Jesse Jarnow

searching for the next little thing (or, a consumer in a strange land) (greatest misses #2)

I’ve already posted my photos and field recordings of my adventures at the 2006 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show, but my reason for being there — the piece I was supposedly writing — kinda fell through the cracks. I pitched this story and went to Las Vegas thinking I was writing a tech-oriented travelogue, only to discover upon my return that my editor had wanted a simple review of the Show’s hottest new gadgets. After another publication promised to run it, it got bumped for adspace, with the intention of running it on the website, at which point it officially fell through the cracks. Half a year later, here it is.

Searching for the Next Little Thing (or A Consumer in a Strange Land)
by Jesse Jarnow

The only reassuring thing about the chaos across the 1.6 million square feet of carpeted exhibit-space at the Consumer Electronics Show, held January 5th through 8th in Las Vegas, is that nobody among its 150,000 participants seemed to know what was going on — which is exactly how I found myself offering fanboy suggestions to one of the dudes from San Jose who invented the iPod’s trademark clickwheel.

We’d both come upon the same CES woman in a yellow information shirt, who’d told us (with stunning inaccuracy) that it was “about a mile” to the other side of the building. She explained why we should wait for the next shuttle bus rather than walk — as we did — down the service driveway and past loading docks stacked high with wooden crates that resembled stage props.

“Tell me,” I asked Clickwheel Dude promptly, “the next generation of iPods is gonna be a cell phone with a faux-modernist rotary dial clickwheel, right?”

“Where’d you hear that?” he asked, mildly taken aback. “No, no,” he said, hinting that a virtual clickwheel could potentially be “extremely tactile.”

“We really need this kind of feedback,” he added.

Once he finally made it through registration and onto the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center and into the teeming ecosystem of buyers, exhibitors, press, and other non-consumers (mostly dragging roller-suitcases), he would get plenty more.

***

To tramp from the Convention Center’s monorail stop to its furthest rim, attendees crossed more than a mile, from the two-level South Hall (starring Google and their giant Legos), across the massive Central Hall (featuring a Sony floor installation that required its own sub-map), through the bass-booming North Hall (where bikinied booth babes demonstrated the hottest backseat subwoofers), and into the Hilton next door (whose modest stalls sported clever Asian miniaturizations). And that’s not to mention the additional floor at the Sands (conventioneers mingling with silicone-enhanced attendees of the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, held next door).

Feedback for Clickwheel Dude came on like locusts in a plague. One could barely step without crunching down on the sleek plastic exoskeletons of imitation iPods (like SanDisk’s sporty Samsa, pimped by toned pep-dancers) and artifacts from its attendant cottage industry, including mini-speakers (mostly mimicking Altec Lansing’s popular inMotion), crazy protective shells (H2O Audio’s waterproof pod-cases and earbuds), and teddy bears (Sakar’s SoundPal). If iPods are the present of music, then its future is undoubtedly a world of variations, and — eventually — commonality, cheapness, and Salvation Army bins.

While pundits pontificated about an “iPod killer,” the most innovative products recognized music tech’s new paradigm of flexibility. With ATO’s iSee, users can store videos on regular iPods, dock them in the iSee, and watch them. Many forward-thinking products served as reminders of the entertainment industry’s ongoing copyright wars. Timetrax’s TraxCatcher allows users (with perhaps questionable legality), to snatch individual mp3s from satellite radio systems like Sirius (now starring Howard Stern) and XM (whose roster includes DJ Bob Dylan).

As always (as demonstrated by the latter), the future includes cars with TVs in them (possibly in their trunks), screens that are bigger, and speakers that are louder. The main halls were characterized by a nearly comical largesse that suggested a World’s Fair without the nobility. Utopian living room sets (such as CyberHome’s wireless video network) were interspersed with displays of fantastical architecture (such as DirectTV’s cube-dangling high modernist dreamscape), as well as temporarily constructed meeting rooms that recalled conjugal visit trailers.

Google’s presence was a breath of fresh air, stocking their booth with real live engineers to showcase the Mountain View wunderkinds’ fabbest inventions. Likewise, following a canned Friday morning keynote-cum-product-roll-out from Yahoo CEO Terry Semel (abetted by token celebrities Tom Cruise and Ellen DeGeneres), Google co-wizard Larry Page took the afternoon by storm.
The deliciously geeky opposite of Semel and his fake living room set, Page (in a white lab coat) spun a science fiction vision, pleading for industry-wide standardization in hardware and power supply and inter-gadget communication.

“One wire should do everything possible,” he said. “If you plug a wire into something, you should be able to do anything you could possibly do with that device -– run software on it, charge it, power other devices from its battery, or whatever, just with that single wire. We could basically do that with the hardware we have. And it should work the same whether you plug that wire into your house, your neighbor’s house, or all the way around the world.”

Following the help of his (gloriously freestyling) celebrity, Robin Williams, Page soon introduced Google Video — the search company’s first foray into retail, and their response to Apple’s iTunes store.

Featuring CBS shows, day-old NBA games, and Charlie Rose interviews, Google Video will also sell content by anybody who cares to create it. Much of the major programming will only work on Google’s proprietary viewer, however, preventing users from watching their purchases on their iPods (bummer, Clickwheel Dude).

But the most mindblowing product described by Page wasn’t the integration of Google Earth into mobile phones (though that’s pretty rad), nor was it even made by Google (though they donated $2 million dollars to its development). It was a mock-up of MIT scientist Nicholas Negroponte’s hand-cranked, wifi-enabled, open source $100 laptop. At a convention dedicated to making the world move faster, Google seemed committed to moving the world quantifiably forward.

After Page, the hum of the Consumer Electronics Show — a din of voices, bleeps, and New Age music blasting from demonstration speakers — seemed literally meaningless. Page had veritably declared it: nobody knew what was going on.

***

Somewhere in the acres upon acres of the Las Vegas Convention Center, there must have been the perfect gadget, that front-of-the-curve device that won’t be really profitable for another few years, and will soon be on the road to ubiquity, but — well — a consumer can get dizzy.

In the immaculately ordered Asian displays at the Hilton, surreal devices like clothing-hangers-with-inboard-dryers, CD shredders, and folding keyboards sat between infinitesimal variations of keychain USB drives, wireless toys, and microscopic neon-colored mp3 players, spiraling smaller and smaller and smaller.

When I found myself gazing woozily into a TV that was playing Revenge of the Sith (stretched, for some reason), my eyes glazing into the CGI, it was time to go. I reached for my iPod, put on George Harrison, and headed for the monorail.

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