FEAR AND GADGETS IN LAS VEGAS JANUARY 18, 2013
It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that I’d meet a sales rep who referenced Jean Baudrillard.
It was a couple of days into the Consumer Electronics Show, the gargantuan annual gathering of the gadget industry. I was idly taking notes as salesladies lured men onto a set of vibrating exercise machines, their fat jiggling, while an Asian man in a fedora and round sunglasses danced on one of them to “Gangnam Style.” A shaggy-haired off-duty software sales rep named Will Ryan asked what I was writing.
I explained that I’d come out to do some reporting on the tech industry, prosaic journalist stuff like finding sources and learning about developments and picking up gossip about who was up and who was down. But Ryan could probably tell I was struggling to focus in a convention full of 150,000 people, not including the unicycle-riding performers on the sidewalk outside. I asked for his thoughts. "I keep thinking of Jean Baudrillard," he answered, referencing the French hero of hip philosophy majors everywhere. "Because these objects that we created to serve us are now more powerful than us, are they not? We are what we consume."
"This became especially clear to me when, after the hackathon, they were serving free Guinness," Ryan continued. "And I thought, this is so right—this is who I am!"
CES takes place each winter in the Las Vegas Convention Center, a complex so massive that it spans a highway. To stand still at the show is to risk being run over by one of the golf carts people use to cross the bridge atop the eight-lane tarmac, or bumped into by one of the slower-moving herds of visitors who trail behind show guides, listening to narration that’s piped straight into their headphones. Conventioneers trying to catch a wireless signal or eat lunch cling like limpets to benches on the sides of the hallways. At information booths, staff in bright yellow vests help out lost-looking attendees.
I was one of them. Upon arriving earlier this morning, I’d tried to make a schedule for myself, contemplating the lists of panels and keynote speeches and luncheons, scrolling through the iPhone app that explained which executives would be in which tiny airless conference room at what time. But after a day, I’d concluded that the panels were plodding and realized that the speeches would end up on the Internet anyway.
I threw away the schedule and opted to drift.
I plunged into the Central Hall, submerging myself in a soft-carpeted dreamworld. The first sight: a display that resembled a shimmering sea anemone, or maybe a tree. At any rate, it reached up towards the ceiling, its tendrils studded with laptops, flashing in coordinated waves. This piece of turf belonged to Intel, which doesn't make devices so much as the brains within them, with the power to turn your life into one perfectly coordinated, uncomplicated and automated experience.
At least, that's what the saleswoman attempted to impart, using a movie with a middle-aged couple on a date. "Just imagine if all your devices could be connected seamlessly,” she enthused, adopting the buzz phrase that's been around for a decade but exploded last year. “The idea is, here at Intel, we're laying the foundation for the Internet of things.” Don't focus too much on the specs of the gadgets on display, she said. "The minutiae is all here, but that's not what we're talking about."
The saleslady had help, of a sort. A few feet away, a tall, slim guy named Jason Silva—a self-described "epiphany addict" and "techno-philosopher"—paced a stage freestyling on the amazingness of evolution and the Internet. Then he turned on a video of himself doing it even faster against a galactic backdrop, tossing out quotes from famous futurists as he built towards a climax. "Radical openness is huge!" Silva rhapsodized. "It's a universe of possibility, it's gray infused by color, it's the invisible revealed, it's the mundane blown away by awe! We need to cultivate radical openness as a way of participating in and celebrating evolution!"
An interlocutor in a porkpie hat then joined Silva onstage, and they bandied about a few more platitudes before giving the audience a rest.
Here's why companies like Intel hire people like Silva: The pace of innovation in the hardware arena has slowed since the advent of the smartphone. As incremental advances don't make for great product launches, marketing departments try to bridge the inspiration gap by trotting out whiz-bang products that are still under development. The Chinese company Haier showed off a television that obeys eye commands—it shows the menu when you blink twice—but couldn’t specify just when I might be able to blink at one in my own home. Likewise, the show's buzziest item, super-sharp 4K televisions that have been heralded as the new 3D, require broadcasters and filmmakers to switch over to a different format before consumers can watch much of anything.
