like them was doing at a place like this.

It lasts too long.

There are a few days of special events prior to CES proper, and then four days of crowded show floor. By the end of the show, vendors are drooping in the most popular booths, and looking a bit forlorn in the lonelier ones. Elevator pitches are down to the length of a short escalator ride, and grazing show-goers are weighed down by their masses of brochures, business cards and tchotchkes. The hub-bub is impossible to avoid even on the last day, and the crowd is crushing. Even with shoes that seemed comfortable going in, I developed blisters to impress the Devil on three toes and both heels, wore out a few pens, and considered commandeering a massage chair for an hour to beat down the ache in my shoulder from hauling around my camera bag and bulky laptop.

It goes too fast.

Even though seeing it all is an impossible task, and even with inevitably sore feet, the lure of novelty is strong. I saw hundreds of exhibitors I would have liked to return to at least briefly. I had just a few minutes to play with the very attractive Mirasol screens at the Qualcomm booth, for instance (shown off in a handful of small tablets that they insist are "e-readers that play music, display video and can browse the web" rather than "tablets"), and missed out on the chance to see the new OLPC tablet.

Being a newbie with the video camera and operating without a trusty servant, I lost some time fumbling with mics, batteries, cables, and a small tripod that I bought mostly as a grip. (Why bother with external mics? Because the roar of the crowd is overwhelming to the camera's built-in mics, and only partly defeated with a shotgun mic mounted on the camera.) By the final day of the show, I had the routine down a little better, but still caught on tape — or rather, in flash memory — only a fraction of the things that caught my eye. I'm lucky that my video conspirator Roblimo has a knack for finding and assembling the most watchable bits. Good news, if hardly impressive these days: my laptop running Linux Mint had no complaints importing files from my Panasonic HD camera for sending off to him a few thousand miles away in Florida for editing.

I stayed two more nights, foam-hammock and all, sorting through marketing goo and enjoying the neon and buffet offerings along the Las Vegas strip. Because I lucked out and reached a line at the Las Vegas airport that lets the miscreants through easily (no puffer machine or full-body scanner to refuse), my trip home didn't even offer a rub-down, only the chance to catch up on a few hours of sleep.
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CES Recap: Gadgets and Blisters

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