Jan. 11 2016 05:06 PM

The annual Las Vegas show was cramped and underwhelming

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Tech toys at CES
Photo by Tom Siebert

I write this desperate missive from the front passenger seat of a ridiculously plush oversized rental SUV, trapped in stagnant bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 10th floor of the Venetian Hotel and Casino parking garage in Las Vegas.

This might not be hell itself, but it feels like you may be able to see it from here, the absolute absurdist core of the madness of the Consumer Electronics Show. CES is the technology industry's annual showcase of the latest gadgets, gizmos and innovative leisure and entertainment devices (and distractions) which will be dropped on the public in the year to come.

Somewhere between 175,000 and 200,000 people arrive in Sin City for CES to sell, schmooze, spin and, well, sin. The hotels are filled, many of the restaurants and bars are booked for private events, Uber and Lyft make a killing with surge pricing up to six times the normal fee from people who don't want to be trapped in a parking garage for a couple hours.

CES is one of the many tech/marketing/entertainment wannabe-zeitgeist events that used to be cool but got too big for its own good—and then got bigger. Like South by Southwest and Comic-Con and a bunch of other larger-than-life conferences, it's turned into a swinging schmoozefest of exclusive parties, strategic PR executions and networking and deal-making, where actual news is scant and the rush and tussle of frenzied movement—both literal and social—signifies...what? It depends on who you ask.

This year's CES is getting raves from the usual tech industry cheerleaders and stenographers, but the most perceptive thing I've read came from The New York Times' technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who made the salient point that CES is increasingly a bottleneck of similar products in much hyped categories—Virtual Reality! The Smart Home! Wearables! Drones!—that feel like early versions of something much better that's not here yet.

Best/worst case example is the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, which I touted in these very pages last summer after seeing it (and other VR devices) all over the place at Comic-Con. I predicted we'd all have one in our homes by end of 2016. Now I take that back; until this year's CES, we'd been hearing that a VR headset will run you about $300. At CES 2016, we learned it's going to cost more like twice that, which will reduce the potential marketplace by more than half.

"Everything is taking longer to hit the mainstream than I think everybody expected," says Jake Dorn, senior vice president, global business director at Ipsos in San Marcos. "In 2013 Oculus Rift was named top new tech at CES, and this year we're finally seeing a headset you can buy."

Virtual reality, when it hits, Dorn says, will likely be "hugely impactful, [but] there's also the chance it could be [technology's] version of Dippin' Dots ice cream—the future that never quite gets here and remains on the fringe."

I'm still betting on VR—the implications for video gaming and porn alone seem to make it a no-brainer—but the price has got to drop to around the levels first promised.

The continuing clunker I see is the wearables category, at least the high-profile stuff that seems to be trying to move humanity in ways it doesn't want to go. Despite the hundreds of thousands of geeks and elites here for CES, I saw very few Apple watches, for example; it's dangerously close to becoming the next Google Glass (though nobody's come up with a devastatingly demeaning denominator like "Glasshole" yet, to finish it off).

Like Google Glass—which asked people to supplement their appearance with a category product they would get eye laser surgery to avoid—Apple Watch and other smart watches are asking people to re-embrace a fashion wearable that has been made obsolete by their smart phone.

Why do we want another device to carry around, since they all need to be connected to your phone anyway to work properly? I don't want one, and nearly nobody else I talked with wanted one, either. It's tech for the sake of tech (and status) only, when the very demographic it's targeting is telling every pollster they want to simplify their lives.

My least favorite macro-trend is the drone. There are lots of social media comments from immediate gratification consumerist types extolling the virtues of getting the product they want delivered by air ASAP, but it's an aerial eyesore to me. I'm also suspect of the normalization of drones in our daily lives when their most critical use currently seems to be the mass murder of innocents. I'm not quite to the point where I'll say a drone is a tool in the same way a gun is a tool, but let's see how long it takes before the Feds are whacking people in this country.

I'm a bit warmer to the "smart home"—a thermostat that knows when your car is ten miles away, to begin heating the house; a savvy refrigerator that orders more milk when you get low—which has its benefits. But I've little doubt the information shared via our smart house will be collected and filed and used for...who knows? The smart house will likely never be smart enough to tell us.

As for my luxurious SUV prison, I finally gave up. After not moving for a half hour, feeling like a lemming in a cushy metal box, the decision was made to think outside it. The vehicle was re-parked and abandoned, and a car service took me back to my rental home. A less-than $20 car ride on Monday was $100 on Thursday. Almost makes a drone sound good.

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