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Searching For The Real CES [2014]

I was at this show in 1997. DVD technology had been announced the year before and dual-layer movies had started to gain traction. I was at CES to demo a multimedia computer I helped develop [1] that would ultimately morph into something like the Apple TV product of today. If you’re interested in technology news, the Internet is full of articles that summarize what was at CES this year, and what kinds of trends to watch. My perspective is that this coverage leans to a different slant – more than the products themselves. I think people want to know about more than just hype and flashy products. 17 years later in Las Vegas, I wanted to find the real CES.

This year, the ominous fear of illness seemed to lurk under the surface of every interaction. This is par for the course when you’re in long lines and close quarters for hours in the dead of winter. Often, I would be told “I can’t shake hands with you”, and I obliged. More than anything I found; People who stand and talk for hours at a time we’re happy for some basic human contact beyond “What’s this?”.

There were indications of exclusivity everywhere; from tented booths to hidden hotel meeting rooms. This, of course, ends up bleeding into us common folk. As I wandered past (and into) the Marshall [2] booth, I rubbed elbows with Vince Neil and was offered free beer. You sense, at any given time, that if you’re in the right place and know the right people – this day unfolds much differently. I wasn’t here for this, so I kept moving.

There are countless stories this year of CES being a show that heralded few new advancements and fewer products of interest. The biggest companies in the world did seem strikingly absent; Microsoft, Apple and Dell seemed to be ghosts at the show. I even joked with a colleague at the show when we passed a lone logo-adorned desk hidden in the basement of the Venetian hotel: “That’s all Microsoft could muster this time around”.

As much as this show seems to be about glitz and parties, underneath it all, there’s an air of business. Looking at random booths, you’ll see businessmen trying to get an idea of the product’s worthiness for sale “Is this on the market?”,  “Are you shipping to X country?”, “How many units can you ship?”, are all questions overheard while passing through the lesser-known sections of CES. I feel like many avoid these corners of the show, where gems are found, but not easily.

This is perhaps what the real CES is: A massive representation of commerce where businesses meet halfway. The cacophony of crates out back of each hotel gives away this mad rush to get products in front of anyone who might buy or promote them. Calwell is, perhaps, the prime target for those folks – albeit, my twist on business leans closer to journalism.

As I often do in environments like this, I wanted to learn from the people this affects the most. Good fortune led me to someone who lived and worked in finance at a casino very close to the CES hubbub. On request, I endeavor to divulge no personal information here. I toured the casino and discussed the effect this had on someone who lives and works in Las Vegas every day.

Is this the biggest thing that happens in Vegas every year?
“Yes, absolutely”.

How has this affected you?
“Since we work in another building (not the casino), the company brings us back here to eat lunch [for free]. With CES in town, and the roads so busy, they had to send us prepared sandwiches. Why didn’t I bring a bag of lunch today!?”.

How do you feel about this mass of people descending on the city?
“I like it. January is a very busy time for us, though there are still empty tables”

As I walked through the casino, it was difficult for me to tell whether this was just another day here (or super busy). I felt as if the show and entertainment that came with CES directly lead to a sizable portion of the people in front of me. Parties were everywhere. The clubs were advertised on and off the show floor. and clearly, there was a sense that some were here just to be at parties.

Hidden to many it seemed, was this sense that real people went about their lives. I met a man walking down the street who asked me for money. I gave him some and we chatted while I walk towards my hotel[3]. Amongst all of the sanitized glitz of the Vegas strip, I wondered out loud, where were the locals?

“The people are everywhere, man. In the suburbs, and downtown. See that street (pointing past the well-known Stratosphere landmark) downtown is passed that. Don’t go there, it’s dangerous. That’s where all this started, but they put it out here now – I don’t know why”

This the dichotomy of  Las Vegas and CES. A real bustling center for future technology and commerce in a city known for a vapid and shallow existence.  Perhaps one compliments the other, making Vegas the perfect place for a post-holiday, technology-hungry businessperson to be. Clearly, Vegas and CES haven’t changed much since that January in 1997. This is still a madhouse. The lines are still long, and this trip was more than worthwhile.

1. Marshall amplifiers, they were located at South Hall 1, Booth 21718
2. The PC Cinema for TigerDirect (and eventually Systemax) is still a thing, apparently
3. I stayed at Circus Circus. I had no problems with the rooms and service.