For the first time in at least 18 years, I did not head to CES in Las Vegas. Instead, I stayed home in San Francisco and kept up by reading TechnoBuffalo and many other sources.
So instead of being washed in hype, drenched in alcohol, and dipped in germs I had a back-row seat to this year’s tech/media/gadget orgy. Here’s what I learned, with a healthy dollop of skepticism born from that distance.
- THE BIGGEST STORY WAS ABOUT PRICING – From what I could tell, the most important thing that happened at CES was when a three-year old product announced that it would finally go on sale for $650. The subsequent poop storm that followed, when all the fanboys realized it would probably cost $1,500 for a new PC, graphics card and the headset was fascinating to track – particularly because I predicted the Oculus Rift was doomed a year ago.
- THE SECOND BIGGEST STORY WAS ABOUT DISTRIBUTION OF A NINE-YEAR-OLD SERVICE: When Netflix’ Reed Hastings took the CES Keynote stage and said its streaming service was now in virtually every corner of the globe – except China – the resulting media storm sent Netflix’ stock soaring. I’m a huge fan of Netflix, and truly believe it is changing the media world. But still, in a show that’s supposed to be about innovation, distribution took center stage.
- PACKS OF FRIGHTENED RABBITS: Over the last few years CES has become more and more of a media gathering, as traditional and new media execs descend on Vegas. These titans of a rapidly changing industry aren’t really interested in the show, though. They typically congregate in their own personal Watership Down: the Parasol bar and other assorted restaurants and watering holes at the Wynn – along with luxury suites in the more opulent hotels on the strip. While in Vegas they eat, drink, smoke and complain to each other about this new digital world. The new gear and gadgets on the show floor scare them so much that they never actually make it to the convention center – except as part of tightly curated tours led by wolves in sheep’s’ clothing. Much like those “10 European Countries in 7 Days” tours, they see nothing interesting, but head back to New York and LA with a hangover and a conviction that none of it will ever work.
- ELTON JOHN, LADY GAGA, BECK STILL RELEVANT – at least in Las Vegas. Each headlined some of the biggest – and most exclusive – parties at CES where the rabbits gathered to graze. Clearly the entertainment has improved markedly since the days when CES meant Wayne Newton and Debbie Reynolds. But what, in the end, does Elton John have to do with technology innovation?
- FANTASY TRUMPS REALITY. Perhaps it’s the shiny patina of celebrity, but the two biggest products I saw were obviously designed for headlines not utility. Early in the week Faraday Future rolled out its FFZERO1 concept car, which included more cladding and botox than Lady Gaga at her most outrageous. Sure, it looked grand. But it’s decidedly NOT coming to a shopping mall near you. Then later in the week the Twittersphere was buzzing about the first drone that can carry a real person. From Chinese startup EHang, the 184 supposedly can carry a 250-pound human for 23 minutes on a single charge – and flies at about 60 miles an hour.
It looks amazing, but this dog just won’t hunt – at least not for long. First, to have any reserve, it’ll only go for about 5-10 miles before you’ll want to charge it up. And I expect that mandated safety equipment will probably boost the overall weight way beyond the stripped-down 400 pounds. And finally, we already have something similar – it’s called a Helicopter. Great headlines – but don’t expect the 184 or the FFZERO1 to solve anyone’s transportation needs anytime soon.
- DRONES AS MARKETING: Now that the FAA is poised to shut down consumer drones, an incredible variety debuted at CES – including the first ever with a FIXED WING! (don’t tell the army – or the folks over at RCGroups.com). But the biggest drone story came from Intel, who showed off their footage of the “DRONE 100” during CEO Brian Krzanich’s keynote. The coordination of 100 drones flying in formation and the light patterns they created was simply stunning. But in the end it was just a marketing stunt.
- TVS GOT BETTER: Surprise! A never-ending – and mostly fruitless – quest to get buyers to replace their sets every few years resulted in a variety of incremental breakthroughs delivered in breathless prose. LG’s new OLED TVs are ONLY FOUR CREDIT CARDS THICK! New rollable screen technology now rolls even more! Quantum dots! Ultra HD with HDR! 4K! 8K! (did anyone announce 16k?). Neat stuff, but it’s hardly a tech revolution.
I didn’t really miss CES – except for the opportunity to catch up with old friends. I do wish I’d had the chance to roam the back halls and basements of The Sands and the LVCC. My favorite times at CES have been discovering the weird stuff, the misfits and the oddball products that you just know will never take off. Perhaps next year that will be enough to get me back.