Talking More, Smiling Less at CES

The Show Inspires Lots of Conversations, But Where Is the Magic?

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In the Broadway musical "Hamilton," the cautious Alexander Burr advises Alexander Hamilton, "Talk less, smile more." This year's Consumer Electronics Show brought out the opposite, where major brands' announcements generated countless conversations about the future of technology, but the show floor lacked a sense of smile-inducing wonder.

This stood out most with the automakers. This year, CES was their show. GM kicked off the week by announcing a $500 million investment in Lyft, with the ultimate goal of creating a network of self-driving cars.

Other announcements quickly followed. Audi touted its $28 million investment in rental car startup Silvercar. Ford shared its integrations with the Amazon Echo voice-activated virtual assistant and Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. In a new twist, automakers are even partnering with each other, as Toyota is using Ford's open-source SmartDeviceLink for its next wave of telematics. Then there was Faraday Future, a California startup backed by Chinese investors, showing off its 1,000-horsepower electric concept car, the FFZero1; some pundits wonder if the secretive company is an Apple subsidiary or partner.

Contrast that with the convention center, where the North Hall featured several major automakers showing off autonomous vehicles, electric cars, and dashboard software (usually partnering with Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto). The booths were pretty and staff helpful, but that wasn't enough. The booths did little to show how the automakers are at the epicenter of societal shifts in not just transportation but employment, urban planning, travel, business collaboration, commerce, and ethics. Cars could be programmed to reduce traffic collisions and annually save more than 1 million lives a year globally. How could a trade show do justice to such life and death issues?

Consider less critical technologies too, such as virtual reality. On the show floor, people queued up at several booths to sit down, strap on a headset, and soak in immersive entertainment. For those who never tried it, or who wanted to try a new version of the hardware, it was a fun use of a few minutes. Yet as all this was happening, the Oculus Rift went on sale for $599, and the co-founders went on a press tour (including Reddit) to give a master class on the current state of VR, including developments with Samsung's Gear VR, which is powered by Oculus. Score another point for the talking.

Drones fared a little better in the convention center. Intel and Parrot each created cages to show off their drones. Intel's was manned by a pilot, while Parrot had a troupe of vehicles dancing around in front of crowds. Yet Parrot announced a new drone, the Disco, that can fly for 45 minutes and 50 miles per hour; in the booth, it was locked down on a table. Intel, in one of the better moments of CES keynote stagecraft, showed a drone using its RealSense technology following a mountain biker and dodging a falling tree. Once you know what these drones can do, going down to see an exhibit about them is anticlimactic.

Beyond the announcements, there's all the talking about the talking. At CES, more than 170,000 people are thrown together, and a lot of the conversation is centered on making sense of what stands out at each year's show. Panels and keynotes bring some of the more accomplished and interesting practitioners to share what they're seeing in front of packed rooms. You can learn more from the people than the products.

So much of what matters at CES also doesn't translate well to flashy displays. Every single session I went to and most of the in-depth conversations I joined led to discussions on data -- who owns what, what marketers should do with it, and how data's behind practically all major CES announcements. It's "The Little Prince" all over again: "What is essential is invisible to the eye."

The tech experience itself should be more fun. Here's one way to bring back the experiential magic of CES: Shift the show floor in coming years to Boulder City, Nevada, 30 miles outside of Vegas, where the world's first Droneport is under construction. Enlarge the vision of the Droneport though. Add a course where people can get inside self-driving cars. Let robots roam free. Show actual smart homes, complete with smart gardens and smart pets. Build fitting rooms full of wearables, customized via 3D printing, that connect to arrays of beacons. Set up VR bars where all the conversations and drink orders take place through virtual reality. If South by Southwest is known as spring break for nerds, turn CES into the winter break family vacation for nerds. Tap Disney or Universal Studios or Steven Spielberg to consult on producing the show floor.

Would that be expensive? Sure. Impractical? Absolutely. But it would also bring back the magic. It would make our kids and cousins and parents itching to hear more about what we're doing and what the future will bring. And it would get us all to sit back slack-jawed, heeding the Broadway Burr's advice as we'd talk less -- and smile more.