It's all dream-spinning: Our company is the one that'll come up with the next big thing. And the thousands of salespeople on the floor are there to convince you. At least until you promise them anonymity.
"If you don't know anything about anything, a lot of them will flat out lie to you," a Panasonic rep told me. We'd gotten to chatting after I asked him what exactly the difference was between a pair of screens behind him, besides labels that touted slightly different pixels and hertz. "It's kind of like magic, how they come up with their figures. Consumers, if they read a label on a TV, if it's a huge number, it's better to them. They just come up with a label that makes it look more impressive."
Those Ultra High Definition screens that make images seem more real than real? "People walk across the floor, and see a bright screen, and are drawn to it, like moths to a flame," the rep said. "Okay, that hurts your eyes, that burns your retinas." A plain old plasma screen was best, he confided.
And yet I fluttered toward shiny displays, too. By the end of Wednesday, I’d had my eye sockets palpated by a massage helmet, petted a therapeutic robot, been rejected from a CES “tailgate party” complete with cheerleaders and corndogs, interviewed the inventor of the Internet, sat in a car that could (almost) drive itself, danced on a 12-foot-wide computer keyboard, fallen off an electric skateboard, played with robotic legos, zoned out to coordinated drone flight shows and floor-to-ceiling 3D displays and one living diorama of a cartoonish mad scientist.
It’s enough to make anyone—a sales rep, or for that matter a journalist searching for actual news—start spinning half-remembered French theories about consumerism and simulacra and the end of meaning. Way more than Intel’s amped-up techno philosopher or Panasonic’s of-the-record hype-underminer, it was shaggy-haired Ryan who’d nailed it. CES is what a World’s Fair might look like if brands were more important than countries.
A few days earlier, I’d been sitting in a conference room in the Mandalay Bay, growing nervous as the seats around me filled with fellow scribes. Most of what the world will know about the Consumer Electronics Show happens before its doors officially open, because companies introducing new products meet the media ahead of time. And there are a lot of them to meet: Thousands of reporters and bloggers from sites like www.droid-life.com and www.zive.cz and Youmobile Inc., wearing more hoodies than suits, speaking Japanese and French and Spanish, lugging tablets, videocameras, laptops, and multiple different phones being tested at once.
In the days leading up to the show, many Tweeted pictures of everything in their gear bags; none of the Twitpics depicted paper notepads.
After the room filled up, the Consumer Electronics Association's chief economist hopped onto a dais. Welcome to the "post-smartphone era," he said, a "second digital decade" full of "digital omnivores" whose "second screens" are networked through "contextual connectivity."
The future of the actual show, though, went unspoken: Microsoft, which had anchored the show for 14 years, wasn't exhibiting; Apple had started its own conference decades ago. Could a royal court really matter all that much without its king and crown prince? Some significant journalists had announced they were skipping CES. But the ones in the Mandalay Bay—some of whom had received financial help from CEA to attend—seemed not to mind. A scuttle rose from tapping keyboards, as bloggers started cranking out their first posts of the conference. Write, insert image, add links, publish.
"I'm guessing this isn't your first CES," said the trim lady next to me, who worked for a digital advertising trade publication. It was. But apparently I'd been typing furiously enough to fool people.
When the presentation concluded, we stampeded to the first of several mixers where companies could feed journalists dinner and booze and sing to them about product. The open bar was to the left of the door—one of about four throughout the room, which also included a CES-branded ice luge turning out blue and yellow martinis, and tables piled with roasted vegetables, cocktail shrimp, hamburger sliders, and dainty cakes (in Las Vegas, the inhospitability of the outdoors is inversely matched only by the bounty and waste of a thousand buffets). Among the eye-catching displays: A fork that measures how much you eat and uploads the information to your smartphone. A radio that just alerts you when a tornado is coming. A Rasta-themed line of headphones repped by Rohan Marley, son of Bob.
