Do CES's TVs, bendy screens and crowded halls even matter?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on January 14, 2013

From The News Desk

I'm back in Brooklyn, adjusting to what the real world feels like. The crowded halls, flashing LED screens, shiny gadgets and gizmos, and long cab lines of CES 2013 are now a thing of the past, remembered only in blog posts and newfound claustrophobia. Now the only question is whether or not the show meant anything.

Saying that CES 2013 was huge would be an understatement. The organization behind the event, the CEA, says that this year's show occupied more space than any show before it and drew some 3,250 exhibitors and a whopping 150,000 attendees. (And now you get the "newfound claustrophobia" bit.) Sites like The Verge and Engadget, official partners of the show, pumped out story after story about new product announcements, interviews, and "did that really happen?" keynotes.

But no one ever doubted that CES would draw a large crowd. Being surprised at that is like being surprised that a lot of people showed up for Lollapalooza or that someone left Burning Man with sand in their shoes. The question is how much of a difference the show makes for technology, and whether it offers a glimpse into the future.

It's a hard question to answer. Hell, that's why I'm writing this after a few days away from the show floor. Walking around the 1.92 million square feet of exhibit space can cause "gadget blindness," allowing companies to shock and awe with new products while keeping core information, like release dates and pricing, under wraps. It's easy to say "Holy shit!" when you see Thomas Edison projected on mist -- at least until you realize he's just being pimped out for an iPad raffle -- but harder to admit that we're years from that particular technology making it big, if it ever manages to do so.

That same principle can be applied to many of the products shown. 4K televisions look great, and some of the sets from Samsung, LG, and Sony evoke a visceral need to be teleported to your living room, stat. But we don't know how much these things will cost, what the benefit will be for people who own (now outdated) high-definition movies or, worse, DVDs. And it's not even that we as consumers or reporters don't know how this will work -- in an interview with The Verge, Sony CEO Kaz Hirai admitted that the company is still trying to figure out the best way to serve 4K content.

An even more fanciful example may be Samsung's bendable screens. Cool? Absolutely. It's like a Fruit Roll-Up that happens to have an awesome screen and does more than dye your tongue. Yet, again, there's no release date, no information, no idea whether this is even what people will want, from Samsung or anywhere else.

And yet, behind these companies working their flash-in-the-pan magic to save face at a huge trade show -- often literally behind them, as Samsung and Sony and LG all claimed entrances and dominated the show floors -- are some companies doing interesting things that will happen, one way or the other.

Consider Leap Motion, the tool bringing gesture controls to computers. Or Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that actually works. Or Sensus, an iPhone case that adds value instead of trying to be another me-too shell. These products aren't vaporware attention grabs from large vendors, they're real products built by companies that likely can't afford for them to be released in two or three or four years.

As a trade show and an excuse for hundreds of thousands of industry insiders to come together and take a peek at what they might be buying or selling or using in a few years, CES would be lost without large companies and their technological bait-and-switch. But losing the companies mentioned in that previous paragraph would prove the nay-sayers right and remove much of the innovation to be found on each show floor.

So, does CES mean anything? Based on the attention given to the little guys who are actually innovating, the power of a show that brings so many passionate people together, and the fact that so many of us keep coming back for more despite the long cab lines, the crowded hallways, and the ridiculous costs (lookin' at you, thirteen-dollar chicken sandwich) it's hard to say no. Of course it means something.

Maybe all of this is, as the detractors say, just a bunch of bullshit, and I'm just not seeing it. Maybe in all of the excitement I put on some rose-tinted glasses to accompany my 3-D pair. But it's hard to believe that the future might not lie on any of CES' massive halls or with any of its many visitors.