Who’s behind the curtain at CES?
Apple Computer does not have a presence at CES, but their influence is everywhere. Because Apple is in the eye of every exhibitor at CES, there’s a kind of mesmerizing illusion that Apple actually is here. Or you might say that Steve Jobs is here in spirit, the man behind the curtain who’s shaping things he truly doesn’t control. It’s the Apple-ization of CES.
For a show that prides itself on innovation, CES is really a high-stakes game of companies copying each other. If someone else sells wireless Bluetooth headphones, your company has to sell them, too. It’s a massive electronic products checklist under each brand. Keeping up with other brands could be the theme of CES. Or keeping promises you can’t keep such as Lenovo’s “We make dream realization devices.”
What CES is morphing into is a fashion show, and products here are shown off in the best possible light, even though most will end up under the banks of fluorescent lighting and beside the royal blue walls of a Best Buy. Imagine Best Buy changing its lighting, re-arranging its displays, and replacing its young clerks with poised, articulate models who say “Bluetooth Wireless Headphones” as a come-on — in short, if Best Buy was more like a pretentious high-end department store and less like a warehouse, you’d get what CES is turning into. It’s a reflection of how the Apple Store is changing retail, and changing CES. However, these exhibit spaces don’t have Apple products, and the experience is, if you strip everything away, rather the same as any average Best Buy — walls of high-def TVs, banks of cables, switches and remote controls, racks of iPhone cases and accessories, digital-lifestyle-friendly messenger bags, exercise equipment, running shoes, and a fresh set of trendy, more expensive headphones and speakers that look like modern art installations. Oh, and there are computers here, but mostly smaller and disguised to look like something else, especially something Apple might have made and chose not to. CES is too big to care about just about anything there.
Given the scale of the show, the big anchors remain Microsoft and Intel, and less so, Sony and Samsung. The money these companies put into their exhibits is obvious; they become Disneyland-like spectacles that are kind of fun to walk through, but do you really ever remember anything you saw in “It’s a Small, Small World?” The blue lights and tent-like shapes of their booths are a far cry from the traditional trade show, but it’s a disappointment that we don’t have clowns or the Blue Man Group to entertain us. Perhaps Microsoft is wise to pull out of CES, which they’ve said they will do next year. There are other ways to have more impact, which is what Apple has been thinking all along.
We’re all in Blue Man Group
CES is now less about technology and more about style. Like the fashion industry, CES welcomes lots of different styles but much of the technology underpinning it is the same. You might like 50 Cent more than Dr. Dre and that’s why you wear his headphones. He speaks to you, and 50 Cent was hear to answer questions from a CNET interview who addressed him on a first-name basis as “50.” 50 Cent had his own mob following around him, which is not the same kind of mob featured at the Tropicana Mob Museum. Or maybe it’s the same. I couldn’t get a clear look at him, but from what I heard, he follows the script. Yet I learned that he bought an old audio company and he’s clearly re-invigorated it.
As much as CES follows in the style and spirit of Apple, there’s scant evidence of the maker movement here. Certainly, the show’s hotspot for makers is the MakerBot booth and its new Replicator product line, with Bre Pettis and team representing all of us, I think, by putting a different face on technology. It’s the face of enthusiasts, true believers in open source.
The Replicator’s Replica
The new Replicator is no longer a kit but a finished product. It still bears the marks of the laser cutter and has screws that you can remove to get inside. Michael Curry can tell you about how new algorithms will make the new machine run faster by allowing the print nozzle to accelerate and decelerate. The new Replicator is more stable and reliable, which is what the MakerBot introduced as the new middleground between RepRap unreliability and expensive high-end 3D printer stability. The MakerBot team members are true technology enthusiasts, and they stand out as the exception at CES.
The fact that the MakerBot party consisted of pizza and free beer at the Pinball Museum (see the Pinball issue of MAKE, Volume 08) tells you where their heart is. I think they reflect the true spirit of innovation and creativity.
I spoke at two conference sessions on making and education, one aimed at higher ed and the other at younger children. The theme is pretty much the same: making is a great introduction to science and technology for kids, and it reflects how kids learn and like to learn. Tinkering is a form of play that should be encouraged and supported in educational settings. We need everyone to think of themselves as capable builders, creators, and makers, and in education, we need to give students as well as teachers the freedom to explore, play, fail, and persevere. That’s where innovation will come from. Each maker is an agent of change, and they drive both personal and social change.
I talked about kits for young makers and the unique role of kits, which are featured in our Kits Special Issue and our Kits Review site. Kits are the apps of the making world. They organize information and parts that you need to do something, and they’re fun to play with. Kits are essential to innovation. The roots of Apple Computer and the personal computer revolution were in kits.
My personal favorite gadget at the show was another example of “how everything old is new” again. It was the new Polaroid camera, a relevant update of what we know Polaroid for — instant prints. It’s still exciting to get a tangible photo instantly, only now they are much higher quality photos that don’t smudge. And now, you can also preview a photo on a small LCD screen before printing. There’s still some magic inside a Polaroid camera.
I was happy to come across makers roaming the show floor: Tod Kurt of ThingM and Carlyn Maw, Ayah Bdeir of LittleBits, and Mark Gross of Modular Robotics. All agreed that the CES show is overwhelming. Ayah, who was there as a TED Fellow, remarked that CES is nothing like the fun and inspiration of Maker Faire. She echoed the “hard to care” theme.
The problem I have with CES is that you go but you don’t really participate. The flashy fashion show doesn’t move you, doesn’t invite you to get involved and do anything. In fact, it actually seems to create distance between you and the technology. (For me, it’s the difference between a slot machine and a pinball machine.) Like Las Vegas itself, CES is superficial, a whole lot of sizzle that doesn’t last very long. It’s hard to buy.
Think different. That’s why we make.
Click to view a slideshow of my impressions of CES
All of our alt.CES coverage