Most of the media rushing to post news, however, were already hopelessly behind. A handful of publications had long tables of reporters there early thanks to some official relationship with CES. TheVerge.com was the show's "official technology news partner." TWICE magazine put out the "official CES show daily." AOL-owned Engadget was the "official online news source." CNET was readying the "official awards program of CES." By an hour into the event, they were already plotting the next day's game plan. "Are you coming with me to Toshiba?" a young guy in a gray polo shirt asked his circle of young guy colleagues. "Who's coming with me to Toshiba?"
The goal of the coverage, one female website staffer explained to me, was to get as many bits of news up as quickly as possible. I wondered aloud how many people out there on the Internet cared about receiving such scooplets in an immediate fashion. "That is the thing that is crazy to me," said the staffer, who asked not to be named. "But there are millions of them."
I returned the next morning for the official "media day," its schedule thick with overlapping company press conferences. But at 8:01, I was already late. LG had closed the doors of its event a minute earlier, leaving dozens of furious reporters outside. A company rep kept them out, saying the room was over capacity. "All will be available…" she began. "When it's over," a German journalist snapped. A flack for Bosch, a comparatively unbuzzy German electronics company, announced brightly that her press conference was just down the hall. A few reporters sulkily trailed after her.
The lousy thing about CES is that most things people care about require standing in line. The upside is that lines are one of the best places to talk to people who otherwise have their faces locked to a screen. Queuing early for the Panasonic press conference, I met an Iraq War veteran named Maxwell Ramsey who has an artificial leg and now works for the phone review site phonearena.com. He's a Nokia person. In the phone geek world, Ramsey explains, everyone's a partisan. "You want to start a fight?" he asks. "Yell 'ANDROID SUCKS!'" A few heads turned in our direction, but the looks were more pained than threatening.
We didn't get into Panasonic either, but by then it was almost time for lunch, so I wandered back to the press room, where you could watch all the press conferences streaming live. The line for boxed sandwiches and salads snaked around the walls. Every seat at every table was filled with people writing, uploading photos, editing video; people had started to alight on the floors, lending the room the air of a refugee camp. A couple of tan, sport-jacketed 40-somethings offered me a seat on their couch. Jeff Shulman and Marc Newman, who produce videos for many of the companies presenting at the conference, displayed the slightly self-hating affection for the show that's typical of CES regulars. I asked them how long they'd been coming.
"Too long," Newman answered.
"That's why he has all those gray hairs," his partner quipped.
"Yeah, I'm actually 15." That’s CES humor.
By afternoon, the public hallways were even more chaotic. Unsure of where to go, I added myself to the end of the nearest line, which was for Samsung—the most potentially newsworthy press conference of the day, an hour and fifteen minutes hence. The line already was supposed to fold in two places, but staff were failing to enforce it. A radio producer helpfully offered to tell the people queuing beyond the bend that they weren’t in line anymore. The Philadelphia Daily News' Jonathan Takiff, gobbling a salad on the ground just where the line turned around, looked up in panic, then slumped back down in relief when assured he could stay.
Not everybody had to wait: Samsung officials were waving some people in early. Takiff, who's been coming to the show since the 1980s, complained that the company had changed its PR agency, and he'd been bumped off somebody's list. "They don't care about print anymore," he shrugged. It’s not just the organizers who don’t care about it, either. The stacks of thick show programs, produced for the ad money, went almost entirely unused. Press kits now come on USB keys. Samsung went one further. "I'm here to take your business card and give you a Tech Tile," said a slight young man with a pencil thin beard, handing us plastic-wrapped blue bracelets with boxy insignia.
“Is this a thumb drive?" Takiff asked.
"No, it's a Tech Tile," Samsung guy said again, suggesting that we scan it with our phones—if we had a Samsung. "If not, we suggest you upgrade to a Galaxy," he said.
Finally, the line moved, and we filed into a darkened room with speckled lights and bouncy music. At 2:00 sharp, Samsung Electronics President Boo-Keun Yoon appeared onstage, framed by giant video-display images of happy white families looming on the video display behind him. He read grand proclamations off a teleprompter.
