CES: It's Mostly Bullshit

By Will Smith

After a month off, my first day back on the job was the first day of CES. I'm still a little shell-shocked.

I took most of last month off to spend with my (almost) one-year old daughter. When she was born last January, my wife suggested I split my paternity leave into two chunks--a few weeks right after she was born, followed by a month or so toward the end of her first year. She thought it would be good for me to spend time with our daughter as she started developing a personality and learning new skills. My wife was right, it was a good idea.

I spent every day over the break with my daughter; going to the zoo, taking her on walks, or just going grocery shopping. I highly recommend doing the same for any new parents who are able to do so. The added benefit was that I spent a bunch of time with someone who doesn’t talk much, which left me with lots of time to reflect on the things that are important to me. And then, on the last day of my leave, I hopped on a plane to CES.

Needless to say, it was an abrupt transition.

The juxtaposition between things that are most important to me and the inconsequential trivialities CES has to offer has never been more clear. It goes beyond massive companies like Samsung and LG peddling nonsense like curved TVs and ovens you can turn on with your telephone. It’s more than the hundreds of companies selling crappy-sounding Bluetooth speakers, iPhone accessories you don't need, toy robots that don’t work at all, and other gizmos destined for your junk drawer.

...if you build them, they will sell...

It’s an endemic problem at this show--the vast majority of products being shown here are absolute garbage. I'm talking about products that no one in their right mind could want. Things like ridiculously oversized phone watches or electric scooters that cost more than a used car. These products exist solely because people will buy them. It’s like an awful perversion of Kevin Costner’s mantra from Field of Dreams, “If you build them, they will sell”.

It's easy to hate the bad products, but I think the real problem is worse. I think the problem lies in the name of the show. CES is the Consumer Electronics Show. I detest the word consumer. It’s dehumanizing. Talking about consumers makes it easy for us to forget that the nonsensical products and incremental upgrades that the press and enthusiasts are expected to take seriously are only designed to squeeze more money from people for stuff they probably don't need. Companies do this by getting people to buy into upsells they don’t need or to replace their old stuff before it needs replacing. After all, the picture at the edges of my 58-inch plasma TV is less distinct than on the new curved models, right? Wrong. That stuff doesn't matter.

(For the record, even if I didn’t already think the curved TV’s were nonsense, which I do, the products on display make no sense. According to Samsung, the sweet spot for viewing their 65-inch curved set is about 6 feet from the screen. No one is going to sit 6-feet away from a 65-inch TV.)

But while I digress, progress marches inevitably on. Next year’s products will be better/faster/stronger--as Blu-ray replaces DVD, UHD replaces HD and curved TVs replace flat screens. The good news is that because of lengthy product development cycles, the people pushing this year’s incremental upgrades already know what next year’s incremental upgrade will be. By the time you’re able to actually exchange your hard-earned money for this year’s crop of gear, next year’s “revolutionary” products are already well into the development pipeline.

It's enough to make someone cynical.

What’s the solution? Stop buying stuff you don’t need. Instead of living in a manufacturer's upgrade cycle, live in your own. When you need something, buy a thing that's good! Then keep using it until you can't repair it anymore or you actually need to replace it. As always, while we're here at CES, we’re trying hard to skip the things that are trivial and focus only on the things that are actually important, but it’s a real challenge.

And, as always there are high points at the show. It’s always wonderful to meet people who are building products that change the world for the better, whether it’s someone who has built a low-cost 3D printer for schools or a skull cap that tells athletes when they need to check their head for potential injury. And we’ve seen the usual crop of products that are real and work but feel like they’re from the future, quadrocopters, VR goggles, and 3D printers that are more accessible than ever before. And as always, there will be video on the site as soon as we’re able to get it edited and uploaded.

So anyway, that’s CES 2014. It’s mostly bullshit, but there's some good stuff out there.

Oh, I also saw a 3D printer that prints candy. On a related note, I ate some candy that a robot made for me.