In the nearly 25 years since last walking the showfloor at the Consumer Electronics Show, the video game industry spun off its own show - E3 - while once-dominant television manufacturers now find themselves consigned to an ever-shrinking footprint with the Las Vegas Convention Centre.
The world has changed substantially over that time - the Web, Wi-Fi and smartphones top the list - but, as was true back then as well, most of the blinking trinkets at CES are destined for a quick trip from factory to landfill.
Who really needs a 4K-per-eye VR headset that a) can’t be driven by any released graphics card, and b) can’t be worn over your face because the engineers (and I use that term loosely) simply glued two six-inch smartphone panels together? Sure, it’s a prototype, a promise for the future, but if that’s the future you’re promising, perhaps you could rethink your life choices.
I mention VR because this year CES featured an entire exhibition hall filled with nothing but drones, VR and AR - all of the most-hyped and currently least-useful of consumer electronics. Sure, drones will be amazing in a few years, when we’ve figured out how to keep them away from aircraft above and out of the hands of paparazzi down below, but for now they’re simply noisy, annoying, and, at the consumer grade, not much more interesting than radio controlled aircraft from 25 years ago.
VR and AR? So much hype and so much hoping that after the failures of the 90s this time will be different, because Google and Facebook and Sony and Microsoft want it to be.
Many Shenzhen hardware manufacturers had their wares on display, from all-in-one Android headsets that had none of the features or functionality of the high-end headset Qualcomm showed off in its football-field sized booth, down to humble plastic cases for your smartphone that - if you’re really lucky - might work with a Google Cardboard-compatible app.
I went to CES expecting to see a lot of VR consumer froth, but in addition I got a bellyful of augmented and mixed reality: the thick, see-through projection lenses familiar to Hololens users have been turned into commodities, so almost anyone can create a system that mixes the real-world with computer-generated imagery.
None of these systems have the sophisticated ‘inside-out’ tracking of Hololens, nor Windows 10 Holographic Edition, so they basically delivered all of the worst features of the Google Glass experience - at several times the price.
It’s as if now that we finally have VR, no one knows what to do with it. Case in point: the Intel VR ‘special press event’, hosted by CEO Brian Krzanich, featuring comfortable overstuffed chairs and a complete VR system for each of the 300 media who made it into the event.
Krzanich took us through a tour of some state-of-the-art VR applications - including a livestream from a drone overflying a solar electric array somewhere out in the Nevada desert - but it all seemed a bit disparate and/or desperate. We don’t really know what VR will be good for, he seemed to be suggesting, but please play with it. The unbranded air sickness bag conveniently placed next to each Oculus CV1 headset perfectly framed Intel’s ambivalence about this so-exciting-it-makes-you-sick future.
Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang barely mentioned VR at all in his Jobs-esque keynote, despite the fact that a big part of nVidia’s recent uptick in revenues comes from PC-based VR systems. Instead, Huang seemed more interested in anything but gaming, including a new ‘Spot’ gadget that functions like an Amazon Echo, connecting to Google Assistant, and - with a few scattered through the household - uses ‘beam forming’ to track your location all the time. Ideal for turning on the lights just before you enter a room -- and perfect for a stalker who wants to know your exact whereabouts.
Such largely-unnoticed but increasingly pervasive ‘surveillance capitalism’ has become a persistent topic of conversation among the folks I ran into at CES, many of whom have spent their entire careers in tech and now wonder if the whole thing hasn’t become a bit too comprehensive. Sure, the machines just want to help us, but what about the opaque powers behind those machines, gathering data for their own ends? Should we be concerned - or should we just lie back and think of Zuck?
I came away from CES feeling like we need a proper spring cleaning in technology, taking all the shiny, blinking, connected tchotkes off our shelves, considering whether they serve us well. If not, we need to bin them, filling the landfill with bad products, bad business, and bad actors. Clearing away the trash and distractions will help us focus on the world we really want to create. ®