Attending the Panasonic Toughpad Conference, By a Non-Tech Journalist

By Grant Howitt on at

Like most journalists everywhere, I am hungover. I am sat in the basement of a hotel on the outskirts of Munich; the sort of hotel that must have sprung up fully-formed overnight, a massive swelling of glittering commerce emerging from the abandoned building sites and car parks and motorways that ring the city. I am here for the launch of a new tablet. Panasonic are launching a new tablet computer for the business market. I am not a tech journalist. I have never done this before. I don’t know what’s going on.

These photos are lifted from the official Panasonic website. This one shows some Toughpad users cheekily trying to hide in the rotor section of a helicopter.

Last night is, regrettably, an increasingly coherent blur; a restaurant that went on for miles and miles like some wood-panelled meat Narnia; great glasses of beer brought to us to wash down salty pretzels and wooden platters of sliced sausage; a bus ride home drinking out of a bottle I snuck out in my coat. Then morning and shower and the sort of headache that leaves you staring at cups of black coffee trying to will them into your mouth.

And now – music. Impossibly loud music that smashes out of speakers mounted on the stage and reverbs off the inside of my skull. Smoke floods the speaking platform in a move somewhere between inadvisable and ridiculous. Lights flash and spin around the room. I am defeated by the spectacle.

This is TOUGHPAD. TOUGHPAD is my new master. All hail the glorious noise of TOUGHPAD. I am powerless and weak and shuddering before the might of TOUGHPAD. I am a snivelling worm, a directionless and flabby thing before the majesty of TOUGHPAD.

Two women emerge from the back of the hall. They are dressed, inexplicably, in tight jump suits and belts and aviator sunglasses and high heels. They have handcuffs hanging from their belts. They carry boxes shrouded in black cloth.

Why are they dressed like that? I don’t know. I can’t know. Are they pilots? Police officers? Aviation police? It doesn’t make any sense. This product has nothing to do with planes or crime or any combination of the two. It is a tablet computer you can drop underwater from a height and have that not be a problem.

Not these two women. These are two different women. But from an illustrative point of view it’s the best I could do

Outside, a video of an Asian man played on one of the units which happened to be underwater at the time. Dressed in martial arts robes, he punched through six blocks of concrete but could not penetrate Toughpad underneath. He holds it up proudly and it plays a promotional video while he smiles. Why is he smiling? Panasonic have defeated him where concrete could not.

The women put the boxes down on pedestals and as the music reaches a tooth-buzzing crescendo they whip off the cloth to reveal the Toughpads through clear plastic. They leave the stage. The one in blue grasps the arm of the one in green, smiling nervously.

TOUGHPAD. Toughpad is now. Toughpad is happening. My world, for the next two hours, is Toughpad.

Hiro Sakamoto takes the stage. Hiro is the Director of something important for the European arm, something involving computers. Before the conference when I was smoking outside the hotel he was pacing up and down, chaining Marlborough Lights, reading and re-reading his notes. He does well

There are two kinds of Toughbook available. One is bigger and runs Windows. One is smaller and runs Android. Everyone writes this down. Some people rush forward and take pictures with expensive-looking cameras. I write it down too, but I don’t get up because the only camera I have with me is on my phone.

These men have witnessed the true and devastating power of TOUGHPAD as it destroyed their house in a fit of rage; tearfully they bear their new master towards the wreckage

All of my notes are based on the activity of the journalists around me. I write down what I believe is important. I write down the most interesting words that I hear, too. They are “RUGGEDIZED” and “ROBUSTNESS” and, deliciously, “SACRIFICATION.”

A video plays, accompanied by the music again, the unfathomably loud music, a spinning CGI mess of product concepts. At one point the phrase “Never Before Has Someone Made A Tablet” flashes up, followed by nothing in particular. I don’t know where the end of the sentence went. Someone has made a tablet before this, surely.

A second man takes the stage. His name is Jan something, Head of something at Panasonic. His presentation uses multiple greyscale graphs to illustrate technical points. I write down anything I don’t understand. A lot of the other journalists stop writing so much. I wonder if I should do the same. This is cargo-cult reportage, a Simon Says version of journalism, copying the surface actions of those around me in an attempt to produce the same result.

Jan talks about retina displays and the way that the human eye can only perceive a certain number of pixels at a certain range and something about PPI. I think Panasonic has invented a new kind of pixel. A bendy pixel. I don’t understand. What does PPI stand for? What am I doing with my life? Why am I here in this basement in Munich at the age of 26 staring at a man fire a laser pointer at a graph? How did this happen? I wanted to be a Sky Pirate. I don’t understand any of this.

