Last week, over 170,000 people converged on Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show, an event that showcases the latest and greatest in tech gadgetry. Think of it like a giant Best Buy that's incredibly crowded and filled with a bunch of stuff you can’t purchase yet.
CES is open only to people involved in the electronics industry like retailers and buyers, and esteemed members of the unflinching press like yours truly. The name CES is actually rather deceiving, as the consumer class (a.k.a. "general public") is not permitted. The show’s organizers take great pride in the pedigree of its attendees, a fact made evident on the CES website where they boast that 68,331 senior-level executives attended last year, which is, in their words, “roughly the same number of works of art in the Louvre Museum.”
Plenty of groundbreaking technologies have made their debuts at CES (which itself debuted in 1967), including the VCR (1970), CD players (1981), Nintendo Entertainment System (1985), and Blu-ray DVD (2003). This year, more than 3000 companies exhibited their wares and filled some 2.4 million square feet of floor space inside the multiple halls and wings of the Las Vegas Convention Center, as well as a few satellite areas in nearby hotels.
The slogan for CES 2017 was “Innovators Always Think Ahead.” What kind of innovations do consumers have to look forward to this year? To find out I headed to Las Vegas, and I was sure to pack a heavy sense of contempt for the past so I could fit in amongst all the innovators.
1. “SMART” APPLIANCES
What makes an appliance “smart”? A few years ago, all companies had to do was throw giant TVs on their refrigerators and they were all set. In 2017, however, you need to do a little more.
Take, for example, the scene at LG’s exhibition space, which was the most crowded one I encountered. There was a legitimate crush to see washing machines that could do two loads of laundry at a time. It was like the Beatles at Shea Stadium (if John Lennon had been wearing a lanyard and LG-embroidered polo shirt).
What caught my eye was a refrigerator dubbed the LG InstaView™ Door-in-Door. Sure, it has a sizable TV on its door, but this is a special TV. It’s a translucent tinted LED panel, and knocking on it twice activates an interior light that lets you see what’s inside. The LED panel also works as a giant computer touchscreen, and there are internet-connected cameras inside the fridge so you can watch livestreams of your food from your mobile phone while on the go. The refrigerator is connected to Amazon’s Alexa AI assistant because, as I quickly learned at CES, everything needs to be a talking robot now.
When our civilization inevitably crumbles, future archeologists will dig up this refrigerator and have no idea that it’s actually just a big box that keeps things cold. This is an appliance for eccentric weirdos, and I love it. If you can convince yourself that you need to watch your leftovers via smartphone app, then you'll love it, too.
TVs are CES’s bread and butter. Televisions with integrated circuits debuted at the first CES in 1967, and since then HDTV (1998), Plasma TV (2001), OLED TV (2008), 3D TV (2010) and have had their coming-out parties at the event.
What was the hot new TV trend this year? I couldn’t really tell. I can report that curved TVs are still a thing, which is nice if you’re into that. There was also this sphere HD TV, which I guess is for people who want to take curved TVs to their natural conclusion:
If you plan on buying this television, you may want to save this handy link. It’s a website that calculates the visible fraction of a sphere’s total surface area, because this TV was designed to obscure the majority of its screen from viewers.
Apart from that, it looks like TVs are continuing the trend of being flat and high definition. There aren’t many ways of showing that off, though plenty of companies tried their best. For example, Chinese electronics manufacturer ChangHong highlighted their TVs by having attendees play a game where you control a dolphin via “non-contact neuro bio monitor” (a device that reads and interprets brainwaves).
I was unable to partake because the line was too long, but I observed enough to know I am not ready for this experience. One man stared at his little dolphin with such concentration that I thought his head was going to explode. After a minute or so of this intense mind-meld, the little animated dolphin moved a few inches and the man removed his arm band and handed it to the booth attendant. Visibly shaken, he muttered, “So … loud here … can’t concentrate … on … dolphin,” before wandering off into the crowd, I assume never to be seen again.
Drones were huge at CES this year. You couldn’t walk five feet without hearing the unmistakable high-pitched whirr of a quadcopter buzzing by. Of course, people weren’t allowed to pilot drones out in the open—that would be dangerous! Instead, every drone demonstration was performed inside one of the many drone cages that dotted the convention floor. These made the entire trade show feel as if it were some sort of human zoo, where attendees could gawk at the bipedal monsters who had nothing but remote-controlled mini-copters to keep themselves entertained all day inside their inescapable pens.
