A Trade Show The Size of a Town

Each January, the Consumer Electronics Show comes to Las Vegas, bringing a couple hundred thousand visitors and sending hotel prices through the roof. I decided to see what all the fuss is about.

ces2016

CES is so big that, for 2016, it was spread across three locations. The two important ones were at the Convention Center and the Venetian. (A third location, at Aria, was devoted to advertising and marketing, and ain’t no one care about that crap.)

A lot of people go to this thing. On the first day, I decided the best approach was to get on the monorail at MGM Grand, the furthest station from the Convention Center. So, alas, did a lot of other folks. The line just to get into the monorail station was a half-hour long. MGM turned out to have one advantage, though: it’s the first stop for the monorail, so when our turn came we loaded, like cattle, into empty cars. People at the intermediate stations had to find a way to pile into cars that were already elbow-to-elbow.

Once I got to the Convention Center, it wasn’t the crowd that was overwhelming, though: it was the sheer size of the show. It’s so big that we got a special app on our phones with maps of the floor that let us GPS-navigate the show—and I needed it quite a few times.

Will you buy a new TV this time?

Television manufacturers are once again trying to get us all to buy new TVs. They succeeded in doing that with the whole HDTV thing—then, just a couple years later, they tried it again with 3D, and exactly zero people cared about that gimmicky nonsense. They’re not giving up after that spectacular failure, though; they’re getting right back on the horse with 4K “ultra-HD” televisions that we simply must have.

4k TV
Transparent TV

Some of them are as thin as a pane of glass—and transparent when turned off. Some of them are curved, for some reason; I’m not sure why I’d want that. Some of them are really, really big. None of this is compelling. But, I’ve got to be honest: Mad Max: Fury Road looks better on a 4K TV than it looked in the theater. Once there’s enough 4K video to watch (which there isn’t, yet) this might actually be interesting.

Fury Road in 4k

Come With Me If You Want To Live

Just a couple years ago, DJI was the consumer-level drone company. Now there’s a giant drone section at CES, with dozens of companies showing off a bewildering array of flying robots. From the looks of it, in a couple years not having a drone will be like not having a smartphone this year.

DJI Phantom
drone
drone
drone
drones

There were drones with ever-better cameras; larger drones that can carry a full-sized DSLR; and smaller drones that are basically toys. There were drones with wings and drones on wheels, and an underwater drone. One drone had ultrasonic proximity sensors so they can avoid collisions. DJI’s new models claim a 3.1-mile range for live video transmission back to the controller.

winged drone
Winged drone
underwater drone
Underwater drone
wheeled drone
Wheeled drone
drone
drone
drones

The FAA was on hand, too, telling people about the new drone registration requirement. You have to put your registration number on your drone now, so they’ll know who to blame if your drone causes mayhem.

Speaking of robots, self-driving cars are were big at CES as well. Many companies had simulators, where you could sit in the “driver’s seat” of a fake car with a big video screen showing the road ahead, demonstrating the car’s ability to avoid collisions, change lanes, route around a city, and so on. Toyota had a demonstration with half a dozen miniature cars driving themselves around a course.

self-driving car simulator
mini-self-driving cars

Several manufacturers had electric cars on the floor. Some electric cars are ugly. Some aren't.

ugly electric car
ugly electric car
electric mercedes

Virtual reality was making inroads, but it doesn’t seem to be “there” just yet. The line to try the Samsung Gear VR was quite long, but the product hasn’t yet lived up to the promise. The resolution isn’t good enough to fool your eyes; you’re never not just watching a video, and the field of view is so narrow that you’re basically watching it through a toilet paper tube.

The Oculus one is better. One booth even had a full-immersion demo where you strap into a contraption that lets you walk around the virtual environment, turning your body, running, and trying to shoot things. It’s still not the kind of immersion I want for a VR Grand Theft Auto, but it’s slowly getting there.

Samsung Gear VR
VR game

Missing But Not Forgotten

Apple doesn’t do CES, but its influence was everywhere. iPhone accessories were hawked by the thousand, and everyone had products that worked with or are controlled by iOS devices.

And then there were the ripoffs. This year, the new Macbook was a popular target, company after company showing nearly-exact copies of the small notebook computer. Lenovo even went so far as to exactly copy Apple’s marketing material. Chinese companies showed tablets that looked almost exactly like iPads.

Flir
Thermal infrared for your iPhone
Samsung smart watches
Samsung smart watches

Samsung’s new smart-TV interface looks so similar to the new Apple TV that from a distance you’d think they had Apple’s box plugged into their demo set. They also showed off their smart watches, which I’m told existed before the Apple Watch, though, so I guess we can blame Samsung for that useless product category after all.

The Ghetto

Each hall had a “ghetto” of sorts, where myriad Chinese companies with small booths showed off cheap versions of familiar products. This year’s big target was the so-called “Hoverboard” (a dumb name, as it doesn’t actually hover). I couldn’t begin to count the booths selling knockoffs of these things. So numerous are the copies—and so cheap, and cheaply made—that the guy who invented the thing has apparently not made much money from it despite the cheap ones bursting into flames and so forth.

One Chinese knockoff, of a powered skateboard similar to the “hoverboards” but with one central wheel, was a bit too close to the product it copied. The US Marshals showed up, confiscated everything, and left the bewildered Chinese employees sitting in an empty booth wondering what to do next.

hoverboard knockoffs
hoverboard knockoffs
hoverboard knockoffs

Mini-Me

These folks had a giant 3D scanner that scans you, then they create a little 3D-printed you. I didn’t do it. Ain’t no one want a model of me.

Person Scanner
3D-printed people

But Why?

Remember that episode of Community where prison inmates attended classes via these absurd video screens on wheels? Unfortunately, these absurd contraptions are real. The person remotely controls the contraption, you see him on the screen, and he sees you through the camera. So, at a remote location, you can wheel this thing around and see what it sees. Why anyone would want that, I’m sure I don’t know.

contraption

Smart Refrigerator

smart refrigerator
I’ve never wanted my refrigerator to tell me the weather. I still don’t.

Most Unexpected Product of the Show

Kodak's new camera
Kodak announced a new Super-8 movie camera. Yes, that’s Super-8 film.

Put Your Lips Together...

breath tester
A breathalizer for your iPhone. That’s nothing new, but this one works over Bluetooth and is supposed to be pretty good, or something.

Second Language?

fitness tricker
These nice folks have a “Bluetooth fitness tricker.”

Don’t Try This At Home

Nikon D5 sawed in half
A Nikon D5, sawed in half.

My Aching Feet

According to my phone, I walked twenty-two miles while at CES. It was big, and it took three days to see everything I wanted to see. The food was overpriced, and even at the Venetian location, where you could easily exit to the casino restaurants, the restaurants were so crowded it was difficult to find someplace decent to eat without a half-hour wait. Still, the sheer scope of the thing has to be seen to be believed.

Gaming