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    The Upside of a Giant Gadget Fair

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Having finally escaped Vegas and cleared the red fog of gadget blogging from my brain, I have to admit that I enjoyed CES more than I expected.

    Sure, it's crowded and bewildering and stressful and you can't write anything about anything without worrying about shilling for somebody, but all that aside (yes, all that) it's fascinating to see what's coming in consumer tech all laid out in front of you.

    This guy was showing off camera software that removes blur from shaky hands. The kicker? It actually appeared to work.

    The most common criticism of something like CES, especially as a journalist, is that you're basically shoved into a battledome-version of a NASCAR car and told to write about it. Embarrassing affairs like CBS telling CNET to rescind an award because of a lawsuit doesn't help. And yes, at the end of the day writing about gadgets means giving publicity to companies, which can be tough to swallow sometimes.

    In an environment like CES, when you're competing to cover everything, good or bad, it can feel harder to be objective. But at the end of the day, that's an inherent quandary in writing about gadgets in general.

    This game show was near the press room, and never, ever stopped. Ever.

    For me, a bigger criticism of CES is that it all too often feels like manufacturers were trading on pomp and flash rather than genuinely showcasing innovation. CES is a very consumer-oriented show. And I suppose it's to be expected that manufacturers are going to focus on what's in stores right now, or what will be soon.

    In that sense, it all feels a bit like a glorified shopping experience, one in which you're easily able to compare whatever it is you want to buy all at once. Along with that, CES is a catch-all show, and for many sectors isn't the premier niche-specific expo around. So for auto, camera, and other manufacturers who need to make a splash at the Detroit Auto Show and Photokina, big announcements at CES tend to be thin. 

    That's what pure joy looks like.

    For 2013 specifically, the show felt particularly iterative. I think we're nearing the end limit of gadget specs currently being advertised–tablets can only be so thin; TVs can only be so big, and point-and-shoot cameras can reasonably only have so many megapixels. And this year's show didn't have as many far-reaching predictions as I'd like. Yes, everything now can connect to the Internet. But what's the next step for batteries and content platforms?

    "I see your computer gun and raise bungee cords."

    At the end of the day, CES can feel like an interactive catalog, and I do understand why many people think the whole thing is unnecessary. But judging CES on what Nikon and Samsung are doing is missing out on the hundreds of small companies competing to figure out how to stand out. In some cases, that means scads of smartphone cases all competing for being the blingiest, as well as semi-nude booth models.

    A guy came up to me while I was at this booth to tell me how cool it was to have this famous grafitti artist at the show, but I'm still not sure what they were selling?

    But that also includes a whole lot of firms who put their bank accounts on the line to try to bring to market gadgets that they truly think can work. Not to romanticize things too much, as there were plenty of questionable ideas the show. But to see the groundswell of startups all in one place is awesome. Once you get past the TVs and start finding people who are genuinely pumped to tell you about their new device–and not just because you're wearing a Best Buy-branded press pass: this is the core reason I enjoy writing about tech. 

    It was clear what these dudes with their rolling boombox were selling: good vibes.

    Seeing that enthusiasm did a better job of tempering my incoming CES cynicism than I expected. Sure, it can be exhausting to wade through mountains of headphone makers competing, not on sound or price, but on which celebs they can sign up. And yes, it does feel at times like big companies are just paying lip service to the whole thing.

    Chillest mascot of CES 2013.

    To view a trade show like CES solely through the risk-free booths of the big boys ignores the opportunity present to check out what's cooking on the fringes. Some companies are relegated to the sidelines for a reason, but plenty of small firms have genuinely interesting ideas that I'd never, ever come across otherwise. Call CES a pain in the ass if you want, because in many ways it is. But even during a year in which the giants seemed to be playing it safe, the chance to wade neck deep through the maelstrom of gadgets is pretty damn fun.

    All images via Derek Mead. Follow Derek on Twitter at @derektmead.