Sizing Up the CES Crapshoot

Despite charges that its influence has waned, the Vegas extravaganza remains a techie mecca

The holidays are over. Time to go on that diet and hit the gym. Or you could destroy all those New Year’s resolutions in a flash by attending the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The question is, why?

CES no longer seems to be the peek into the future it once was back when Atari unveiled the first in-home gaming console or when Sony demoed the DVD. With major consumer electronics brands like Apple and Microsoft opting to introduce products at their own events and in the lead-up to the holiday shopping season, CES has transitioned from a gadgetry launch pad to “more of a networking thing,” said Digitaria CTO Chuck Phillips.

“From the marketer side, most of what’s on the show floor actually isn’t that interesting,” added David Berkowitz, vp of emerging media at 360i.

Still, for many marketers, CES remains a destination—and not only because January in Vegas beats pretty much every other place you could imagine.

Agencies Gaze Into the Future

“You just finished putting the previous year to bed and want to figure out what’s exciting in the year ahead,” Berkowitz said. “CES is a good place to do so and not just talk about things but experience a lot of it.”

Even though the event may not be the place for a trove of game-changing reveals, it remains a premier showcase for innovative uses of technology, among them connected devices, as Berkowitz pointed out. Since every home isn’t outfitted with Microsoft’s Xbox and since Apple has yet to corner the market, there’s still plenty of room for other players—Samsung, for one possibility—to show off their innovations.

“It’s a technology-driven conference, but it’s all about the application for me,” said SapientNitro chief experience officer Donald Chesnut, who looks forward to seeing applications of technology, such as near-field communications, key to making mobile payments a reality.

“The primary reason for going is to see what’s out there and take it back to [the agency’s creative team],” Chesnut said. “Technology for technology’s sake is a vacuum conversation.”

What’s Titillating the Techies

As far as television and video gaming are concerned, some of the biggest contenders—namely the next generation of Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation—are off the table until E3. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing cool to see at CES. Cara Scharf, head of Fearless Media, said her gaming clients are interested in the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset designed for video games that is being shown off in Vegas. Id Software’s John Carmack and Valve’s Gabe Newell—sort of the James Cameron and Steven Spielberg of contemporary gaming­­—have both already endorsed the peripheral.

And there’s more to chew on. “For me, it’s about how tablets and TV are coming together,” said Scharf. Microsoft plans to introduce its Smartglass technology into, well, everything (or at least everything Xbox-related) until all our living rooms look like Minority Report. “It’s not about the controller anymore,” Scharf said. “It’s about how you can control the game without having anything to connect.”

Politicos Do Vegas (Uh-Oh)

It may seem counterintuitive: public policy sessions at the world’s largest tech-gadget show. But this year’s CES will attract leading lawmakers in tech and Internet policy, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), as well as commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission.

At last year’s CES, Issa and Wyden changed the debate over piracy legislation that could have had unintended consequences on the operation of the Internet, with Issa urging fellow lawmakers to “bring in the geeks.” Now the geeks are bringing in the wonks.

“We want the policy people to see the vibrancy of technology innovation firsthand rather than regulate or legislate in the vacuum of Washington,” said CES CEO and president Gary Shapiro.

—with Katy Bachman