Does CES, that enormous, relentlessly covered tech showpiece that pops up in the Vegas desert every January, really mean anything any more to the average tech lover on the street other than a year’s worth of second-tier tech stories to swamp the world in three days? It's only a partly rhetorical question. I mean, how many things have you seen at CES this year that had you genuinely clamouring to buy them, rather than just going, "Oooh look at that"? We tried and actually struggled. Have you even been following CES? Our comparative site stats breakdown suggests: not particularly.
It's understandable. We live in a world with conferences and crowd-funded brain waves coming out of our ears, and CES and its wares are now just more on the pile, peddling the same ideas and competing for the same slices of conversation. "Events" remains a growth area in a sea of declining markets, with people queuing up to pay to be told how to be better, what to buy, what’s important and how to make some kind of informed decision on something amidst all that modern noise.
So it follows that tech is now swimming in shows, summits, and expos with ever-evolving acronyms and newer, shinier approaches, be it MWC, IFA, E3, GSL, WTS, GDC, TGS… WTF. CES is no longer the go-to guy, the "biggest tech show on earth", it's just another signpost on tech companies' overflowing calendar of opportunity to be more targeted.
“But CES isn’t really for the public, it’s for developers/investors/business types.” This is certainly true – it's actually a business-to-business meeting place, not that you'd know it by the "This year's greatest tech!" news reporting largely on technology that won't be in most people's hands for ages. Indeed, there were 871 tech companies from China alone this year, up 34 per cent in two years, which is representative of the major leaps the country’s innovative brands are making on tech’s world stage, from Lenovo to Huawei. It's still huge for the pressing of skin. Yet the latter firm is already at a point where its major consumer news of the year – an entirely new Honor sub-brand – was saved for its own shindig.
Big brands are generally too busy swigging champers in their own private clubs to bring anything more than Lambrini to the shared house parties. Conscientious objector Apple’s standalone events in spring and autumn have become the stuff of legend, but everyone does it nowadays: BlackBerry long had its own thing going on, then Samsung and HTC both started revealing their flagships in their own sweet time at exciting-sounding, specifically hash-tagged centrepieces, while both the PS4 and Xbox One were launched at their own carefully curated shindigs. All the new CES Rift VR hands-ons are peppered with “new” info revealed at Oculus’s own Connect event last year.
Now look at the stuff that was once announced at CES – the laser disc, the camcorder, the video recorder, the CD player, satellite dishes, HD TV, the Xbox. Yet since Blu-ray arrived to whack HD-DVD in the face in 2003, it appears to have almost become a TV conference, with the headline announcements just incremental improvements on the big screens in our living rooms that are statistically becoming used less and less. OLED TVs, 3D TVs, 3D OLED TVs, Connected TVs, Ultra HDTVs, flexible OLED TVs, webOS Smart TVs, Firefox OS TVs, Android TVs. This year? Flexible 4K Android OLED TVs. Full house!
There’s lots of reasons for this, of course. Not least that in the smartphone-powered era, the number of viable tech categories is dwindling, while everything becomes a connection to, or an extension of, the tech you already have in your pocket. Tech is now a software and accessories business more than a strictly hardware one. It’s no surprise that ‘The Internet of Things’ was the other big headliner this year, yet that term was coined back in 1999 and I'm pretty sure it was the Next Big Thing last year, too. And the one before. Yet still I don't know anyone who has a smart lock on their door.
Motoring is another area that still dominates CES, but there’s a new car exhibition or conference seemingly every month for the rest of the year, too – Autosport International at the Birmingham NEC right now, for one – and we’ve been offered varying slices of self-driving glimpses for the past decade. The actual in-car tech in the cars most people drive has changed very little, due to infrastructural changes that need to happen, too.
Everything is very slight evolutions, it seems, a sign of the technological time where big R&D money is increasingly risk-averse, tech stories leak constantly through Twitter so no longer feel like reveals and small start-ups are doing all the interesting stuff before they inevitably get swallowed up by a big gun, and then repeat the cycle. It certainly doesn’t feel like any one event can be a spotlight on our collective future that it once was.
All this can conspire to make CES seem, through a harsh light, a bit of a dumping ground for stuff that isn’t considered good enough to prop up its own show, things that may, by all likelihood, never make it to market and, if we’re lucky, cool concepts that may, one day, evolve into something we may eventually buy. There’s no G4 from LG, but there is a washing machine within another washing machine. Which is actually really cool – but highlights the real remaining consumer use of CES: ogling the oddities.
The sublimely ridiculous has always been one of the event’s biggest draws, a kind of surrogate Tomorrow's World – lest we forget Mattel unveiled the Nintendo Power Glove there – yet at a time when Kickstarter and Indiegogo facilitate the most incredibly exciting and ridiculously unlikely of tech ideas pleading to find an audience every single day, even this has had its effect dulled.
Indeed, some things just seem odd about CES in 2015, when the likes of crowd-funding platforms have made innovations and tech development democratic and Apple will announce a product and have it on sale the next week to everyone, not just specialist tech fans. That Petcube has been heralded as revelatory a full year after we all first wrote about it and the whopping great Ring gesture-control wearable thing was a Kickstarter that smashed its goal – reaping $880k off a $150k request – but delivered a product that disappointed on pretty much every front. But there it was at CES, showing off its evolving product to the press and potential investors once more.
As one Giz commenter noted: “They're very brave having a physical presence. I'm sure there are a lot of Kickstarter backers who are going to be very interested in paying them a visit.”
Perhaps that's the real future for Las Vegas’s CES: a neon-spattered boxing ring in which crowd-funded start-ups can meet their enraged, unfulfilled benefactors in a drone-powered title fight for investor backing in front of the eyes of the world’s consumers who will all vote by hashtag. It would certainly make for a more exciting consumer event than tweaked versions of things you already have and another round of slightly better tellies.