All the Things I Saw at CES
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All the Things I Saw at CES

CES offers a portrait of a future that is already disintegrating, so move fast and try not to break too many things—and take lots of photos.
January 14, 2015, 2:50pm

In the afternoon on the last day of CES 2015, a woman I estimated to be in her 40's rushed up to me demanding to know the fastest way to the airport, and she was wearing two pairs of Google Glasses simultaneously, one perched on her nose, normally, the other sitting on top of the first. I quickly deduced this was a completely un-ironic move; her anxious demeanor told me she was quite serious.

I told her how about the taxi situation and that if she shared a cab she could gain access to the front of the taxi line, thanks to a service I was there to help run called ​Bandwagon. But she shook her head no: I don't have time for that. I began pointing her to the shuttle buses, and she nodded and rushed off before I could finish giving her directions. (I was surprised not to see her zip away on ​one of those HoverTrax things, a Segway without a handlebar that I saw whisking a handful of dudes around like demigods, and which is the closest thing I've seen to a real-life hoverboard.)

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This woman, running around like a human with its head cut off, looked like the logical conclusion to a life overrun by technology, perpetually out of time and lagging behind in a race to see and have and do it all. A tech show, like a technology conference, can be a micro version of that kind of life, and she was a sign of the exhaustion that it produces. Why was she wearing two Google Glasses? A friend speculated that it was because another person had, in a fit, frantically deposited theirs on her face: here, you take them! I wondered when she would throw them off herself. And I wished someone had slapped a pair on me, in part because that's the kind of irrational desire you get when surrounded by people surrounded by gadgets, and in part so that I could have snapped a picture of this tiny miracle.

​The hordes of technologists and executives came to Vegas again—this time there were ​a record-beating 160,000-plus attendees, a quarter of whom came from overseas—to show off and survey and suss out many miraculous sights, and to sip coffee or brandy out of branded mugs, to the incessant drumbeat of consumer technology. It's not hard to hear the beat as it comes out of all kinds of speakers, installed in cars (still America's biggest technology, you're reminded, here as everywhere), embedded in ping pong tables, sunken in water, magnetically attached to windows. One of the coolest things I saw / heard was the ​Bass Egg, a paperweight-sized object that sticks onto almost anything and, provided that thing can vibrate, turn it into a speaker. The $99 device "gives users the power to turn everything into a speaker," they say, and this seemed appropriate, not just because CES is partly a game of who can make the most noise but because a recurring motif at the show lately—and the message of the Internet of Things—is, you now have the power to turn everything into "technology."

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Listen to the sound of CES, as recorded by Motherboard editor in chief Derek Mead:

CES used to be a trade show for computers and electronics. Now it's a show for everything. (It's official name is "International CES"; the old "Consumer Electronics Show" moniker is now off-limits.) And because anyone can be interested in this stuff, the market is huge. But not all of this stuff will make it to market, and by the time the rest of it does, it may well be obsolete, replaced by next year's stuff. And so, way out in the desert, in the virtual reality of Las Vegas, there's a mirage-like quality to all of these gadgets: they don't exactly exist yet, and soon they'll be dead. Some of the stuff you see at CES is only marginal innovation—or new variations on the same theme, beaten to death: that is to say, it's not really that new. (There is so much stuff it's hard to know what's new: that awesome new Bass Egg speaker wasn't new—it debuted at last year's CES.) And some of the stuff you see at CES is really new, a sign of what's to come, part of a process that will ​render much of that very same stuff quaint by the time the next CES rolls around. This is stuff that's designed for "needs" we haven't totally imagined yet; it's stuff often designed not to last very long but to be replaced and to keep us wanting more of it.

Here is a smart watch Samsung debuted in 1999—the SPH-WP10:

Making this stuff is one challenge—that's the "electronics"; how to get us to keep spending money for it is another—that's the "consumer" part. The technology is starting to do this work itself, which explains why the connected home or the connected car or ​the connected garden or ​the connected pet or ​the connected sex toy, however fantastical they still may be, are so celebrated at CES. There is a meta mission to all of this connected stuff, the Internet of Things: the more our things know about us, the better they can serve us—​and the better they can sell us more things. A smart toaster could know when it's reaching the end of its life, and then a web ad could offer you a coupon for a new toaster. (As one woman who works for a home data analytics company told me during the long wait for a taxi, the future of ads is going to be "less annoying, more tailored and more creepy.")

CES is a chance to see the inside of the technology stratosphere, from the suits who make the deals to the engineers who build it to the young fresh-faced booth workers who demonstrate how it all works. For all the smart, so much is still quite dumb. But sometimes the dumb stuff is really cool, you can't help think. You missed the creepy robot lady but you got your screen protected by a piece of patented plastic. You got to pet R2D2. You can't possibly take all of it in, much less process it; in desperation or in delirium, you may even be tempted to wear two pairs of computer glasses.

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Or you could take lots of photos with your phone, like I did.

I love any place with a pyramid. This one is called the Luxor.

