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The Clash Between Consumerism and Creativity at CES

By Wesley Fenlon

CES never has been, and never will be, a World's Fair. So let's not treat it like one.

The Consumer Electronics Show I want to go to is about innovation. It's about ideas that you just get after a 10 second explanation, wondering why it took so long to come up with something so obviously cool. It's about things that aren't yet products I can buy, and it's about ideas that may never become products at all that I hope to see realized. The CES I want to go to is not the Consumer Electronics Show that's hosted in a sprawling collection of hotel suites and convention center halls every January, drawing over 100,000 people to a couple million square feet of booths, meeting rooms and elaborate show floors in Las Vegas.

The CES I came back from last week is characterized not by innovation but by iteration, shamelessly spun into a circus of marketing which masks safe product refreshes as bold new technologies.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on CES, has successfully transformed innovation into a meaningless and lucrative buzzword. Every year, the CEA lauds hundreds of products from the show with the Innovations Design and Engineering Awards, with a lucky two dozen or so winning "Best of Innovations" distinctions to further distinguish them from hundreds of awarded products. 2013's Best of Innovations winners include a pair of in-ear earbuds, a touch table awfully similar to Microsoft's original Surface, and a computer monitor that's, well, very pretty.

Innovations Design and Engineering winners range from tablet keyboard covers to printers to Ultrabooks, devices that are just a little better than last year's models. Instead of highlighting technology that's genuinely unprecedented, using the draw of CES to raise awareness about cutting-edge technology, the CEA provides a perfect hype machine for tech marketing: iterate on a design, submit it for judgment, and get an award that sounds great in a press release. You know, the ones we’re so eager to see fill our inboxes in the weeks surrounding CES.

Technology needs iteration of course--the first breakthrough product is rarely the one that matters most in the long run. The Apple II helped lay the groundwork for the computer industry in the 1970s, but the Macintosh's addition of a GUI and mouse shaped modern computing as we know it. The Nintendo DS won gamers over with a creative dual-screen approach to gaming, but the design was more Fisher Price toy than sleek electronic. The slimmer DS Lite and DSi iterations improved the screens and battery life and made the DS the second-most successful video game console of all time.

Iteration leads to better products, but it's tough to casually market something at one of the biggest press events in the world with a slogan like "it's like last year's, but a little better!" LG doesn't want to sell you a touchscreen washing machine with its "Live the smart life" creed. It wants to sell you a lifestyle, with small improvements exaggerated into brand new products for a new year. And there's a lot of money involved.

Promoting sameness

"The Innovations Design and Engineering Awards has given consumer technology manufacturers and developers an opportunity to have their newest products judged by a preeminent panel of independent industrial designers, independent engineers and members of the trade press," says the CEA website. Companies pay for that privilege. Submitting a product for the awards costs between $265 and $1200, depending on when you submit and whether you're a member of the CEA. Submitting a product to more than one category means paying the fee multiple times.

The CEA awarded more than 350 devices awards for innovations for the 2013 show, meaning many more products were submitted for consideration. Those winning products alone brought in a minimum of $100,000 of revenue from submission fees, and according to a CEA representative, there were 978 applications this year, most paying the minimum fee. Conservative estimate: $260,000.

And here's the best part: those industrial designers, engineers and members of the press don't even test out the products they're awarding, some of which are unreleased, and some of which are already on store shelves. The rules and eligibility simply call for companies to submit photographs and descriptions of their products, and the winners are partially picked based upon the answers companies provide about their products. This is one of the questions:

Industrial designers, engineers and members of the press don't even test out the products they're awarding.

"Describe why your product deserves this award. Include specifics regarding your product’s unique and/or novel features and why consumers would find your product attractive."

The above question seems perfectly poised to call forth a PR pitch. Does that mean the CEA awards are corrupt? Nope. It doesn't mean there's something wrong with the CEA making money from the awards, either. And calling these products iterative, rather than innovative, isn't meant as a disservice to the millions of hours of R&D that go into the smallest improvements in the technology business. There are tiny technological breakthroughs every day that lead to better products, but these awards do nothing to highlight those advancements.

These are factors that contribute to an overwhelming sameness at CES, making the convention far more focused on product than prospect. Perhaps this is the way it has always been. Look back five years, and you'll see Time’s Harry McCracken explaining why CES is "a lousy place to see the future of tech." Look back to the early 90s and you'll see aisles of video games, which eventually became popular enough to spin off into their own convention. And the games were playable, not tech demos for future consoles.

While labeling annual product refreshes "innovations" doesn't help, it's only a part of the problem. Journalists find the majority of technology on display at CES boring because it's not there for us--it's there for buyers and licensors, companies looking to make deals and forge partnerships. Reporters are looking to find the next big thing; most of the attendees walking the show floor are looking for potential buyers and potential buys. But with two million square feet of convention center floor space dedicated to CES every year, isn't there room to satisfy both?

This here's the future, see?

CES never has been, and never will be, a World's Fair.

CES never has been, and never will be, a World's Fair. Nostalgia plays a part in making the imaginative predicted futures of decades past more magical and interesting than today's latest and greatest technologies--most tech writers would undoubtedly have more fun traveling back to the CES of 1983 than they would attending the 2013 show, as the past always holds the allure of quaintness. But by focusing on ideas, not products, events like the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair more accurately captured the always-evolving spirit of the technology industry than CES 2013's endless lanes of televisions and iPhone cases (or CES 1983's endless lanes of VCRs, to be fair).

The 1939 World's Fair promised the World of Tomorrow; within that theme General Motors not only predicted the world of 1960 with impressive accuracy, they spurred it into being. Their exhibit, Futurama, helped usher in an era of expressways and transportation overhaul that would redefine urban America. Futurama and the World's Fair in general promoted radical innovation, which undoubtedly paid off by selling Americans millions of cars and televisions in the following decade, even though they weren't on sale at the show itself.

Perhaps the very name of the Consumer Electronics Show proves that 1940s optimism has no place on a show floor crowded with devices destined for Wal-Marts and Best Buys. Then again, it's telling that the holy-shit-this-is-the-future virtual reality of the Oculus Rift was a 2013 show favorite. A heavier emphasis on innovation at CES 2014 would mean more prototypes, more unproven ideas, and fewer "smart" TVs that are exceptionally dumb at offering services people really want to use. A dedicated Home Shopping Network app built into your TV? No thanks.

The CEA could help make things better. They could rename the Innovations Awards. Would that have much of an effect? Probably not. But it would, at least, be a more truthful representation of the Consumer Electronics Show endorsed by those who organize it. The CEA could also create a new awards category for products and give the Best of Innovations honors to prototypes that aren't going to be sold within the year.

That's the CES I want to go to. It's an imaginary show that focuses on doing something different instead of doing something a little better. It's a show that proudly showcases real innovation and honors iteration but doesn't conflate the two. And, yes, it'd be a little smaller. CES' two million square feet of convention space bury the small guys underneath bigger, flashier brands. We can do without all that space, even if this year's 110-inch TVs are a few inches wider than last year's.