CES: Awesome and Bizarre

February 06, 2008

I was interviewing the CEO of a $100 million company recently when a nearby man got zapped with a Taser. The man, a Wall Street Journal reporter who had volunteered to be “tased,” cried out in pain when the electrical dart hit him. He was lowered gently to the floor, then helped back to his feet when the effects wore off.

            This happened minutes after I attended a press conference for a new Taser stun gun that has an MP3 player in its holster (yes, an MP3 player). At the press conference, Taser, Inc. also announced that it’s rolling out a stylish leopard skin Taser. Company executives celebrated the introduction by donning leopard skin clothing. Also, a nice lady in leopard skin pants talked about how she’d once been kidnapped.

            Welcome to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), 2008 edition. To those who’ve never attended, it may sound a bit surreal. But to CES regulars, it’s, well…fun, in an odd sort of way.

            If CES had a slogan, it would be “Electronic technology, from the awesome to the bizarre.” Unlike many trade shows, where you could roll a bowling ball down the main aisle without hitting anyone, CES is mobbed. Throngs of attendees clog the aisles; they stand in long lines to use the monorail; they wait to be loaded onto buses; they even mob the cab stands at the Las Vegas airport.

            And in return for all that waiting, exhibitors give them a grand show. Sometimes, in the spirit of one-upmanship, the show is bizarre. That’s why you see a Wall Street Journal reporter writhing on the floor (if you have a Wall Street Journal subscription, you can view the “Tasing” at http://blogs.wsj.com/ces/2008/01/07/getting-tasered-in-high-style/). It’s why you see an Adult Entertainment Expo next door. It’s also why you see a Whirlpool refrigerator with docking stations for iPods. And it’s why you have 2,000 attendees a day sitting in recliners equipped with speakers and “shaker boxes” that deliver thundering sound to everyday furniture (Repose, which makes the recliners, had to wake numerous attendees who were “testing” the chairs on the show floor). 

It’s also why Microsoft Corp. decided to release a children’s book called, “Mommy, why is there a server in the house?” The book, a tongue-in-cheek look at the home server phenomenon, employed the perfect tone for the overwhelmed CES audience.

The flip side of this strange show is the breathtaking technology it delivers. Sony, for example, showed off an organic light emitting diode TV measuring a scant 3 mm thick. Texas Instruments (TI), meanwhile, demonstrated a “his and hers” TV technology, which allows two people to view completely different 3D images while watching the same television at the same time. And a team composed of GM, Carnegie Mellon University, and Continental Automotive offered rides in an autonomous truck known as “Boss.”

The most amazing part of all this is that some showgoers can’t seem to get enough. Many are already planning for CES 2009. For its part, the Consumer Electronics Association has already published a list of top tips for next year’s prospective attendees.

Beware, though: CES is expensive, frustrating, and unpleasant at times. It takes determination and a thick wallet to get through it.

And a pair of leopard skin pants probably wouldn’t hurt, either.


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