The devices can be used in heavy rainfall. I think for a second that the image illustrating heavy rain – a faceless man in a trenchcoat and leather gloves – looks like it is illustrating cold-war era spying, instead. The Toughbook would be good for spies, I think. It probably deflects bullets. You could use it to beat up an informant. That sort of thing. That should be their marketing gambit. An embittered agent thrashing the Toughbook against the face of a scared Eastern-European man, teeth and blood on the floor, yelling TELL ME WHERE THE BOMBS ARE HIDDEN DAMNIT TELL ME NOW PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE.

Jan stops for a second and says there will be a demonstration. He says “With the nice police ladies we are to make some watersports,” and half-laughs, half-smiles awkwardly. He says that onstage in front of the world’s press. He seems to think that is fine. The women come forward and pour water from a jug over a toughbook sat in a perspex case. People take pictures.

This man’s name is Bruce. Bruce is pictured here contemplating what went wrong in his previous relationship and whether his boyfriend would ever take him back

A man in charge of something important just made a SEX PISS JOKE at the Panasonic Press Conference and that’s all fine. I don’t understand. I don’t understand. Is that fine? Is this just what happens at tech events? I want to have a lie down.

The women leave the stage, wet computer in hand, and a new man takes the stage. He plays a schmaltzy video where Portuguese children teach adults to use Windows 8 accompanied by a hyperloud xylophone soundtrack that slices through my hangover like cheesewire though lukewarm gouda.

He goes on to say some things about Windows 8 but it’s all white noise at this point, all static, a mountain stream that happens to be talking about the great security features enabled in Windows 8 Pro. I drink the entirety of the bottle of sparkling water on the table in front of me and look around for another.

Last night, whilst smoking, a man from the Czech Republic asked me what I thought about the Scottish bid for secession from the United Kingdom and I had to make up an opinion on the spot. I tried my best to turn it into a conversation about Prince Harry’s arse, somehow. I believe I reenacted the pose he struck in that Vegas hotel room. I remember this, now. Why did I do that. Why do they let me drink. Don’t they know the risks involved?

At the end a video plays of a man from Microsoft speaking to camera with a forthright and determined voice that sounds like it’s been honed by years of talking at the head of boardroom tables.

He doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He holds them three inches under his chin, alternately grasping them together, rocking them up and down, and spinning them around each other, giving him the appearance of a squirrel trying to give up a nut addiction.

I cannot remember a word he said.

“These are my chocolate digestives,” says the bald man. “Why are they here in the kitchen. They should be in my office. Have everyone shot.” His assistant writes that down

A fourth man comes onto the stage. Now, a week later, I would be hard-pressed to select him out of a line-up. He was from Intel. Intel were doing something with processors, as is their want. I start thinking about the weird German lunch we’re going to have in under half an hour. There’s something unsettlingly strange about German food, something slightly off-centre. Maybe it’s too much salt. Maybe it’s not enough. Maybe it’s their insistence on cured pork. I’ve been in the country for 18 hours and I’m already tired of cured pork.

Applause – an end to things – and some questions from the audience to the assembled group onstage. Hiro builds up answers to his questions by putting his hands behind his back and generating a small humming noise, culminating in precisely-selected words of English filtered through his Japanese accent.

Several people ask about sales figures and market shares and barcode scanners and it’s like the bit at the end of games previews where Germans ask inscrutably strange questions like “How are you implementing graphical assets in the multiplayer lobbies” or “How many pixels do you have in game” or some daft shit like that but turned up to 11.

No-one asks about the women dressed as Aviation Police. I think I could ask -- I could be all Excuse Me Yes Grant Howitt, Guardian, What’s The Deal With These Effing Women -- but maybe that’s not the done thing. I don’t know. This isn’t my world. Also I’m not really from the Guardian and that might come back to haunt me.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to remove the arm.” “But, Doctor, I feel fi-” “SILENCE, WHELP. TOUGHPAD HAS SPOKEN.”

I can picture all of the assembled heads of Panasonic et al shuffling their feet as I point out they’ve brought booth babes to a press conference, but then again this is my first press conference and I’d probably end up destroyed by their response and looking a fool. I don’t ask. The conference ends. The guy sat next to me asks what I thought of it as we pack up our bags.

“It was all right,” I say. “Why did they have those women dressed as Aviation Police?”

“I have no idea.”


Grant Howitt writes the brilliant Look, Robot gaming blog, and pens pieces for The Guardian, FHM, Videogamer and PSM3, in addition to having published a book, and running live-action Zombie LARP, and Serious Business games. Follow him on Twitter here.