The lengthening afternoon taxi lines at the airport required a panorama.

Welcome to infinite possibilities.

Not everything at CES is going to blow your mind. You may even get bored.

This car is less boring if for no other reason than the momentary question it raises: what is "The Leader in Motorsports Entertainment" doing at CES? You could also ask the reverse question: What is it not doing?

Next to the curved TVs in the LG display were a model and a security guard, who by this point in the convention seemed to be wearing the look of delirium.

Shaq, who wore a Superman shirt and was there to promote something, walked right past the karaoke booth.

The "booth" for Chinese TV maker Changhong appeared to be modeled after the entrance to the Forbidden City, because why not.

An Intel representative showed off a computer that can scan a 3D object in under a minute and then render that on the touch-screen surface of the scanning bed, where the virtual object can then be manipulated. At another booth nearby, there was an actual magician doing card tricks; he drew a slightly bigger crowd.

A car that knows where you're looking…

…and a kegerator that knows what you're drinking. The woman with an Intel badge informed me that the iKeg allows vendors to track consumption patterns and help bartenders boost sales, for instance by telling them which combinations of beers will sell best next to one another, or what beers are trending in the neighborhood. It's now in use in about 60 locations nationally.

Back to the future. (Yes, that's a monorail in the background.)

People were crowding around the other self-driving cars more, but I liked Shelly mainly because she didn't hide her sensors and she had racing stripes.

This is not a pile of lawnmowers—it's a pile of Segway alternatives, sold by a company called GreenTransporter.com.

For when a Segway isn't enough like a car.

Note that the patents, not the car, is the focus here.

Cars that park themselves was also a theme at CES.

I'm not exactly sure what's being asked here so I can't tell exactly why this was in the press room.

Backstage.

The mythical Westgate—the deep end of CES where the convention's most obscure foreign companies tend to set up shop (and go largely unseen).

Engineer 1: "This is the taxi line?"
Engineer 2: [Long pause.] "This is the taxi line."

The Bladerunneresque view from a Mandalay Bay suite.

The great pyramid of Visa in the daylight.

On the top of the Mandalay Bay convention center, the largest solar rooftop I've ever seen. (There's now ​a robot for cleaning such a thing, too.)

Inside, the largest tower of wine I've ever seen.

Believe.

The CES Pasterna(c)k delegation. Shawn works for ​Tylt, a company that makes smartphone accessories.

A person doing yoga in the middle of the convention floor.

Here come the drones.

A halfpipe because…how else are you going to do skate tricks inside the convention center?

Beam, which makes telepresence robots, set up a field of them, each with the face of a distant host, and many people tried to avoid them.

At the Belkin booth, technicians were cleaning and slapping protective screens on people's most prized gadgets. The company was marketing a new device that makes it easy for cell phone merchants to do this at their stores.

IEEE asked attendees to speculate about what the future will look like.

To show off its connected fitness headphones, Parrot constructed a hamster wheel that models could run inside.

The idea here, I think, is to be able to look at a recipe on your iPad while chopping onions.

I thought the tagline could be, Backpacks For People Who Get Beat Up A Lot.

Not sure what this was, but it did not seem to be FDA-approved.

Near the rear of one of the main convention halls.

Way in the back.

Computer-controlled filing cabinets for when data gets big.

At last, some old stuff.

While I was at the North taxi line, this guy just rolled up. I followed him to the edge of the convention center grounds, where he got stuck on a slab of pavement. I helped him over it and patted him on his way, and he chirped something at me.

All we wanted were some taxis but we ended up in this party van instead, complete with a stripper pole and railings on the ceiling that warned us not to hang from them.

CES can really weigh on a battery, which is a reminder of that relatively new class of gadget: the portable battery pack. Another reminder: the hundreds of booths at CES devoted to variations on this theme. This one, by a Japanese company called Cheero and designed by the makers of a popular manga character called Danbo, was the most interesting one. That's if you're not counting another thing I saw in a corner of the show: ​the prototype XXO, a leather belt with a battery built in (my phone was dead at that point so I couldn't take a picture).

A ping pong table with a speaker built in.

Over in the Westgate section of the convention, this company—one of hundreds whose name began with the word "Shenzhen"—was selling fake Apple Watches. By the time I showed up on Friday however, the booth had been deserted. Empty "Smart Watch" boxes lay strewn about.

This most generic CES booth laid out the case in the clearest terms I saw all week.

The Shenzhen Eternal Technology Co. makes vaporizers, some of them apparently in the shape of hand grenades.

The remnants of a Chinese battery company's booth.

Later that night, I found it like a hidden treasure: a slot machine game called "Dogs."

Even the magic shop at the hotel seemed to be in a CES mood.

On the way out of town, one last chance to ReCharge. Instead I slept the entire flight home.

One more pass by the strip.

Squint and any city from above at night can look like a computer chip. The great lights and the straight lines and the flatland of Vegas makes the effect all the more dramatic, and makes you wonder if any of it was even real.