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First-Timer’s Observations: CES 2014

Sections: Accessories, Audio, CES, CES 2014, Communications, Gadgets / Other, Headphones, Lifestyle, Miscellaneous, Robots/AI, Speakers, Trade Shows

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Not only was CES 2014 my very first, it was also the first time I’ve ever experienced Vegas outside of having a layover at the airport. I know, right? But even though I didn’t have the time (or money) to catch any Vegas shows, I still had a complete blast.

CES 2014 did indeed live up to my expectations. It’s as if an arcade, major shopping mall, and a bazaar all created a love-child while hopped up on energy drinks. All glory to the hypnotic cacophony of lights, sounds, and moving bodies in every direction.

Because I like challenges (and have semi-masochistic tendencies), I set myself to see everything CES had to offer. If the entire event was a game of Pac Man, the only pellets I missed were located in the LVH (I somehow drew a complete blank about that area, boo). Otherwise, I passed by every booth at least once (oftentimes more) as I made my way around each of the halls as well as the Venetian and its upper-level suites. Breakfast and lunch consisted only of the Clif bars I brought along with me. I had little time (or money) for the local fare in and around the LVCC.

I also made it to Showstoppers, Western Digital’s Fan Night, DTS’s party at the Marquee, and Intel/MSI/Patriot’s after party. No rides except two taxis (total), one bus ride from LVCC to the Mirage (for a burger), and the buses from the MGM Grand to the LVCC each morning (after a 30-minute walk from my hotel). A guy’s gotta burn open-bar calories somehow, right? But I totally paid for it with my heels.

Now just because I saw everything (almost), it didn’t mean I stopped for everything. I’m sure that most, who have attended CES before, can agree that at least half the booths there don’t offer much that is new, cool, and/or groundbreaking. I stopped for the products and people that interested me the most.

What Surprised Me

E-Cigarettes. I knew they existed, but I didn’t expect to see over 50 booths dedicated only to vapor inhalation. Some booths had that with a smattering of other products too. Some of these booths had an upscale appeal, while others felt like your local smoke shop. Either way, all of them had an assortment of “smoking utensils” and a bunch of flavor-tastes to pick from.

Since this was my first-ever CES, I don’t have a personal point of reference. But it sure felt like there were a lot of overseas booths. I don’t mean the major manufacturers that we all know and love. I’m talking about the ones that seemed to infiltrate the edges around the halls, and dominate much of Level 2 of the Venetian. This is not to say that there was anything wrong with all that. It’s just that passing the majority of them felt like I was walking in a flea market; no cohesion or central identity. Just a bunch of products on display, oftentimes stationed by a very very bored-looking exhibitor.

What Didn’t Surprise Me

Mobile accessories. One didn’t need to walk too far without seeing a booth with an assortment of smartphone and tablet cases. It didn’t matter if it was a big-name manufacturer or some company branching out in hopes to drum up some extra revenue, but it all felt mundane. There were some exceptions, of course. You could hear the terrifying crackle of the Yellow Jacket iPhone 5 Stun Gun Case well before the booth was even in sight. (They refused to demonstrate a zapping on me there – I’ll video it if/when I do a review.)

There was also an abundance of personal audio products, ranging from small Bluetooth speakers to inexpensive headphones, all in a rainbow of colors. This arena, along with mobile accessories and external batteries, must be a brutal market to gain a foothold in. Some looked like knockoffs from popular brands, and many more filled in the rest of the ranks. I noticed that top manufacturers are taking steps to lead the pack in new directions.

If you don’t have some sort of external battery for your mobile device(s), there’s little excuse to get one this year. 2012 to 2013 were likely the years for such things, as everyone and their grandmother now has their own branded lineup of batteries. I saw external battery devices in every shape, flavor, and capacity.

Smartwatches are still rather ugly- and/or clunky-looking. There. I said it. But to be fair, there are ones that don’t look half bad. However, my inner cynic still takes a jab at the “need” for such wearable tech in it’s current form. Much of the wearable tech not related to health or fitness still seemed half-baked.

What Seemed Popular (Based on Traffic)

Robots, robots, and more robots. No matter which day or hour, people were crowding around all of the robots. Sphero constantly had people there driving and testing out their latest toys. Each time Parrot started up their live demonstration of remote-controlled drones, an immediate traffic jam ensued around the booth. I even had hands-on time with the Ozobot, which also got a lot of attention.

2014 could be the year of fitness- and health-related gadgets and activity trackers. Not only are there more options available now, the integration of sensors/features has improved to go along with app-driven connectivity. People were curious enough to slow down and linger in order to watch or listen to those participating in the booths. But by this same time next year, I expect the category of fitness/health/activity to be as ubiquitous as cases and battery packs.

What I’m Looking Forward To In 2014

Although I missed the conference on the return to Hi-Fi, I made it a point to speak to those at Klipsch, Sennheiser, Cambridge Audio, and more. MP3 audio files have a means of convenience. We’ve been able to have entire music libraries take up less space than a few CDs, but at the cost of audio quality. Cheap storage and cloud computing are helping to pave the road back to higher-quality audio, and it seems that manufacturers want to push forward. If not for the sake of music enjoyment itself, they will rise above to rest in an overpopulated personal audio market.

Inexpensive tablets make great gifts for our kids – it keeps their butterfinger hands off our toys. I stopped by the Datawind booth while rounding out the South Hall at CES. As I was passing, a sweet voice had called out, asking if I had seen their $39 tablet. I handled one of the demo units, while listening to an explanation of the features and capabilities. The gents there seemed a little shy. Lucky for them, their female counterpart was both engaging and approachable. But if a company can create a business around low-cost tablets, such accessibility only benefits consumers.

3D printing is soon to be on the verge of being a household commodity, which is pretty exciting to me. Not only are there a number of 3D printer options available, but the web hosts so many designs and templates for any new user to start off with. Everything from models to toys to replacement parts for broken things, 3D printing seems only limited by the imagination. Ok, sure, there is that cost factor involved. But compared to a few years ago, 3D printing is more affordable and will become more affordable still.

Final Thoughts

After a few years of only reading about CES, it was a thrill to finally be a part of it. While it might have been “work” for some, it felt more like a vacation for me.

During the week, I occasionally overhead parts of conversations commenting on CES’s “golden” years, or that CES has “been going downhill.” On the last day, I was too tired to filter myself and interrupted one of those conversations.

When I asked the two if they had walked the entire floor of the show, they shook their heads and replied that they saw only about half of what was there. Their eyes sparked up a bit when I told them some things I had seen, and that I left almost no booth unpassed. I even went so far as to point out their ignorance, based on them having incomplete information (again, I was too tired to filter).

As I stood up to soldier on with my walking, I left the pair with a smile and a simple, yet profound, parallel to the CES experience. “You know,” I said, “people have been commenting about the imminent demise of Saturday Night Live (SNL) for.. what.. ten, twenty years? But hasn’t it always been the same? Though maybe few or far between, we never forget the best skits or breakout stars, and they’re there year after year.”

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