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LAS VEGAS // Thunderous music. Flashing lights. Gawking crowds. Drones overhead. Women performing exercise routines on stages. Men giving infomercial-like presentations, also on stages, extolling the virtues of the latest digital fitness watch or super-thin television panel.
Long queues for the bathroom. Long queues for coffee. Long queues for shuttle buses. Did we mention the queues?
The cacophony is, in a nutshell, the Consumer Electronics Show. The annual Las Vegas event, now in its 49th year, is one of the biggest trade shows in the world, spanning more than 3.2 million square feet and attracting more than 150,000 visitors and 3,600 exhibitors each year. With the rapturous noise, senses-overloading lights and crushing crowds, it definitely feels like it.
CES is the Super Bowl and World Cup of the technology world rolled into one, with thousands of new products announced at this year’s show alone. Previous events have featured the debut of products that went on to become huge, culturally transformational hits, including the VCR, the Xbox and high-definition television.
For anyone even tangentially connected to technology (these days, who isn’t?) it is the place to be. Exhibitors and visitors flock to the show from more than 150 countries, including the UAE, as a result.
Exhibitors range from the mammoth to the tiny. South Korea’s Samsung and LG, to name just two of the behemoths, command booths the size of city blocks on the main floor of the Las Vegas Convention Centre, displaying a department store’s worth of products. Samsung’s newest 4K televisions, for example, are flanked by refrigerators with embedded monitors, which are next to the company’s new line of connected clothing.
Over in the next convention building, meanwhile, a trio of entrepreneurs from San Diego cram into a tiny, 10-foot booth with CleverPet, a “game console” for dogs that dispenses treats to the family pet when he or she presses a sequence of buttons in the right order. Samsung and LG will make billions in 2016 – the CleverPet guys just hope that someone, anyone, buys their invention.
CES serves multiple purposes. For the big exhibitors, it’s a chance to show off new products and gain mindshare as innovation leaders. For the smaller ones, it’s an opportunity to get attention from media, investors, distributors and retailers. The show can make or break a company, big or small.
Swar Gusta Luggage, based in Dubai, was one of those start-ups seeking its big break at CES this year. The company was showing off a prototype of its secure carry-on luggage, which can only be opened with its owner’s retina pattern.
The company founder Jonathan Jacob was pleased with the results he saw after the first day of the show, with a number of potential investors approaching him.
“To take it to the production stage, we need heavy investment,” he says. “It’s really exciting.”
The wearables and accessories maker Merlin Digital, also based in Dubai, was at the show looking for distributors for its new IntelliSense Coherence Kit, which lets users monitor their physical well-being with a virtual reality headset.
It was Merlin’s first time exhibiting at CES, although the company founder Sharad Bachani has attended before as a visitor. He says he goes to a number of other technology trade shows in other parts of the world, but the Las Vegas event is the most important one to be at as an exhibitor.
“It’s at CES that you really get a sense of where technology is going, more than any other show,” he says.
The show has changed over the course of its history, however – especially in recent years. The differences are best illustrated in the line-ups of keynote speakers that always kick off proceedings
Back in 2005, the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates headlined a group that also included the heads of Hewlett-Packard and Intel. Together, they formed a very computer-centric line-up.
A decade later, the headline speakers at this year’s show included the Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings and Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer, both of whom talked about the growing importance of streaming video. Mr Hastings also announced the expansion of Netflix to 130 more countries, bringing the total to nearly 200.
Herbert Diess and Mary Barra, the respective heads of Volkswagen and General Motors, also gave speeches in which they addressed the inevitable advent of autonomous vehicles.
Smartphones have changed everything over the past decade. By putting powerful, networked computers into everyone’s hands, companies such as Apple and Samsung unlocked a wave of unprecedented innovation. Sensors, apps and connectivity upended virtually every industry, or at least are in the process of doing so.
Technology is thus no longer computer-focused, but mainstream – and CES has changed to reflect that broadening.
“You have a very good cross-section of where innovation is happening,” says Shawn Dubravac, the chief economist for the Consumer Technology Association, the group that organises CES. “We now approach technology in a much more holistic way. It’s not just a hardware story or a content story, it’s about bringing all of those together.”
The participation of the car makers is a particularly big shift. A few years ago, when Mr Gates was still giving keynote speeches, none had a presence of any sort at CES. Car makers would instead save their announcements for the North American International Auto Show, which usually takes place in Detroit shortly after the Las Vegas event.
Now, as cars are increasingly becoming big, rolling gadgets, virtually every car maker is feeling the need to be where the most receptive audiences for them are – at CES.
The traditional manufacturers are also under assault from a host of newcomers. Google, Tesla and even Uber – and Apple, reportedly – are all working on self-driving cars, which will means electric vehicles that connect to the internet and each other wirelessly.
Faraday Future, a California-based start-up backed by the Chinese billionaire Jia Yueting, on Monday threw its hat into this already busy ring. The previously unknown company, which had been operating in stealth mode, showed off the FFZero1, a conceptual electric car that resembles something out of a science fiction film.
The company says it is planning to break ground on a new billion-dollar factory in Nevada in the next few weeks, which represents yet another auto industry outsider gunning for a piece of the driverless future.
The mobile revolution has also enabled an unprecedented wave of start-ups across every sector, a phenomenon that CES has been encouraging. In 2012, show organisers added Eureka Park, a section devoted to small start-ups that cannot afford the huge, flashy booths on the main convention floor.
About 500 start-up exhibitors were at this year’s event, up from 375 last year, with products ranging from virtual-reality controllers to connected shirts that can measure heart rates. More than 1,100 start-ups have exhibited at Eureka Park since its inception and have collectively raised US$1 billion in funding, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
In many cases, it is the small companies who come to the event with the most innovative ideas. France’s Sensorwake, for example, is pushing an alarm clock that emits pleasant aromas – croissants and coffee – rather than noise in an effort to rouse its users in the morning. Los Angeles-based Somabar, meanwhile, is one of several start-ups that are hoping to become the Keurig of cocktails with machines that automatically brew mixed drinks.
CES has developed its own minor-league system, so to speak. The start-ups in Eureka Park are increasingly suggesting the ideas that the big companies with the city-block-sized booths on the main floor eventually run with.
The event is evolving along with technology – a big factor that continues to draw attendees from around the world.
“Getting here is just one part of the journey, but there’s always something great around the corner, so it’s well worth it,” Mr. Bachani says.
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