To the surprise and delight of the more experienced Ars staff, I volunteered to attend CESthe Consumer Electronics Show, held annually in Las Vegasthis year. The delight, as it turns out, is because if I hadn't volunteered, one of them might have been voluntold. I didn't let theschadenfreude get me down, though; attending CES has been a bucket-list item for me for more than 20 years. I'm not a huge fan of crowds, but the promise of "weird electronic stuff" and sights not offered to the general public had me mesmerized.
One of the things any CES veteran will tell you is that it's impossible to actually see all of CES. They're not kiddingit would be an overstatement to claim that CES takes over the entirety of Las Vegas, but it wouldn't be an egregious one. Parts of CES take place at the Venetian hotel/casino/indoor mall, the attached and similarly gargantuan Palazzo, and the Las Vegas Convention Center. Any one of those locations dwarfs any other convention center I've seen, but even all of them together aren't enough to entirely contain CESwhich also has offshoots in other area hotels, convention centers, and just about anywhere else you can cram a few hundred people.
I hardly left the Venetian on my first day at CES. The show wasn't technically open at all yetit was an extremely limited "media preview" with a few high-impact press conferences from the likes of AMD and Intel, and not much else. To the great fury of our most dedicated AMD fans, I ended up covering Intel's press release a day before AMD'sbecause AMD mistakenly invited me to the location of their future party room, not their actual press conference, which was several miles across town.
The next day, the AMD party room I'd first seen as a collection of cardboard boxes and a few people unpacking them was a wild, red-lit gamer's-paradise extravaganza, packed with greatly-appreciated appetizers and one gonzo Threadripper rig after another. A display on one side of the room ran through several promotional videos, including some kind of crazy processor-focused take on Chuck Woolery's 1990s cringe-reboot of The Dating Game.
My absolute favorite moment of AMD's lavish party, though, was a moment between two of the waitstaff during a lull in service. One eyed the table full of Threadripper gaming machines next to her and asked the other "is it just me, or are those things making it hot in here?" Judging by my own time with the Threadripper 3970x, that table was pushing several kilowatts worth of heatso no, even in a room comfortably packed with milling human bodies, I don't think it was just her imagination.
One of the most disappointing things about CES for me is how little of it felt like "amazing, gonzo thing you'd never see anywhere else" and how much of it felt like either a perfectly banal department-store electronics sectionor a "weird goods" table at a flea marketwhere you can't actually buy anything.
I did eventually stumble across wild robotic exoskeletons for heavy industrial work, see-through augmented reality glasses something like a poor person's Microsoft HoloLens, and morebut in order to find them, I first had to wade through 1950s-styled refrigerators, 1990s-styled boom boxes, andfor some reasona pair of Hello Kitty endcaps, which didn't look any different from the ones you might find at your local Target department store.
Listing image by Jim Salter
Delta Air Lines had an enormous open-floor exhibit, and it had a lot going on—the largest part of the exhibit was some sort of "virtual airport" thing, exhibiting a prototype system where the displays in airports show individually targeted information to travelers as they pass by.
On the other side of the Delta exhibit, Sarcos Robotics—who has landed Delta as a client—was exhibiting the Guardian XO, its fully functional, battery-powered industrial exoskeleton. We'll cover Sarcos—and the Guardian XO—more thoroughly soon, in its own report. Sarcos wouldn't let arbitrary reporters climb into the actual Guardian, unfortunately, but I did at least get to operate one arm of it. This is enough to give you a feel for how insanely strong the Guardian XO is, without running the risk of throwing a 50-pound weight like an NFL quarterback making a bullet pass.
The Delta/Sarcos exhibit was in the middle of the biggest floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and I spent a plenty of time wandering around randomly there, eyeballing everything from blockchain coffee—which I did not spend any more time on than it required to snap a photo—to "battery as a service," whatever that is.
Most of the main floor at the Las Vegas Convention Center was split evenly between "flea market" and "department store" motifs, with few really surprising products. But there were some delightful pockets of weird and fun mixed in, like Vuzik's fully see-through AR goggles—which I used to play Wolfenstein 3D, because of course I did—and an extremely large and very Batman-themed vacuum cleaner display.
Enormous video displays, both LED and projection, were everywhere—but my favorite was a small set of stacked cubes, displaying a waterfall on every visible surface. Who made it? I don't really know. Why did they make it? I'm not sure of that, either, to be perfectly honest. But I enjoyed them.
There are lots of things at CES that a casual or even not-so-casual attendee might never find the purpose of. I walked through one display with an IndyCar and another large display floor for "Innovative Optical and Wireless Networks." I spent probably 20 minutes in another extremely large display area complete with carnival-esque barkers, games with prizes, and popcorn without ever really figuring out what was going on with any of them.
I also encountered what appeared to be a full-on high-fashion runway modeling show being put on by Canon—you know, the folks who make cameras and inkjet printers. I could not for the life of me discern an actual product being demonstrated at the runway display or see anything about the weird clothes the models were wearing that screamed out "things that Canon makes." I'm sure there was some reason for the runway—but nobody told me what it was.
Great piles of money have apparently been thrown at glitzing up various CES displays, but very little money was thrown at focus groups to help companies figure out if anybody would be able to tell what they're actually pitching.
Although there were television-display floors everywhere you looked at CES, Sony's stood out. The company has an awful lot of current or upcoming 8K HDR HDTV models, and between the TVs themselves and Sony's choice of demonstration video, they looked good. I've got a nice 65" 4K HDR television in my den, so I didn't really expect to be blown away by any televisions at CES for any reason other than size—but I have to admit, Sony's impressed me. It's normally hard to get a good idea of a television or monitor's display from a photo, but these things look great even in the quick snaps I took with my Pixel 2XL.
After I finished up at the Las Vegas Convention Center on my last day, I headed back to the Venetian, dog-tired, and discovered an entirely separate exhibition hall by accident. I didn't have much chance to experience this side of CES—which seemed smaller, less heavily-funded, and more likely to trend towards fun "gonzo" things you never expected. The only reason I even knew this space, with tens of thousands of attendees, even existed was because security suddenly decided not to allow even screened bags up one particular escalator. So I had to make a detour to return to my room.
Next year, I should know better how to find the smaller, weirder spaces with unexpected gadgetry. And, yes—assuming Ars still wants to cover CES in 2021—I'll go back willingly.