CES 2016

CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, has become the stuff of legends. As a designer of many things, (sometimes including consumer electronics), it’s been on my radar for many years, but I’ve never had the opportunity or reason to visit.

I have long known the horror stories, the hours of trudging, thousands of exhibitors crammed into endless halls, all vying to get precious column inches for their new doohickey. I decided to attend this year, partly as a way to get a benchmark for the state of the industry (whatever that means, more later) and partly out of curiosity.

CES was a fairly interesting affair, not least due to the location. I’ve not visited Las Vegas before and it proved a fascinating place. To be clear, this isn’t a recommendation, Las Vegas represents everything that might be wrong with the world, but in some way it’s admirable. The sheer endeavor of it all, it’s like seeing one of those Carnival Cruise ships up close, it’s hideous but awe inspiring. My friend Mark Delaney described Vegas as ‘unchecked’, which is just about perfect.

The show itself is a sprawling beast, set across two main arenas (with a third, strange media center, which i didn’t visit). One of these is at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is a charmless place set amongst ailing casino hotels and vacant lots. The other is in the belly of the Venetian hotel (yes the one with the indoor gondoliers). The Convention Center feels like every other large exhibition hall you’ve been to. A cavernous space filled with bellowing brands, punctuated by a little café selling pricey slices of pizza and muffins, like an oasis of shit in a desert of screaming infants. This is where the big boys play. The likes of Sony, Samsung, Panasonic and Intel peg out vast territories and construct elaborate environments in which to peddle their wares. To be honest I didn’t mind the scale of the place. Sure it’s big, but if you take it easy and skip the bits that don’t grab your attention, it’s OK. The highlight was undoubtedly Sony, who had constructed an impressive arena, filled with all the products you know, but had also dedicated a large section to new, experimental projects. As a contrast to the polish of rest of the show, it made a nice change to see some sketchier stuff. Elsewhere the exhibition was as you might imagine. Big, bright stands, populated by marketing personnel in matching polo shirts, peppered with hired hunks and babes to draw in the eye with a demo.

Down at the Venetian, things were pretty similar, but my absolute favorite area was downstairs, at the back. Here is where the cheapest stands are to be found, off the beaten track, and it’s here where you will find the eager startups. The weird first round fundees with their 3D printed, connected, smart things. This was amazing, and well worth the trip alone. Tiny little stands staffed by desperate looking folks with expressions which can only be gained by committing the survival of ones family to a calorie counting connected fork (see spün). It feels like strolling through the abbatoir behind a sausage factory, if the sausage factory is a late night shopping channel. I wish I had spent more time in there.

The main output from shows such as these seems to be a collection of aggregated ‘trends’ so here goes:

  1. Curved screens are still a thing, but no-one seems sure why. All the main display manufacturers seem focussed on pixel count, brightness, thickness and curvature. 3D TV is dead.
  2. Goggles and VR are without doubt the Hot New Thing. The unfortunate blindfolded man swiping at an invisible piñata in front of a crowd of smirking onlookers became a bit of a comedic trope at the show. I tried a few setups, and they work (kinda), but it still feels like a technology in search of a solution. You can let me spray paint in 3D space all you want, but it’s just not enough.
  3. There is a persistent amount of Minority Report hand-wavy interaction design, but now it’s mostly the second and third tier manufacturers who still think it’s a ‘thing’.
  4. 3D printing has matured a little, preferring to focus on prototyping and specialized manufacture. There wasn’t much of a buzz around the 3D printing stands, who seemed primarily focussed on sales.
  5. The wrist, watch, wearable, fitness monitor market is an exhausting, bloated, over-excitable place.
  6. Marketing and demoing technology is becoming more difficult as services become more personal and interlinked. Lots of companies struggled to get their message across.
  7. Drones were everywhere, but being demoed in cages. We do not trust this technology yet.
  8. No one gives a shit about phones. At all. Not even a little bit. Phones are done.
  9. Camera manufacturers were few and far between, but still doing rather well. There were also a few turntables at the show, and many brands focussed on quality and performance, rather than innovation, which might hint at some sort of artisanal electronic revival. Maybe.
  10. People don’t seem too interested in connected home stuff. It might just be that it’s pretty dull to look at smoke alarms, window locks and humidifiers, but there weren’t many stands showcasing this stuff, and the ones who were resembled ghost towns.

All in all, It was a fascinating trip (in all senses of the word), but people were right: it is way too big. I’ve been thinking about this and it maybe because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to define what constitutes ‘consumer electronics’. We are constantly being told that everything will be smart, connected and appified, so the remit for such a show becomes hard to pin down. At this years CES were TV’s, tablets, cameras and hifi, but also pillows, cars, cutlery and insoles. It makes the whole event feel like walking through a giant amazon logistics center. It’s not really a show about anything in particular.

It’s hard to stand out at such a show, and most manufacturers are still making the mistake of cramming flashy demos into every corner of their space. It just doesn’t work. Again sony got it right here, with a large open space with quiet, knowledgeable staff on hand to explain the products.

I’m not sure I learnt a great deal in going to CES, given the torrent of coverage the event receives, but for any designer it’s undoubtably a fascinating experience. The event, and Las Vegas are good to visit, but better to leave.

I might go back.