On consumers: "We aim to delight them!"
On the F8000 television: "Your TV is almost human."
On the ability to automatically upgrade the system: "After all, you can't always buy a new TV every year."
On a new laptop: "Bringing the 'wow' back to personal computing!"
As each new screen, camera, computer, or appliance emerged from the darkness, reporters surged forward to snap photos and video, as if it might be that one device that actually changes the world. After the press conference, they had at least decided that Samsung had won the day.
Much of the CES sales force is made up of company staff, who’ve flown in for the show. A good chunk of it, however, is employed for three days only. This latter group, it can safely be said, are hired more for their come-hither qualities than their knowledge of electronics. CES is only marginally less male dominated today than it was in the 1970s. Booth Babes ("brand ambassadors," in industry parlance) have been an integral part of the show for decades. Regulars had noticed a downturn in recent years, and criticism reached a crescendo in 2012, as the head of the CEA failed to even acknowledge that there might be something mildly distasteful and backwards about using women as props—especially for an industry ostensibly forging into the future.
This year, however, the babes were out in force. At the Chinese phonemaker ZTE, they wore white fur and flesh-colored heels over silver sheath dresses; one stood by the door of a tiny room, luring showgoers in to dance around in front of a green screen that demonstrated a new video technology. At xi3's booth, women in black catsuits and heavy eye makeup explained the virtues of their employer's compact servers over pounding hip-hop. Some of the babes aren’t even stationed at booths, instead roaming around in guerrilla bands promoting products.
If CES’s geeky male regulars are so inured to electronics promotions that they don’t crane their necks, it’s not apparent. "I need a t-shirt like that," leered one portly man to his companion upon spotting a troop of women, their midriffs-baring t-shirts emblazoned with #me on the front and a web service’s URL on the back. "I need what's in the t-shirt," his friend cracked back.
Sometimes, it's not the babes' job to talk at all. Two statuesque women in red gowns simply stood at the entrance to LG's show floor all day, their faces impassive. At SIGMA Photo, a model teetered on high pumps and gyrated, her long hair disheveled, as men took turns taking her picture with a giant camera. At Hyper, which sells well-designed battery chargers and external hard drives, I wondered what the four models wearing only g-strings and body paint thought about for hours on end, as people posed for pictures in front of them.
"We just zone out," said the orange-and-blue girl as she left the booth in sweatpants at the end of the day. "We're used to being looked at," explained her silver-painted companion.
It's a living. The ladies—and some men—list themselves with agencies or just on free sites like Craigslist or ModelMayhem.com, which lets prospective employers shop by waist and cup size and whether you're willing to pose nude. Trade shows pay between $20 and $50 an hour, they told me. CES has such demand that companies fly models in from California and further afield, putting them up at downmarket places like the Excalibur. "If money's no object, they want who they want," said one smokey-eyed platinum blonde from Indianapolis, who'd been told to wear "business attire" for her gig with a maker of protective gadget cases. "The Supertooth booth, over there, they hired the Fantasy Strippers."
By this point, I’d begun to think of CES like its own giant city. As the babes demonstrated, it had a big city’s fleshpots. But the show—whose population is bigger than that of most mid-sized cities—is oddly cosmopolitan in other ways. Right behind the gleaming megabooths, there are alleys full of small vendors hawking the same stuff you might find on Canal Street or in a Shanghai bazaar: iPhone cases, power strips, privacy protectors, and electronic cigarettes, from outfits with names like "International Supplies" and "Orient Enterprises." Black-robed Hasids staffed import-export audio-visual businesses.
And that was just the Convention Center. The Venetian hosted more floors full of businesses organized by country of origin. A goodly chunk of Shenzhen seemed to have set up shop in one section, where I spied a pair of proprietors slurping noodles from a hot pot they'd brought along. Here, on CES’ downmarket outskirts, there were no gawkers, no tech bloggers, and certainly no booth babes. Just buyers ranging up and down the aisles looking for a deal, swooping in to peer at a piece of gadgetry or to pick from one of the ubiquitous dishes of Asian candies.
