What Really Mattered @ CES 2015

This was my first run of the gauntlet that is the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. According to a cabbie, CES is consistently the busiest time to be driving around Vegas (more on this later – no Uber in Nevada, WTF progress?). Rightfully so – the event attracts industry representatives from six continents, exhibitors and spectators alike. But you already knew that, because you read internet technology news just like I do.

So I’m here to talk about what actually mattered at CES 2015, and provide a few protips should one decide to take the leap for themselves. I’ve wanted to attend since grade school, reading about the event some fifteen years ago. It wasn’t what I expected, but I highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in what is trending in the tech world.

A seasoned veteran of multi-day music festivals, nothing could have prepared me for the scale of this damn thing. Spanning two separate convention centers that are traversed via shuttle bus (plus a media floor at a third location), it’s good for three solid days of walking at five hours per day – which brings me to the first protip: don’t overdo it. Get breakfast at the hotel, start around midday, leave for dinner and whatever else the night has to offer. Day one I walked for about ten hours straight and nearly died. Let me preface this statement by noting that I live in a rolling office chair basically full time. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and worry that something will be missed. Don’t panic. The Oculus Rift will still be there tomorrow (pah!).

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Upon receiving an official “Industry Affiliate” badge, I entered the sprawl of what is known as “Tech East”. Hosted at the Las Vegas Convention Center, it contains the showier bits of CES – the “big name” demos from Sony, Intel (both unremarkable) and so on. Imagine the biggest warehouse ever. Then make it even bigger. Then make it three of them, stacked next to each other. That’s Tech East, divided into the North, Central, and South Halls. The main floor space in each of the areas is dominated by the known players, with the outside edges filled by smaller booths of international manufacturers trying to make a name for themselves in a competitive marketplace.

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I was surprised by the pervasiveness of what I would characterize as a lack of innovation. Many companies are iterating on the same product with varying degrees of success. Headphones, drones, smart -homes and -cars. Bored, bored, and wow gaping security holes still bored. I already despise the word “wearables” so much that just typing it makes me feel like I need a shower.

Once I got over the “whoa I’m really here” and started analyzing displays, it looked as though some companies were presenting essentially the same stuff as the previous year. Perhaps a slight change here, different color scheme there, but rarely anything with wow-factor. One might call me jaded from keeping up with tech news on a daily basis, but I prefer to think of it as being discerning and well informed. I’m not endorsed or sponsored  by any of the companies mentioned below, these are simply personal reflections on what I saw. That being said, here’s what caught my eye.

Stumbling into the North Hall after a quick breakfast at the conveniently attached cafeteria-of-sorts, the first series of booths I hit were the major auto manufacturers and their accessory providers. Though not at an official Tesla booth, a beta-looking Model X was hanging out perpetually surrounded by onlookers. Because of this it was hard to snap a good shot, but the carbon-fiber detailing on the wheels is a nice touch. I feel confident declaring that Tesla Motors is the only American car maker innovating anything worth a damn, period.

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However, there was a pretty sexy looking Mercedes. Usually a BMW man, this Benz actually demanded that I stop and stare. In a world over-saturated with bleached blondes, here was a statuesque brunette.

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As I alluded earlier, the whole idea of an intelligent car is neat or whatever, but there is a huge caveat that many articles have thus far failed to acknowledge. Until companies start taking information security seriously, consumers are prone to malicious attacks in ways they haven’t yet conceived. The coming “internet of things” (another blah term) is going to go through serious growing pains as this is realized and properly addressed.

Connected homes have already been eviscerated by security researchers. It’s suggested that the first “hack” resulting in a fatality will happen before the end of the decade, and it may not even be on purpose. Some interested teenager in Everytown, USA is poking around Mystery Network X and accidentally shuts down the life support unit of an octogenarian in Metropolis. Or spontaneously disables the autopilot feature of a so-called “smart” car, turning it into a stupid flaming wreck. Not to be an alarmist – pardon my French – Get with the fucking program, people. Hire some real hacker-engineers to lock down products, or face public embarrassment transcending even Sony-level proportions. They are merely the biggest breach to date – until the next biggest thing happens.

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For all the shining lights and high-dollar investment, Intel’s showing left a lot to be desired and their failure to innovate in the mobile marketplace is concerning at best. Qualcomm is poised to steal the processor market out from under the complacent giant if they play their cards right, laughing all the way to the bank. I’m also worried about Samsung – the smartphones and televisions from their camp looked like limp-wristed attempts at updating aging product lines. Don’t get me wrong, I’m writing this article on a Samsung monitor. If not for the single saving grace of a 32GB DDR4 RAM module, I could have forgotten they were even exhibiting.

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Speaking of televisions, I’d like to shine the spotlight on LG and Sharp. The 8K sets on offer by those two exploded my mind into a billion glorious technicolor pixels. Take that 4K TV out of the shopping cart – purchasing one now would be throwing money away.

4K is the 720p of tomorrow, and to this I say meh. All hail 8K.

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Polaroid absolutely destroyed Kodak, hands down. In a digital age, I have newfound appreciation for analog experiences and tangibility. Being able to print a photo and stick it on the refrigerator is awesome and not going out of fashion anytime soon – at least at my house (I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life).

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Mechanical keyboards are all the rage. Having lusted after one for quite some time, I noticed a lot of generic looking variations. It’s dangerous to reinvent the wheel, with many suffering from feature overload. There is such a thing as too shiny.

