Before I give you my take on last week’s edition of the world’s biggest consumer electronics extravaganza, let me aver emphatically that I am not a techno-cynic given to autonomic eye-rolling at gee-whiz product announcements. To the contrary, I’m a techno-freak of the first order, in love with all (or at least most) things digital.
I say that so you don’t too quickly dismiss my assessment of CES 2017 as a crashing bore.
At least to my eye, the gazes of the 175,000 attendees seemed to have morphed from the traditional awed glitter of prior years to something more like the glaze on a week-old doughnut. Sadly, there was little on display to quicken the pulse or tickle the imagination. In place of world-altering revolution, there was only modest evolution, some of it so tepid that, in many cases, the display technology itself was more fascinating than the products being displayed: Witness a spectacular projection screen the size of Delaware that Samsung used to highlight the yawn of an actual TV mounted in its center.
I’m not sure what you have to do to a television to call it innovative anymore, and I certainly didn’t find out at CES. So I headed over to the drone area, where companies by the dozens were showing off the latest in unmanned aviation. After watching dozens of these things being flown around in giant safety cages, here’s what I concluded: Drones can be very big or very small or anything in between. They can hover. They can move up and down, and to and fro. They take pictures. These are all the things they did last year. And the year before. Even the people flying them around looked bored. One company allowed visitors inside its cage to try to shoot its drones down with rubber balls fired from air cannons. That was about as exciting as it got.
One company displayed a (non-flying) man-carrying drone. It looked like a Le Car with four massive sets of counter-rotating double propellers. A reporter spoke excitedly to his cameraman from inside the cockpit. I couldn’t hear him, but I’m hopeful that he was commenting on the oxymoronic-ness of a “man-carrying drone.”
Hopes still alive, I headed to the 3D printing displays. Manufacturers of these devices typically show them off by printing insanely complicated structures you wouldn’t have thought it possible to 3D print. These were indeed impressive, except that (and I looked at photos to verify this) there were all exactly the same as what they were printing last year. Even the colors were the same.
I saved what I thought would be the best for last, the virtual and augmented reality gadgets. Last year, Oculus Rift and others trotted out some seriously dazzling goodies. This year, the emphasis seems to be on trying to duplicate the dazzle at far less cost. The approach for many of the manufacturers was the same: Produce the images on an iPhone, which was then dropped into a cheap rubber headset with lenses. Without the need to create specialized display devices, you should be able to immerse customers into 3D worlds at a fraction of the cost. What a terrific idea.
What a lousy implementation. The quality of the images was not just bad but laughably so, to the point where the people doing the demos were describing to the demo-ees what they were supposed to be seeing. “That’s a guy drumming, right in the middle there,” or “You’re supposed to be on a plane, see?” This amid a constant barrage of excuses for the awful quality. (“We’re getting some interference from the Intel exhibit next door,” or “If you tilt your head a little to the right and kind of scrunch your shoulder…there you go…” just as the display went black.)
And of course the stupid stuff, like some kind of robo-animal that looked like a fur seal covered with carpet instead of fur into whose mouth you could stick a (connected) pacifier, thereby making it do a grotesque little wiggle, apparently in service of giving comfort to sufferers of undefined types of mental illness which, I believe, were likely caused by the device itself. Or a massive box-like thing intended to automatically fold laundry, so long as all your towels were blue, your sheets red and your t-shirts white.
A measure of how much is really worth seeing at CES is how early in the day the bars start filling up. This year, they were packed by lunchtime. If you think I’m exaggerating the vapidity of the state of innovation in consumer goods these days, try this little test: Google “CES ten best” to get a list of lists of what tech writers thought was, like, totally cool at the show.
I miss you, Steve Jobs…
Lee Gruenfeld is a Principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Support.com, Senior Vice President and General Manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a Partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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