I asked one sales lady, a woman in an oversized blue cable knit sweater named Yanbin Tong, how most people had gotten from their manufacturing towns to this festival of glitz. It's a business, she said: Agencies call up the small business owners and tell them of this once-a-year chance to crack the American market; local governments often foot the bill. "People are like huh, this is cool, and it's really big, let's go," Yanbin said. "People really go crazy."
If they're lucky, they'll meet a guy like Donald India, a kindly Chicago-based buyer who asked me to take an iPhone photo with a woman whose large LED screens he'd bought last year. They were just catching up. India makes regular trips to China and keeps in touch with the people he meets there, sometimes commissioning orders for clients as needed. "We sit down and drink tea," he says of a guy from Taiwan who he's known for ten years, even though he's not yet given any business. "They know that at some point, I'll come up with an idea, and ask them to make it."
The reason for so many small variations on the same product, India says, is that Beijing makes available the designs for various consumer items, which factories can then slightly modify for production. After that, it's all marketing. One accessory vendor, called "Yeah!," seemed to capture the spirit via a banner at the back of the booth: "'Yeah!' depicts a moment when a person finally found that particular, unique Apple accessory for his/her beloved iPad/iphone (or other related products) after searching through this immense sea of apple accessory market and that he/she is so excited and cheered loudly…'Yeah! This is it! It's great!'"
For some of the show's more shadowy corners, a native guide was essential. So I thanked my lucky stars to have met Angsuman Roy, who volunteered to show me around the high-end audio section, which was spread across on floors 29 through 36 of the Venetian hotel tower.
Roy works on a Defense Department contract looking after stockpiled nuclear weapons, but his passion is building analog hi-fi systems. When we reach the top floor, Roy turns into an empty hallway, takes off his gray "Press" badge—he'd been freelancing as the microphone guy for a Mexican tech video website—and pulls another out of his backpack, this one with "Roy Audio" under his name.
"We have very little sales," Roy says, satisfied with his transformation.
That turns out to be true of most people up on this floor. This is the luxury stratosphere, where vendors can get by on a few top-dollar sales a year. They don't want to waste time with the riffraff. In one room, we were confronted by a woman who told us they were operating on an appointment-only basis. We peered over her shoulder at a cooler of beer and wine. A man appeared behind her and referred us elsewhere for information. "It should be on our website," he said. "So."
We backed out. I wondered why they were so restrictive; Roy guessed that they might be guarding their clients' secrecy; specialized systems sometimes hid their components like some kind of secret recipe. On the other side of the hallway, a little sign on the ground read: "Meeting in Progress. Please visit us on Thursday between 1pm and 2pm for an open house."
After poking into a few rooms, we found one with a demonstration underway, and sank into deeply upholstered chairs. In front of us, two men on a couch were staring straight ahead at a set of tall, slim speakers. That one was an "entry level" system, Roy told me—about $29,000. The exhibitor then readied to show us the real deal, the kind of system that could cost $100,000. Voices are a good way to hear the different sounds in each one, he told us, wielding an iPad to call up something special.
"We hear voices all the time," he joked, waiting a beat before delivering the tired punch line. "Or at least, I know I hear voices all the time." More CES humor.
There was a moment of silence. And then, the sound of humming began, pressing into my ears; I could only think of a giant set of lips opening in the front of the room as the the voice slid into the a moist, deep rendition of "God Bless the Child." The voice was almost uncomfortably close, with flecks of spittle raining on my skull, and as I motioned to Roy we should move on, it felt like escaping a giant's maw into the cool, low-lit corridor.
Spend enough time as a stranger in a new city and you start to think that the best stuff is happening out of view. At CES, this means exclusive product demos. Oh, and the parties.
Not being on many velvet-rope invite lists, I got help from Shane Hamilton, managing principal of Republik Group, which puts on corporate bashes. On Wednesday morning, he's taking care of Red Touch Media's hangover breakfast at the Royal House, a shabby hotel one half-superblock away from the convention center. Make-your-own bloody marys, an oxygen bar, a doctor administering B12 shots ("Good for your sex cycle!"). For the ride back to the conference, we hop into a giant fire-engine-red stretch SUV with flames painted on the interior.
