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Tuesday
Jan152013

Looking Back on CES

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at CES. I was honored to be included in the MacTech Insight track, where I co-presented a session called "The Cloud, Apple Style" with Andy Espo. All things considered, the presentation went very well (I'll post a link to the slides when they become available), and I had a good time--despite the exhaustion. Most importantly, I didn't get sick.

It was my first time at CES, and given all the bad press the conference has received this year, I thought I'd briefly write up my impressions.

It's Not Your Conference

No matter who you are, no matter how broad your interests lie, large parts of the conference will simply not be for you. In part, this is a symptom of the number of products covered at CES. For example, I spent twenty minutes wandering past displays of different car audio systems, before I decided that I just didn't give a crap. Same thing with all the photography equipment. Don't get me wrong. I like photography (which is more than I can say for cars). I used to develop my own black and white film. But, for a long time now, my camera of choice has been my phone. I just don't know enough to even be impressed.

But it's not just about the subject matter, it's also about the intended audience. A large number of people come to CES for a wide range of reasons. Much of the real action happens out of sight. It is probably the only time you get so many component manufacturers, distributors, buyers, company executives, press and more all in one spot. This means, much of what you see won't make sense, because it's not aimed at you. For example, I was walking along a row of iPhone cases, when I stumbled across a booth displaying cables. All kinds of cables. Some 1.5 inches in diameter. Others tiny. Undoubtedly, someone at the convention was looking for a good cable manufacturer--but to me, it just seemed somewhat odd.

There is also another, more frustrating side to this. I kept an eye on the news coming out of CES, in a misguided attempt to see everything. I soon discovered that many of the products described in the tech press were simply not available to the public. You could not see them (much less touch them) unless you had an invitation.

Our Unevenly Distributed Future

Let's just say, with that many companies displaying their products, you're bound to find a wide range of build qualities and technical achievement. But, sometimes it was just sad. When walking through the health tech area, I would often see one booth with giant fist-sized health monitoring equipment--most built with a vintage 90's aesthetic. Then, just two booths down, I'd find the same exact tool, only a newer, slicker version that could connect with my smart phone or tablet. Something that could display stunning visualizations of the data it collected. 

And it wasn't just the health sector--it was everywhere. At first I thought it was funny, but I soon felt sad for the growing number of gadgets that had clearly been left behind.

Duplicates and Derivatives Everywhere

As you walk around, you see the same thing over and over again. Everyone had their 4K TV (or Ultra HD, as the kids say). There were hundreds of iPhone case makers. And everyone's getting into the smart watch game. The sad thing is, there's a lot more duplication and copying than innovation--and that can become tiresome.

I was particularly interested in both the quantified self/health tracker market, so I spent a good deal of time walking through that part of the show floor and talking to people. If you want a low-power bluetooth heart rate strap, or a fitbit-like tracker, you have a large number of options. Even Withings slick new Smart Activity Tracker is really just a fitbit knockoff. Say what you like about the Happi fork, but at least they are building something unique.

There were even 3 different 3D printer manufacturers at the show--or at least, three that I found. And that's a technology that's barely out of the garage.

Technologies not Products

Surprisingly, some of my favorite booths weren't about products, but technologies. Some of these were startups filled with bright-eyed, eager employees, showing off demos of their baby. Others were established technology companies, come to strut their stuff.  For example, Murata's self-balancing, bicycling robot was never intended to be a product--but as a demo of their components, it was both impressive and fun.

On the other extreme, one of my favorite demos was the Tobii Gaze. They used eye tracking to let me control the mouse, scrolling and zoom points just by glancing around the screen. I'll try to write more about it (and the other cool things that I saw), but suffice it to say, I was blown away by both the utility and the accuracy. We may not have built-in gaze tracking in any of devices this year. Probably not for a couple of years. But, if what I saw was any indication, a whole slew of alternate input technologies are on their way.

%#&$ Gagnam Style

The first time I saw a robot dancing to Psy's Gagnam Style, I thought it was clever and funny. The fifth time, I was ready to break the little droid's scrawny, plastic neck. I guess this is just another example of duplication. If only one company had thought of it, it would have been a great idea. Unfortunately, everyone had the same "great idea."

But Wait, There's More

No matter how far I walked, or how many booths I visited, I always felt like I was missing something. And there's a good reason for that. I was missing things--a lot of things. 

It's hard to really understand how big the convention is. It's too big to fit in one venue. Every time I thought I had a handle on it, I discovered that there was more. Another floor that I hadn't known about. Another venue, sometimes up to a mile away from the convention center. And even the areas that I walked through several times, each time I passed through, I found something new. Something that I had glazed over on all my earlier trips.

You cannot possibly see it all. It is literally unbelievable. The mind simply cannot hold all of CES. And you probably shouldn't even try. Pick the things you're interested in, and make sure you see those. Save some time for exploring--you never know what you'll find. And compare notes at the end of the day--both with your friends and with the numerous blogs and news outlets covering the event. They'll give you a whole new list of must-see items for the next day.

I am very glad that I had a chance to go to CES. Would I go again? If I'm offered another chance to speak, definitely. But, would I go just to see all the glorious gadgets--I'm not so sure. My time and money would undoubtedly be better off spent going to one of the many iOS Developers conferences. They're more directly related to my day-to-day work. On the other hand, if I was doing pure tech journalism, you wouldn't be able to keep me away.