Crashing Steve Ballmer, Paper-Thin Tablets, Clear TVs: It’s CES

A report from Day One of the tech extravaganza

My first official experience of CES was technology not working properly. The cab driver tried to unlock the door six times before he finally let me into his sedan to go to the Venetian.

"I usually drive minivan," he said apologetically. "This is extra shift." Then, like everybody in Las Vegas, he started smoking.

The Consumer Electronics Show is already a hashtag on industry announcements, and it's barely Day One. Roku has teamed up with Time Warner Cable. Dish Network has become even more aggressive about its ad-skipping service, The Hopper, which now extends to connected devices as well as TV sets (potentially a whole new set of lawsuits in the making). It's also a mecca for advertisers, who are hoping that some of the software at this year's expo will make good on the promises of concepts like SmartGlass and TV Everywhere—which are less technologies than names for ways competitors can work together.

"I would say we doubled [our presence] last year and this year we have another 30 or 40 percent," said Laura Desmond, CEO of Starcom MediaVest. "We've gone through a series of years that were about devices, and this year is going to be about the services that link them." Desmond also said that the companies her group represents were looking forward to stretching their capabilities. "A lot of our clients have gravitated this year toward brand-as-publisher news," she said.

Desmond's point is borne out in the way the conference is playing out. Big conventions always have a few outliers who don't want to pay the incredible fees for suites and booths (Warner Brothers rented a yacht across the street from the Fountainblau in Miami at Natpe a few years ago to demonstrate how much better they could use the money the conference asked for), and this year some companies are maintaining a much cheaper digital presence.

Hulu distributed previews of its new series digitally, and some of the scrappier startups just rent big hotel rooms, set up a giant computer or two, and demo their duct-taped-together prototypes to anyone willing to take the elevator upstairs.

The conference itself takes place in several of the official hotels around Sin City, where exhibitors like Intel, Samsung and Microsoft show off their wares and industry players opine on what the future will look like.

On Monday evening, Microsoft honcho Steve Ballmer crashed the opening address to push his company's products, especially its new line of smartphones. Between grandmothers playing dollar slots and tourists from Tennessee descending tentatively into the Fun Dungeon at the Excalibur, there are virtual reality headsets, tablets that are literally paper-thin and TVs as clear as windows.