CES is Dead. Long Live CES

Photos: IEEE Spectrum

Recently, every new year occasions a certain amount of grumbling about CES in some techie circles. Pundits fear CES has become over-managed, with carefully choreographed exercises in PR replacing real tech news. It’s certainly true that the show has undergone some gentrification, as mainstream interest in what was once a deeply geeky event has dramatically increased. Celebrities are to be seen—and not all of them show up at the event to pick up an easy paycheck yucking it up at a corporate event.

There’s also the fact that it’s been a while since a new product category made a really big splash. Tablets are probably the most recent “Next Big Thing.”

But rather than marking some kind of terminal decline, this is actually a normal part of the innovation cycle. Take a look at CES’s official list of breakout stars, which includes the VCR, the CD player, the Xbox, and the IP TV. There are substantial gaps in time between many of the entries. But that’s not to say that the wheels of innovation grind to a halt in the so-called down years.

Instead, two important things happen. One is that for the big product categories, a period of refinement and—critically—cost reduction is what turns gee-whiz first-generation products into things that actually influence daily life. (Recall that the first CD player cost about US $1000.) Only a sharp drop in price allowed the digital revolution to really take off.

And the absence of a big headliner category that draws all of the industry’s focus—like when e-readers first made a splash and it seemed for a while that every company with a designer capable of combining a mobile processor and screen was obsessed with nothing elseleaves room for diversity of innovation.

This was certainly in evidence last night at CES Unveiled, one of the big demo events surrounding the show (another is Pepcom’s Digital Experience, which we’ll be live tweeting tonight). Companies turned up with lots of ideas for radically different products: an alarm clock that wakes you up with blasts of scent; a wearable pendant that can translate languages back-and-forth on the fly; a phased-array acoustic loudspeaker; a re-invented piano; and many other weird and wonderful ideas. Now, sure, not all of these are going to be winners. But the level of imagination and invention, even if not on the scale of some juggernaut breakout, means that CES is far from going the way of Comdex.

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