Gadgets, gizmos and glamour as electronics world lands in Sin City
THE biggest single expense in Las Vegas this week was not gambling or dining but shoe leather. The tech world descended on Sin City for the annual International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the biggest such event on the planet with 3,300 exhibitors and 150,000 attendees.
The venue is the giant Las Vegas Convention Centre and, with almost two million square feet of space across three vast halls, visiting the show is a draining experience guaranteed to test the mettle of many shoes.
CES organisers estimated that 20,000 new products would be launched at the show – but you could boil this hyperbole down to a handful of categories, such as new TVs and endless varieties of iPhone case.
The trade show, which runs until tomorrow, has a long history as the launchpad for life-changing technology, such as the CD and the VCR. Little on show here this week is likely to prove as revolutionary but CES still sets the agenda for the consumer electronics industry, which is predicted to be worth $1.1 trillion (€841bn) globally in 2013, a rise of 4pc on last year.
"Innovation is our best hope for growth," said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association, which organises the show, at the opening.
The recurring theme was the next generation of television, with major manufacturers such as Panasonic, Sony and Samsung clamouring for attention with their so-called "4K" sets. These promise four times the resolution of current high-definition TVs.
While the picture quality is undoubtedly stunning, the problem is that very few programmes have ever been made in such high resolution. Not to mention that the cost of these first versions of ultra-high-res television runs into tens of thousands of euro. Some analysts speculate that 4K may receive the same lukewarm reception as greeted 3D in the home.
More likely to succeed is the growing trend for smart TVs, with phone-like apps and services built in.
"In a few short years, TV has moved from being a one-way device to being an interactive channel for all kinds of information, applications and functions," Shiro Kitajima, president of Panasonic's consumer marketing in North America, said.
However, the big players have also realised the need to simplify and streamline their controls. So alternatives to the traditional remote will play a bigger part in forthcoming smart TVs.
The show itself is a bewildering, sprawling mass of heat, light and sound. The big players compete for bragging rights by building enormous booths to showcase their wares.
In their shadows stand displays from hundreds of brands you've never heard of, touting products you will never be able to buy. They include everything from tiny two-person operations out of the backwaters of China to medium-sized corporations that fall just shy of household names.
Some of the wackier ideas to come out of the show this year were the Android-powered oven, the forks that monitor your eating habits via an iPhone app or the plant sensors that connect to the internet to track the need for watering.
Like medieval hawkers, many strive to catch your eyes or ears in the hope of a bit of publicity from the media or, better still, to strike deals with the thousands of buyers attending the show from worldwide.
The exhibitors use every trick in the book to grab your attention. Many booths are staffed by pretty young women with fixed smiles while a smattering of celebrities – including Danny DeVito, rapper 50 Cent and actress Kelly LeBrock – lend a touch of glamour to some straightlaced demonstrations.
Interestingly this year, Microsoft largely followed Apple's example and stayed away from CES, all the better to stay above the din and shape its PR at standalone events. But Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer, a regular CES speaker, couldn't resist and made a brief appearance at a keynote on Monday night to talk up Windows 8.
For its part, Apple merely issued a press release timed to coincide with the show, noting that its App Store had now hit a staggering 40 billion downloads, with almost half of those coming in the past year alone.