Drones weren’t limited to the sky. A company called PowerVision unveiled their underwater maneuverable robot, which is designed to work as a scout camera for fishermen. Footage is relayed to an above-water screen, and the user can tow his or her lure to locations that have lots of fish. The company touts it as a chance to “Change the Fishing World,” which it undoubtedly will until marine life evolves to protect itself against advanced submersible robotics.
4. VIRTUAL REALITY
If drones were big at CES this year, then VR was gargantuan. I’d venture to guess that at any given moment during the convention, 10 percent of attendees were wearing virtual reality goggles. Reality’s market share is dwindling, and it is not inconceivable to think that in 15 years there won’t even be a CES in Las Vegas; everyone will attend from the comfort of their living rooms.
My first encounter with VR at CES was at the Intel exhibit area, where a long line of attendees patiently waited to partake in whatever this was:
I think it was somehow related to Power Rangers because the emcee yelled, “You guys ready to go into the world of Power Rangers?” as the people sat there.
Plenty of products that have nothing to do with virtual reality used the technology in some aspect of their display marketing, and this accounted for much of VR’s presence at CES. For example, the photo below was taken at the Hyundai exhibit. Hyundai is not releasing a VR helmet; I believe this was part of a parallel parking simulator:
Elsewhere, I waited in line for 10 minutes to try out Magna’s Hololens augmented reality demonstration, which amounted to little more than a PowerPoint slideshow about the company’s business strategy and product plan. (I think they make automobile parts).
I did play one enchanting VR game, however. It was from the Tsinghua Tongfang Company, and in it players scale a steep mountain using two pick axes (the controllers). It was a whole lot of fun, and looking down at the steep rock face was so dizzying that I almost lost my footing. Before summiting I unfortunately missed a rope hold and plummeted to my death, which was a rather relaxing experience thanks to the beautiful CGI mountain range and the comforting knowledge that I was not actually going to die.
Afterwards I felt a little queasy and almost fell into a drone cage, but that did nothing to diminish the rock-climbing game’s status as the most pleasurable experience I had with VR at CES.
5. PHONE CASES
Virtual reality was huge at CES, but not as big as phone cases. If the Las Vegas Convention Center was the Earth, and drones and VR served as its land, then the oceans would be phone cases—they were everywhere.
There are only a few ways to differentiate yourself from your competition if you’re selling these products, and the endless rows of phone case booths blurred together. Peppiness certainly was a theme, and all the large-format advertorial photos at these displays depicted groups of attractive young men and women absolutely beaming at their phone cases.
At one booth, a man dropped an egg on “an exaggerated” version of his company's proprietary phone case material. As someone who encounters repeated eggings year-round, he certainly got my attention.
There were also phone cases that looked like prescription pill bottles. I choose to believe this is trenchant commentary on how our society-wide addiction to phones is killing us. (I’m not sure what the blinged-out Daffy Duck is supposed to represent. The dangers of government surveillance maybe?)
6. THIS MODEL TRAIN
I became extremely excited when I saw this at the Canon booth, as I thought it meant model trains were making a comeback. Alas, it was there to demonstrate their cameras' new motion focus feature, which was far less fun than the train itself.
7. EVERYTHING ELSE
The promise of driverless cars was a major theme at CES, representing perhaps the single most important technological advancement we will experience in our lifetimes. We can only begin to understand the effects these cars will have on our society as a whole, and the possibilities are tantalizing.
There are very impressive self-driving cars currently on the road, like Teslas that can drive around and park themselves, but these still require an alert human at the wheel. There were plenty of self-driving cars at CES, while any true driverless cars were just ambitious prototypes whose full functionality is still beyond our reach. This may be why, in the video above, you can clearly see a guy using his steering wheel at a self-driving car exhibit.
If driverless cars are still the not-quite-immediate future, what do consumers have to look forward to in 2017? How about Christmas lights that play music?
“This is the most exciting marriage of sound and light since God invented thunder!” I said to myself at this display for Bluetooth speaker-connected Christmas lights from Bright Tunes. No one else was around, and I could have stolen a dozen. (I didn't.)
There is a logic behind this invention: People play music during the holidays, and people also hang up lights. But why stop there? Are you really making us wait until CES 2018 to unveil the Wi-Fi-enabled eggnog drone and mistletoe camera?
If that doesn't float your boat, the Swagtron booth had self-balancing electric scooters, which, according to the headline of this glowing review, are the "Hoverboard[s] That WON’T Go On Fire!" I am happy to report that I didn’t witness a single fire in the five minutes I spent at the Swagtron exhibit space, where helmeted models spun around on neon-lit hoverboards to a blaring electro soundtrack.
The future of consumer electronics truly is dizzying.
All photos and videos by Nick Greene.