Close Encounters with the Consumer Electronics Show

Every few years I attend the Consumer Electronics Show, and each time I am blown away by the advances in technology. Going to the CES means walking through the almost seven million square feet of displays, and competing for foot space with over 175,000 people from all over the world. The show lasts for four days during the first full week in January. It takes place in Las Vegas, and it is by far the city’s largest convention of the year, one of the largest in the world. This year’s CES featured advances in wearables, home security, computer hardware, phones, and household appliances, but the biggest stars of the show were the drones, robotics, and 3-D printers.

I’ve gone to this show many times, so I usually know where I want to spend my time, since even with four days, there is no way to see it all. I usually start with the big displays like LG, Samsung, and Sony. These companies have impressive video displays showing the latest in HD and 4K TV’s as well as monitors, gaming devices, phones, tablets, and home appliances. It’s overwhelming to see how many new TV’s they have, and how thin they have gotten. Most are no thicker than my phone, and are curved.

The Samsung display at the Consumer Electronics Show (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

The Samsung display at the Consumer Electronics Show (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

The appliances are amazing too, because the refrigerators, for example, weigh the groceries inside and link to the user’s typical grocery store via a phone app. The fridges will automatically add items to a shopping list as they run low. Users can read the list on a display on the door and also speak to the fridge and tell it to add items to the list. Modern washers and dryers hold an entire jug of soap or softener, dispensing exact amounts for each type of wash or dry cycle. They, too, communicate with the app when soap runs low, adding soap to the shopping list. If you have an LG phone, you can control all these appliances from anywhere. This is especially great for your home’s thermostat.

My next stop after the big displays is usually fresh air and lunch, because most attendees spend lots of time viewing the latest in development and demonstrations of the large companies. It’s like a sardine can in there. A breath of air is very welcome after being packed in while waiting to see or try out the new tech. After lunch I spend the afternoon wandering around the displays for items I own, because some of the companies will offer free gifts if you can show them you already own their product. Also, if you sit through a spiel of a company, you can usually get some sort of perk, or be entered into a contest or giveaway. The Samsung Galaxy booth had free giveaways of pictures: have your picture taken with a Galaxy Note, and the rep will upload it to a Dropbox account, then have it printed on a luggage tag or tee shirt. They had models of the Marvel heroes around so you could pose with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, or the Hulk. It was a long wait to get our swag, but worth it.

Darcy and me, memorialized on a luggage tag at the Samsung Galaxy Note booth (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

A memorial luggage tag from the Samsung Galaxy Note booth (Credit: DeLyn Martineau)

One of my must-sees is Eureka Park. Eureka Park is for startups (up-and-coming companies) so most of the time the companies exhibit apps or other inventions that are so new they either need backing or exposure. I always like to wander through and see what the “next best thing” is. This year I saw a couple of things that caught my eye: one was Pleo, a little trainable dinosaur who actually learns how to be a pet. When you get him, he only knows how to eat and sleep, but as he “grows,” he learns how to play, how to show affection, and even how to follow your life patterns. The rep said he does a lot more over time, even becoming sensitive to your moods so he learns what you need, but I’m not so sure I believe that one. He is cute, though. I just wish he had fur so he would be more fun to cuddle.

The other thing that got my attention was a Pico Brew system which brews beer almost like a coffee maker with a system so small that 2.5 gallons are brewed at a time. Rather than having it brew, age, and serve in different containers, it brews in the system and then goes right into a small keg where yeast is added for primary fermentation. It takes about three to four hours to brew a batch, so several batches per day can be set aside to ferment, which takes about a week. After aging, the beer can be dispensed from the mini-keg just like any other beer. The system has one chamber for malt and four chambers for hops, so it does the mash, and can be programmed to time when the hops get added, how much, what kind, etc. which allows for creativity and tailoring of the recipe to exactly what is desired. It is a must for experimenters of home brews.

The other areas we visited a lot were the robotics, drones, and 3-D printers. It’s amazing the advances that have been made in robotics, even in the last year. Some of the groups that were in Eureka Park last year have come far enough to have their own booth in the larger arena. The robots are a perfect example. From those that carry items for their users, to those that bend and build and bring items to their users, the possibilities really do seem endless as robots become more diverse in their capabilities, even verging on sentience. One of the cutest robots was one we found that could dance, among other things.

The drones were interesting, too, because they are starting to come out in all shapes and sizes, and for all different purposes. The ones we saw had a reticulating arm with different attachments, so a camera or other specialized equipment could be attached. These drones are already being used to document things like sports games, but as they evolve, they are becoming more and more affordable for the common user, and people are starting to build their own from scratch. If they are not already, I’m sure kits will become available at local hobby stores.

Two attendees examine the latest in drone technology. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

Two attendees examine the latest in drone technology. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

By far the most fascinating things we saw at the CES were the 3-D printers. I had no idea things could be printed in 3-D, much less how many types of media could be used. We saw dresses, models of houses and art, and even musical instruments printed with 3-D printers. Media such as plastic, glass, and even chocolate were used to make anything from tessellations to 3-D likenesses of people. There was even a video showing how a 3-D bust of President Obama was made. Models of houses can be made exactly to scale, even on the inside, and I thought the best part was seeing vertebrae printed from a plastic composite. The possibilities in the medical field are mind-blowing. Need a knee replacement? They can make a 3-D map of your knee, then replicate it with a printer and replace your knee with an exact copy of itself. Thirty years ago, that would have sounded impossible, but today, it’s inevitable.

A live band performs on 3-D printed instruments. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

A live band performs on 3-D printed instruments. (Credit: Darcy Martineau)

I think the best part of CES is afterward, when we get to roam around Vegas and do stuff. No visit is complete without a trip to Las Vegas Antiquities in Caesar’s Palace Forum Shops, a walk through the lobby in the Bellagio to see the Chihuly sculptures, a trip to the Hershey’s store in the New York New York, and at least one show. This time we saw the Jeff Dunham show, which was almost all ad-lib from the audience, so not much we’d seen before. We even got to take pictures with the Achmedmobile in the lobby. We also saw the Blue Man Group, a show that was very different than I had imagined it would be. The production quality was outstanding.

Three of us with the Achmedmobile at the Jeff Dunham show. (Credit: Donette Bisbee)

Three of us with the Achmedmobile at the Jeff Dunham show. (Credit: Donette Bisbee)

If you decide to go to CES, open registration starts in June. A floor-access exhibit-only pass is free until the end of August; after that it raises to $100, so register early. Flights are cheap, and hotel deals are great if you plan through the CES website. For more information go to http://www.cesweb.org/ . Bring a camera and at least two pair of comfortable walking shoes.

I’m always thrilled by the lights and pace of Las Vegas and the CES, but after a few days, I’m ready to go home to dream of the time when I can afford to own the things I saw at the show. No sales are allowed on the show floor, which is a good thing. I have to wait for things to come out on the market to see if I can afford them. It’s always fun to think ahead to the future advancements in technology, and the CES is the perfect place to see it all come to life.