Fear and Loathing at CES: When shark-jumping isn’t even fun anymore

Don’t get too excited. Alas, this post isn’t going to be a gonzo novella about drug-fueled shenanigans at CES. (I am not even at CES this year, let alone dropping acid or chewing on funky mushrooms.) Today’s notes are going to be far more sober and quick than that. (Albeit less entertaining, I’m sure.)

Here’s the thing: as a tech analyst, I want to love CES. I want to feel excited at the thought of going. But you know what? I don’t. I decided to skip it this year, just like I skip SxSW every year. Why? Because I can’t really take CES seriously anymore. Check out this piece from USA Today to get a glimpse into what CES has turned into. Why would I fly to Vegas for a week and endure the crush of crowds in the middle of flu season just to be introduced to “product” after “product” that no one will ever buy or use in the real world?

Look… I could almost pretend to be excited by smart belts and home cameras that follow you around the house (welcome to the SuperMax experience) if they were priced for the real world, but… as a reformed product manager, cost accounting, pricing, margins, and customer behaviors aren’t things I can blow off when someone demos a useless and/or comically overpriced product. Here’s reality: Pricing is the difference between a concept and a real product. If you slap a $649 price tag on a $79 product, you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t have a business model, and you’re just wasting everyone’s time. And then there’s the issue of “why would anyone even want this?”

Case in point: Why would I buy a $400 per year “smart shoe” that can tell if I’ve fallen when dozens of wearable devices (many costing a fraction of that price) already do the same thing AND work regardless of what shoes I am wearing? (Newsflash: many senior citizen fall in their showers and bathtubs. What shoes do they wear in their showers, exactly?) What happens when they need to wear orthopedic shoes? What happens when they’re wearing slippers? What happens when they wear their church shoes? You could buy an Apple watch every year for that price, and get a lot more functionality out of it.

What cyclist is going to spend $650 on a bulky airbag vest? Serious road cyclists will spend that kind of money on gear but won’t go anywhere near this. Wrong market. And commuters might be interested but won’t rush to spend more than $150 on it. (Roughly the price of a high end helmet.) Great idea, but the product is going to have a tough enough time finding customers without its absurd price-point.

Tracking cameras might make sense in the home IF you’re disabled and need that kind of functionality, or if you want to build specific hand gesture applications for kitchens, game rooms, and garages, but no one else is going to spend hundreds of dollars on creepy surveillance cameras that follow you around when you call your mom while you’re making dinner or folding laundry. I mean… if you want to create an entire product category just for DIY YouTubers, knock yourself out, but maybe hiring influencers to inform your product strategy may not have been the smartest idea. (Caveat: At least this product category, however niche it may be, has a legitimate purpose AND a $150 option, so my snark is far more conditional and subdued than it is for some of the other products mentioned here.)

If this is the cool list, either CES has completely jumped the shark or USA Today is trying way too hard to polish a bucket of turds. Seriously. Who is handling market research for these companies? Who is putting together these “products'” pricing?

Here is what I remember from last year’s CES: Hall after hall and row after row of “also-in” products entirely indistinguishable from the previous hundred products promising to do the same thing, and hall after hall and row after row of “products” that solve no problem, create no value for  users, and whose pricing would make them non-starters even if they did serve a purpose, which most don’t.

LG has a TV that rolls up like a blind, you say? Super! But… why? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s an impressive engineering feat, and I don’t want to take anything away from the technical achievement of having made that concept actually work, but… why? TVs are already flat. They don’t take up any space. How many people will rush to Best Buy or Target to buy a rollable TV? Unless you live in a penthouse apartment filled to the brim with paintings and with a view of Pacific Ocean sunsets, I’m not seeing a huge market here.

Vuzix has smart glasses that let you take pictures and check twitter, kind of like how Google Glass did three years ago? Awesome! What else do I get for my $1,000? Because for that price, I could score a brand new Samsung Note, or a Pixel 3, or even an iPhone X-whatever. I could buy a pretty cool laptop for a grand. I could buy all kinds of cool tech. Again, don’t misinterpret my critique: I think those smart glasses look pretty great, and from what I’ve seen, they’re a pretty important milestone on the road to fully-functional AR glasses, but… $1,000? For a HUD, a camera, and some built-in speakers? Good luck selling those to consumers outside of Silicon Valley. Wake me up when the price drops to a more realistic $299-$399, where it belongs.

I could spend hours going over the idiocy of connected socks, connected diapers, connected forks, connected purses, connected toothbrushes, connected salt and paper shakers, and connected pillows, but I won’t. All I will say is this: Just because you can put a computer chip and a battery inside of an object doesn’t mean you should. Are new parents really asking for IoT diapers? Is anyone really really asking for a $1,000 laundry-folding machine? Does my coffee mug really need to send me a text when my latte gets lukewarm? Hall after all hall of inventions that would make more sense at an MIT science fair than at CES.

And it isn’t all bad. Companies like Dell, Intel, HP, Samsung, IBM, Huawei, Asus, Microsoft, Dassault Systemes, Qualcomm, and other companies with actual business models bring solid tech and concepts to CES every year. The vehicle tech exhibit is probably one of the more exciting aspects of the show. I find smart toilets and legitimate home automation products super promising. There are some cool things to discover in the fitness tech corner of the show. Drones are fun. Cameras are cool. There’s good stuff at CES if you know where to look. But… it’s also innovation you can find out about just by following the companies responsible for it. (Developers and implementers.) You don’t need to go to CES to catch a glimpse of these new products and features. And I am not sure that the noise-to-signal ratio at CES is all that productive at this point. Coverage of the event is an exercise in shark-jumping so patently absurd that it’s become hard to tell if journalists covering the event are serious or actively trolling their readers.

And I suppose that’s the crux of my complaint: Because of the mountain of noise being generated by nonsense “products” that have little chance of ever being successful (for obvious reasons), legitimately cool and promising products that will likely impact how we live, work, learn, travel, and play, often go unnoticed. Let me guess: You have probably heard more about the self-driving Tesla murdering a robot “incident” than you have about real driver-assist features coming to 2019 passenger vehicles. Am I wrong? Have you heard anything about upcoming ACPC laptops sporting multi-day “on” battery life? How about 8K video coming to smartphones? No? But you’ve probably heard about smart diapers and smart underwear, even though they will likely never turn up on a retailer’s shelf. And to be perfectly honest, I learn more about important new tech from innovator-specific conferences like Think (IBM), DellTechWorld (Dell), the SnapDragon Summit (Qualcomm) and the 3DExperience Forum (Dassault Systemes), to name a few of my favorites, than I do from attending CES.

One last thought: Between tech journalists overhyping important technologies like autonomous vehicles, AI, and VR; misreporting stories about 5G, cybersecurity, and legal disputes between tech companies; and focusing on nonsense CES gadgets at the expense of useful innovation that does deserve coverage; I worry that we ultimately erode the public’s trust in tech and its enthusiasm for it. I can’t forgive that. With all of the amazing innovation coming in 2019, some of it life-saving, and some of it just fun and exciting, it seems a shame that so much media energy is being squandered on shining a spotlight on the dankest of doobries.

I may start attending CES again, but based on the coverage I keep bumping into so far this year, it isn’t looking good. Let’s hope the rest of this week improves my perspective. Either way, if you prefer signal to noise, keep watching this space.

Cheers,

Olivier

PS: Fast Company also brings up a good point about security. Why is CES not emphasizing that increasingly vital component of the consumer electronics ecosystem? Is this a troubling oversight? A missed opportunity? A dangerous blind spot? I think so.