Striking a good balance between looks and functionality, Monoprice was kind enough to show me an unreleased RGB LED mechanical keyboard. Cherry MX switches underpin clean minimalist design, especially compared against the plastic blades and doodads that dominate gaming keyboard ugliness from almost every other manufacturer – much to my chagrin.

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They didn’t have a booth at CES but I must tip my hat to WASD Keyboards. If I pull the trigger on a professional unit, it will likely be from those guys.

Drones were a big buzzword (oh puns). Projected to be a multi-billion dollar behemoth based around what is essentially a hobbyist toy, it seems like the industry as a whole is still duking it out to decide who will reign King of the Skies. The ability to swarm in groups, with a countless number of accessories duct taped to them, blah blah fuckin’ blah.

None of that made a difference the moment I saw Hexo+. Connect a smartphone, the Hexo+ follows. With the help of a gimble-stabilized GoPro, it auto-magically turns anyone into the next YouTube surfing/snowboarding/yoga phenomenon.

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Mark my words, here and now for all of eternity. 3D headsets and their ilk are a passing fad. Having worn glasses for most of my life, I can testify that unless someone absolutely has to, they will not wear some stupid shit on their faces for a sustained period. What we’re seeing is a stopgap until reliable holographic projection is a thing. I watched someone play an FPS for a minute or two and was reminded of the movie “Hackers” from 1995. I think I played on a similar unit at Dave & Busters when I was twelve years old. Bored. Curse.

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Same goes for the connected home. IBM was pushing the idea way back when dad bought my first computer, a 166 Mhz Pentium (the original one) from Radio Shack. It came with some units that supposedly could be manipulated by a Master Control Program (heh), allowing lights or simple gadgets to be turned on and off. Basically there’s been no progress since then. The units might work more reliably or communicate better but they are not improving lives everywhere, yet. I dare this market sector to make me care.

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If you’re still with me, I applaud your enthusiasm. Let’s make the rest of this rapid fire.

 

IMG_20150107_140726These exist. This is disconcerting.

 

IMG_20150107_142123The future of piracy. Theater releases on a USB key sold to vacationers on the beach for a few dollars, probably loaded to the tits with malware.

 

IMG_20150107_145108Window cleaning robots. Finally. Next step: batteries.

 

IMG_20150107_160232The only Android box I saw with smooth 4K playback (at 30 fps), by MyGica. Epic clarity.

All the others seemed to experience tearing (horizontal lines) or artifacts (random squiggly bits)

 

IMG_20150107_161055Keyboard with a removable Android remote from RemoteSolution.

Perfect for controlling HTPCs.

 

IMG_20150107_165118ZTE pico projector. Complete with vaporizer for scale.

Built-in touchscreen and 4G connectivity.

 

IMG_20150107_165840I win.

 

IMG_20150107_185936Screw you Mandalay Bay, $35 and it wasn’t even that good.

Thankfully I pulled $300 out of their penny slots to make up for it.

I hear Caesar’s Palace is the buffet to beat.

“Tech West” is held across town at the Sands Expo. Considerably smaller than Tech East (but still enormous), a couple things jumped out at me.

 

IMG_20150108_150234Step 1: M&Ms

Step 2: Notice the whacking great hammer.

Step 3: Watch me be amazed that they are still intact, thanks to Impact Gel.

ToyBuilder Labs had the only 3D printer worth seeing, 20 micron resolution @ 1/4 the cost of a MakerBot. Enough said. My partner-in-crime Mike @ SproutReactor just obtained the third unit in North America.

I don’t have a picture but I was intrigued by the changing idea of what constitutes a battery. Gone are the days of Double A, Triple A and D cell. These new units offer built in USB ports to charge the ever-increasing army of devices that have become indispensable tools of daily life, varying in size and shape according to charge and intended use.

About the taxi thing. If you stay at an outlying hotel that does not provide direct shuttle service to the event, provision a lot of time ahead to order a cab. On day two it took two hours for a ride to show up, despite being called multiple times by the hotel front desk. Apparently I was in a queue, on top of the fact that traffic is a madhouse. It’s an outmoded way of doing business and I’m tired of hearing cab unions complain about services like Uber. How about they innovate and adapt to the changing needs of a modern society instead of neophobically lashing out? Final protip: do yourself (and the driver) a favor, get out a couple blocks from the main event and walk in.

A few parting words. Holy Wow, China. If you are an American High School student enrolled in Spanish, you are making a serious mistake. Learn Mandarin or Cantonese and make a ton of money for the next two decades. Chinese billionaires aren’t going anywhere, but more importantly the Chinese middle class is growing at a breakneck pace. There will be as many of them as there are people in all of America. Sell them things. Get filthy rich.

And now, a brief letter to anyone who is listening:

Dear Mobile Device Manufacturers and Software Developers,

This is your friend Nathan. If you would like to make (or continue to make) billions of dollars, take my following friendly advice. Open up everything. I know – it sounds crazy at first glance, but just do it. At least offer an option to unlock the bootloader. Let someone make a custom version of Android L for his new Motorola Droid Turbo (*AHEM*). Get the support of a small group of hardcore coders and enthusiasts. Watch profits skyrocket when word of mouth sells your product more effectively than any marketing campaign could ever hope to achieve. By the way, did we learn nothing from Ice Cream Sandwich? Unify the build tree for the stupid watches everyone is making. Hopefully it will make them less stupid. While we’re at it, develop an ultramicro headless version of Android for the tiny computers that are about to be in everything. Got it? Cool.

Thanks for reading.

You just skimmed through almost 2200 words and more than a dozen pictures. I hope it was an informative (and entertaining) use of your valuable time.

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