"Anything and everything," Hamilton responds gruffly, when I ask what kinds of requests he gets during CES. "Smurfs, Oompa Loompas, whatever they want." (Examples from other shindigs: For Samsung, it was women imprisoned in cupcakes and champagne; for ClearChannel, it was Ke$ha.) What he can offer depends on the price people are willing to pay, which runs to around $150,000 at the high end.
But it might not be worth it, for branding purposes. "Anything over $50,000, it's like a meatball," Hamilton says. "Gets lost in the sauce."
Lacking the patience to wait hours in front of clubs, I confined my evening outings to some of the more obscure events, like the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' engineering Emmy awards, held somewhere in the bowels of the Bellagio. The New York Times' David Pogue emceed, reassuring the nerds behind our ever-better television viewing experiences that they were just as important as the stars. "They got where they are through genetics!" Pogue cracked, before handing out gold statues for achievements like the invention of the multi-room DVR and the on-screen interactive program guide. "You got where you are through hard work, intelligence, and the scientific method! WIthout you, Megan Fox would be playing fiddler on the roof at some community theater!"
From there, I raced to the MGM Grand, where a younger set had packed a 17th-floor suite for a party thrown by a public relations agency repping a Kickstarter project called Instacube. Wedging myself next to a bar strewn with vodka bottles and empty Red Bull cans, I chatted with a bespectacled British journalist who was mystified by the apparent appeal of this dystopian metropolis. I tried to explain that CES and Vegas deserve each other: These places are the way they are because the answer is always yes, and no two things on earth appeal more strongly to our desires for entertainment, deception, and the overwhelming imperative of novelty.
And then it was time to cool down. If there's an antidote to the flash and the trash that makes up most of CES, it's in Eureka Park, the cute name for three Venetian rooms full of something that isn't supposed to exist: Hardware startups.
Hardware, the conventional wisdom goes, is expensive, which is why only large companies can launch new products. That's why most of the buzz in the tech world gravitates towards software startups, the mobile apps and social networks, which cost little to get off the ground. And yet the garage tinkerers of the world are still at it, and well away from CES’s brightest lights, hundreds of young companies and solo inventors had slotted themselves into the smallest booths at the show to pitch gadgets at potential investors. A portable mini-computer that plugs into docks at your home and office. A 3D-printed iPhone amplifier. A NASA-funded project to develop a computer mouse that could navigate a three-dimensional operating system, if someone would only build one. It was like the platonic ideal of a science fair, with new ideas that didn't need a cakey layer of spin.
My favorite product of the entire show was among the simplest: A clear, cylindrical beach ball–like lamp with flat solar-powered LEDs on one end and a reflective circle on the other that emitted a bright light in all directions. It could be deflated and stored for weeks without the charge running down, and had been made for African countries where Vegas' electric bonanza was a fever dream. The light had been on the market for three weeks, and already thousands were selling on Amazon.com every day. "We step in cow doo, I guess," chuckled Joseph Bunevacz, a jovial Hungarian grandfather, whose son runs the business. "I still don't know what we did right."
At the end of my last day, I walked over to The Verge's trailer on the vast parking lot in front of the convention center to find editor Josh Topolsky, whose two-year-old website had done some of the most thoughtful writing on tech culture (and frenetic wall-to-wall gadget reviews, too). After more than a week running his ship, Topolsky's thoughts dribbled out at undisciplined length, and he sounded surprised at how good he felt about a show that many had left for dead.
"Just like the world, most of the stuff is bad," he said, over an abandoned spread of cookies and cheese. "But I think there are cracks in the pavement, and there are flowers that bloom in the cracks, and if you're just seeing the sidewalk, you're missing the really important stuff…Haters are always, shit sucks, everything's over, life is boring, there's never anything new. And I feel like, you're bored because you don't know where to look."