CES: Crazy Times, Great Candy

Everybody is overwhelmed at CES. That is the only genuine emotion of the show.

It is true that the attendees of the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show would often display curiosity, happiness, irritation, frustration, flirtatiousness, thoughtfulness, disdain, or disgust, but those were affectations. They were simply overwhelmed, and how could they not have been? Either they were there to meet people — and there were too many to count, or they were there to see the tech products — and there were too many to count.

Welcome to the ZAGG booth! Can I... slightly confuse you?

CES is, in all ways, a sensory invasion. Visiting CES is a little like dropping by the Smithsonian Institution in that it is far too vast for a person to see all in a day. I spent most of my time in the Central Hall, which held most of the larger, more elaborate booths and bigger name exhibitors. Although I was a working stiff for ZAGG Inc. at the show, my responsibilities were such that I was able to look around and take in some of the other areas. Even so, CES is large enough that I still saw just a modest fraction of the show.

There is no dress code at CES, which is very fortunate for some people, and creates an unusual situation where businesspeople in expensive suits rub shoulders with television producers in wrinkled khaki, and shove past hipsters with ironic t-shirts and women in impossibly short skirts. My CES dress consisted of company golf shirts and slacks, which was not uncommon, although by far I saw more people in what could be termed “trade show business casual.” It was the same for men and women: slacks, loafers, a button up shirt, a sports coat, no tie for the men, no heeled shoes for the women, and both carrying a sensible bag. Black was the shade of choice. Women might substitute a t-shirt for the button up, and men might substitute expensive jeans for the slacks, but if there were 400,000 visitors to CES, at least 50,000 of them were dressed like they shopped out of the same catalog.

The always-dangerous Circus Circus, home of $1.99 dysentery

It is appropriate to always hold CES in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is a city built around careful planning and middling execution — an apt description of every CES experience. It is not that the exhibitors at CES are looking to create a mediocre experience for their visitors (just as the city planners and casino builders are not looking to do the same), but any understanding of the nuances, any deeper look, any investigation at all reveals an unsteady organization with disinterested custodians. The gadgets are amazing, the lights are dazzling, but behind it all is a group of people just looking to get by.

There is a strange sociality that exists at CES (and likely at other trade shows, as well, although I do not know) where your status is determined by the color of your entry badge. This color determines your purpose for being there. For example, mine was gray, which meant I was an exhibitor, and the yellow badges were for buyers, and maroon for “industry affiliates,” which was a very broad category that I never quite figured out. The green badges were registered media members, which made them the titled dukes and earls of the show, of course. Purple were tech bloggers, which was a step below the media, but still exciting enough to have in your booth.

The lowest rung on the ladders were the exhibitors, which seemed unusual for a show dedicated to exhibiting technology, but we were the undesirables of CES. Nobody wanted to pitch products or give away their promotional material and corporate literature to another worker drone like themselves. I asked a particular exhibitor for one of her cloth bags, which she was handing out to literally everyone who walked past, and she took one look at my gray tag and tried to disintegrate me with her laser eyes. She didn’t say anything, and she did give me a bag, but slowly, like a gunfighter edging toward a Colt Peacemaker. It must have been the most reluctant bag she gave out all day, because otherwise, that particular person has a near-superhuman repertoire of glares and disdainful glances, and could teach classes on the subject.

The three main attractions of CES: Cameras, Reporters, and Restrooms

Attending CES sounds like it will be entertaining; it is the largest consumer electronics show in the world, and many major tech companies reserve that time for their most dazzling developments. I heard it described as Disneyland for nerds and geeks, and that is apt. But it also suffers from a severe lack of fun, because the vast majority of the attendees are not there on an actual vacation. This is a reasonable misunderstanding. After all, you are in a popular vacation destination, there are a lot of amazing things to see, you can find bright lights, loud music, and shockingly overpriced food. There are whispers of celebrities walking around: 50 Cent and Britney Spears were rumored; Lady Gaga walked right past a friend; I personally saw Bill Walton, Crystal Bowersox, and Rick Fox.

But the big difference is that nearly all of the people there are working. It would be like Disneyland for nerds and geeks if, when you walked through the gates of Disneyland, they gave you a plunger and a wrench and sent you to fix the toilets. Everybody spends the entire show on their feet, talking to people, pumping out information, and with the low-level headache that comes from not eating or using the bathroom for unnaturally long stretches. By the end of the day everyone is glowering at each other like malcontents at an armistice, and the only people who are still happy at that point are paid to be so.

Hey there! We know a TON about car audio!

As for the people who are paid to be happy, the discussion is not limited to just the hired models – the so-called “booth babes,” who are, for the most part, professional spokesmodels and do their jobs well. But also to the smiling media talent, the PR people, and the enthusiastic sales managers, almost all of whom I had direct contact with during my CES experience. However, I did not speak to a single model, as far as I know, mostly because I found them strangely intimidating. A good spokesmodel can help promote products and speak with interested parties, but the plain truth is they exist at the show to draw attention to a product or space entirely because of a singular, primal male impulse (and, when applicable, a female impulse — hey, I don’t judge). It is an old, time-tested trick: savvy salespeople have been using sex appeal for millennia.

