Dreaming of Electric Sheep
Some among you might think this is a veiled reference to Google’s mobile operating system. But that would just expose you for what you are, namely, the kind of person who goes on virtual KenKen dates with avatars you met on a distant planet with two suns. And attended CES, the world’s biggest el
ectronapalooza ( technical term). For those walking through the North, Central and South halls, it would be hard to go to bed not dreaming of UXs, operating systems and unnervingly symmetrical bionic people.
The Consumer Electronics Show, fittingly held every year in Las Vegas, is the largest smorgasbord of electronic innovation on the planet, an all-you-can-eat celebration of the magic of technology. Some would say it is equally a demonstration of the magical ability to conjure something out of nothing, but I say hey, buyer beware. I mean, this is Vegas, baby. If you walk through the halls with one foot planted firmly in the real world, you should be able to distinguish between genuinely useful and exciting ideas and vaporware. This year’s CES had a dual symbolism: representing not just a resurgence of innovation and a whole new set of toys for grown-ups, but also a revival of faith in the economy. The attendees rung in at 160,000 – 20,000 more than last year, representing the entire anthill of geekdom and the hopes, dreams and wallets of several industries and business ecosystems.
This was my third year at the Show and a few things stood out for me. Firstly, the exhibitors: this year there was a significant automotive presence, as well as healthcare. F
ord and Audi previewed their electric cars while Nissan showed off the Leaf and GM showed off a 2-person EV that can drive and park itself.
Secondly, the shift from hardware to software, much talked-about, is now a palpable reality. Almost a third of the space was taken up by software, OS and apps developers and even the traditional hardware companies presented themselves as ‘bit-people.’ Not to say that physical design is unimportant – this year the CNet design award went to the Casio Tryx, a point-and-shoot that has changed what point-and-shoots look like.
Thirdly, ‘strange bedfellows’: there is nothing more indicative of the seismic changes in this industry than the unlikely alliances we see across the board – exemplified for me when Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, in his opening keynote address, invited a surprise guest – Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, which owns, among other things, a rival cable system to Verizon FiOS. Followed shortly by Sanjay Jha of Motorola and the chief engineer on Android at Google. Look out for more examples of ‘coopetition’ and re-think the category you w
ork in – Ford is on its way to being a major consumer electronics company, Panasonic is an energy utility and Google…well, Google is everything and if they aren’t, they soon will be.
Oh yes, and there were a few tablets on display as well. By all estimates, at least 60, with Motorola’s Xoom taking top honors at the CNet Awards. Not to mention 3D coming into its own, across not just TVs, but phones and videocams. But as my colleague and in-house tech guru Mike Lundgren at VML commented, there are still too many problems in capture and playback and several issues with the viewing experience…he’s going to stick to 2D for a while and hope for a post-processing solution. Speaking of Mike and VML, be sure to check out Copia, the unique e-reader solution they developed and launched at CES – http://www.thecopia.com/home/index.html.
But for me, it was always going to be the launch of Reese’s Mini Cups. An innovation unveiled on the first day by the head of R&D at Hershey’s (what, you thought they didn’t have one?), 5 years in the making and dangerously intuitive, ubiquitous and effective. Not to mention, a brilliant example of unorthodox brand placement: what better placement for a new candy than a tech show? As the Hershey’s spokesman said
: “They solve an important issue for techies – their size and unwrapped state makes them ergonomically perfect for one-handed internet surfing or tapping out a text message.”
So what’s the real news this year? Maybe it was the sugar-peanut butter high, but after all these years, it seemed like manufacturers had finally begun to think about genuinely putting the user first and designing systems around them – and I’m not just talking about Kinect, which is potentially the most exciting UX advance since the invention of facial expressions. Amid all the blinded-with-science, shiny new objects, there were many that one could see would be immediately useful to normal people who don’t attend CES. Ways to manage your health through your phone, your energy usage through your TV and your entertainment and personal content through any device you want. If the first generation of electronics technology took a
way some of our faculties, turned us into couch potatos and effectively created barriers between us and the real world, this is the year we begin to break out of the Matrix. The best products and services I saw are about engaging more deeply and wholly with the world, about getting the data we need to make our own decisions and about creating, not just consuming, as our Mobile Technology planning director Tyler Fonda put it.
I’ll stop now before this ceases to be a blogpost and turns into a New Yorker article. With perhaps one last thought from Philip K. Dick: was there ever a title more prescient, in this sun-baked Vegas spectacle, than his ‘We Can Dream It For You Wholesale?’