ZAGG, the company I work for, decided not to hire models, preferring to let our products (and strikingly handsome young salesmen) tell the story. However, the space next to us had a few booth babes in tight white shirts and tight short skirts positioned on the corners of their space trying to funnel people inside. I avoided them any time I walked past. I like to think it was because of my deep respect for women and their often confusing gender roles, but I suspect it was because I did not want to be the next idiot guy, slobbering over the pretty girls.

However, as is often the case in the complex tech universe, it is the inanimate objects that dazzle at the center. At CES, it seemed to be a toss-up between the actual booths and the technology they were showcasing.

The Central Hall of CES was the primary showcase for the most memorable booths. Every part of the room was tall with massive walls and built-out displays that featured choreographed dancing televisions, performance artists, Cirque du Soleil-esque shows, and interviews with sometimes confusing special guests (like the previously mentioned Rick Fox). Many booths could be measured in multiples of acres and had multiple levels, with meeting rooms or storage areas tucked away above the main floor. Although the booths in the Central Hall were spaced further apart than in the other halls, they were almost all so expansive that there was no visual break in the landscape.

Before CES, Rick Fox thought "tech" was one free throw plus possession.

The other halls had long rows of smaller displays from smaller companies. A few of these were well-designed and staffed with energetic sales people, and many of the others were grim and desolate. The products were often not interesting enough to generate foot traffic on their own, so the staff sat behind their displays, bored and scowling. I stopped to check out a company that was promoting a direct rip-off of our flagship brand; they even borrowed heavily from our descriptive copy, which I can claim with confidence because I wrote most of it. I asked a disinterested rep in a lawn chair — the only person in the small, dark space — if I could take one of their brochures. He did not even glance in my direction and his answer was an irritated grunt that I presumed meant “yes.” Clearly I was disturbing his silent glaring with my question. Why didn’t I just take the brochure and leave him to focus on the frazzled, overworked booth babe across the aisle?

By contrast the major booths operated like luxury car dealerships. Everything was presented in a tasteful and understated fashion. You were allowed to walk around and absorb their displays at your own initiative, with the personnel just checking in now and again to make sure you were doing okay. No prices were on display, as nothing was really for sale. The products did enough on their own that disinterest and pushiness were never problems. Even the models, for the occasional major booth that used them, were dressed in a difficult-to-describe combination of provocative and classy (provoca-lassy?). Everything was designed and presented with careful thought and consideration. To see that full spectrum of booths and personnel, separated sometimes by just feet, was the essence of the CES experience.

Me meeting the amazing Brittney from MRT

But the gadgets were the true story and the reason anyone spent time walking around such a large and unwieldy show. Brittney and Foster of My Reality Tech have already written several fantastic posts about the gadgets, and done a much better job than I could have, so I won’t even venture into those waters. I will just add that the number and variety of gadgets I saw in my short time at CES was overwhelming, as mentioned way back at the start of this.

With so much to see packed together so closely, I have to confess that not much stood out as I consider it. There were several engaging tablet computers, which seemed to be a major thrust for a few big-time companies (enough so that more than one talking head has called 2011: “The Year of the Tablet”). The 3D televisions were an intriguing emerging technology, but I found it in at least five different booths, and I could not now determine which was executed the best. Besides, am I to assume that five years from now everyone will be watching 3D television? I hope not: I had laser eye surgery barely a year ago, and I am not interested in going back to glasses for all of my future television viewing. Although in fairness, I may be missing the point with that argument.

One item did make a genuine impact for me, though, and aside from my home booth, is the clearest memory of CES I still have. It was a very small booth in the main hallway, bright orange under minimal overhead lights, facing away from the main promenade, and staffed by strapping young men in tight shirts. They were handing out free samples of “Reese’s Minis,” a bite-sized version of their peanut butter cups.

CES: the place to go for amazing candy

I am not sure whether the novelty appealed to me or if this is just a massive personal red flag, but I can remember nearly every detail of the Reese’s booth. I think it’s explainable: there was such a massive volume of technology to mentally sort through that a unique experience in the form of a delicious chocolate-and-peanut-butter nugget stands out.

Does that mean I am not excited for the new tablets, cameras, televisions and games? Of course not. But I have been to five different stores in search of Reese’s Minis and not once have I looked into pre-ordering the Motorola Xoom or the BlackBerry PlayBook. Either I was overwhelmed by technology, like everyone else, or I am just a candy junkie. I should probably plead the fifth.

Via: My Reality Tech

2 thoughts on “CES: Crazy Times, Great Candy

  1. I know it’s been a while but I just have to say I’m in love with your writing :) Easily one of the best writers I know of. Lucky to have the opportunity to read your colorful pieces.

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