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Parts of Darkness: The other side of CES


Every January, the consumer electronics industry (and those of us who write about it for a living) descend on Las Vegas for the undisputed Champion of American trade shows. CES has come to mean many things to many people, and let's be honest here -- most of us are a little conflicted. After all, this event is our raison d'etre, and while there is plenty of geeky fun to be had, Las Vegas and the milieu of consumer electronics in general can be creepy and unsettling -- at least as creepy and unsettling as a city that feels the need to simulate the New York City skyline within spitting distance of the Sphinx.

What's this have to do with gadgets and gadgetry, you ask? Well, you may think you know all there is to know about CES -- you've pored over the keynotes and the hands-ons, and you've guffawed at the KIRFs and Crapgadgets. But there is more to this tale, dear readers. So sit back, relax, and click past the break for our thoughts and impressions on the other side of CES.

Gallery: CES 2010 behind the scenes (take 1) | 15 Photos

Flying in, Las Vegas is reminiscent of a lunar outpost. Visitors to CES spend most of their time in the artificial environment of the hotel, casino, or Las Vegas Convention Center, and when you do get a chance to look outside you're greeted by monumental buildings with retro sci-fi accoutrements, a winding monorail that runs from the Sahara to MGM, and the dry mountains that surround the city, protecting it from the wasteland beyond. Even though this place is thought of as a refrigerated oasis, that is all an illusion: with an average yearly rainfall of 4.5-inches, the city can only continue to supply the water that feeds its many hotels, casinos, and mega-fountains by bleeding Arizona's Colorado River dry.

The weirdness of the city mirrors the weirdness of the trade show experience itself. When you get past the big booths -- your Microsofts, your Intels, and your Motorolas -- it feels a lot like being in a shopping mall. Except, of course, you can't actually buy that pair of Skull Candy headphones or that awesome Taylor Swift MusicSkins iPod cover -- which either makes you feel anxious or relieved, depending on your want. And speaking of MusicSkins, that brings up an important point: While we came here to report on the leading trends and big announcements regarding the consumer electronics industry, the vast majority of exhibitors are small fish: karaoke equipment distributors, Crapgadget purveyors, and companies churning out every permutation on Guitar Hero / Rock Band imaginable.

Putting the 'consumer' in 'Consumer Electronics Show'

Indeed, the emails have been rolling in for months now: "What, pray tell," journos, minor celebs, and middle school gadget fans alike have been asking, "what are the big trends to watch this year?" And while there were no earth shattering announcements like the Palm Pre (or Pong, for that matter), we definitely saw enough Android phones, tablet PCs, 3D displays, and e-readers to know what the next year will look like, as far as our core coverage goes. The vast majority of booths, however, are populated not by Boxee but by folks like Electro Joe, the UK-based purveyor of what we in the industry (or at least here at Engadget) have affectionately dubbed "Crapgadgets," including Gimme Shoes (low powered USB speakers that look like, um, shoes) and USB hubs that rest inside old audio cassette cartridges. Now, for every Nokia and Dell there are dozens of these small companies represented -- and for the most part these cats are totally excited and enthusiastic about their products. And the enthusiasm can be pretty contagious! You have to admire the people working the nether regions of the various halls, populated not by international megacorporations but by regular folks with products like the Fingerist and the Phubby -- products that they believe in and love (or at least feign affection for).

Every year, so-called "green" products gain in prominence, and this go-round was no exception. In something called the Sustainable Planet pavilion we saw the Smart Strip ("Ten outlets work together, autoswitching your devices on/off automatically, to save you money on your electric bills"), the Zero Waste Eco-Charger, and only a gazillion ways to power your phone by walking, biking, or whiling away the hours in the sunshine. Of course, nothing in the thus-called pavilion was the least bit "sustainable," but you could probably find something that will help you save a few cents on electricity this year -- further confirming our suspicion that people would rather feel like they're saving the planet than do something drastic and meaningful, like cutting back on buying new gadgets altogether.

(But please, don't stop buying new gadgets altogether. We have kids to feed!)

It was while thinking about the pseudo-green phenomenon that we came across Motorola's booth, featuring one lone tree planted in a darkened corner of the building, barely illuminated but for a single spotlight and several large video displays. If the booth designer was going for a "Central Park at night-meets-Logan's Run" vibe, they hit the nail squarely on the head.

What other things can we learn from the floor of CES, aside from the fact that Americans like to think that they're eco-conscious? Well, the economy is obviously a huge concern -- Getac, for instance, declined to announce a new product this year in lieu of a boffo extended service plan (as the rep explained, customers are holding on to their computers longer, and replacing them less than in years past). Fear of busting the bank is just one of the many things bumming us out (and harshing our mellow, for that matter): We're afraid of child predators, afraid of losing our laptops, afraid of dating jerks. That's why we're pleased to report that LoJack for Laptops is still available, and getting better all the time. Are you a serial dater sick of ending up with Mr. Wrong? You're in luck -- cyber-stalking from your iPhone has never been easier! DateCheck, your one-stop app for criminal background checks, proof of employment, and even horoscopic compatibility (with some rudimentary social networking integration thrown in for good measure) is available right this minute, and it's free.

No trip through the Paranoia Pavilion (not an actual CES pavillion, by the way) would be complete without a visit to our old friends at Taser International. The company's big announcement this year was a little something called Protector, a subscription-based parental control service that runs on smart phones and PCs (think of it as a mobile version of Net Nanny). This, along with the recently announced Axon head-worn DVR for law enforcement, signals Taser's intention to transform itself into an all-around protection company. Which, when you think about it, makes pretty good sense: Tasers are wonderful, after all, but the market is pretty limited (at least compared to the number of sexting-averse parents in the country). Still, this new corporate focus wasn't about to keep the company from subjecting volunteers from the audience to electro-muscular disruption, as seen in the above (hastily shot) video.

My God, it's full of stars...

Of course, it would not be CES if there weren't a few paid-for celebrities. Those of us lucky enough to attend Sony's press event found ourselves serenaded by the sweet, sweet sound of a certain Ms. Taylor Swift, while those of us unlucky enough to wander into the iLounge Pavilion late Saturday were greeted with the dull roar of literally dozens of Tommy Lee fans. Earlier that same day, this editor saw a bunch of middle-aged men exhibiting the bare minimum of enthusiasm while waiting in line to get their picture taken with Pauley Perrette (star of something on CBS that isn't Two and a Half Men). Sadly, we didn't get any face time with Stan Lee or Brent Spiner, but we assure you those two were on hand as well.

The one celeb that really captured our imagination (not to mention our sick sense of humor) was the indefatigable Lady Gaga. This girl is obviously a quick study -- from shilling Beats by Dr. Dre to being named a creative director for special projects at Polaroid in just a few short months! Of course, Polaroid went bust a while ago -- the logo is really all that remains, the property of a holding company that will allow you to slap it on damn near anything for the right price. Ms. Gaga, too, is a brand of sorts -- and an amusing one at that. Although her band never showed up, she did take the stage to read some classic PR drivel at a laudanum pitch: "Polaroid for me is a lifestyle... and what I'm excited about doing is working with Polaroid on taking the iconic image of the Polaroid instant film photo and bringing it into the digital era of cameras." Right.

Gallery: CES 2010 behind the scenes (take 2) | 10 Photos

The other other side of CES

Trust us, our look at the other side of CES has only scratched the surface. We have yet to mention the long taxi lines, the twenty hour work days, In-N-Out Burger, $16 room service coffee, the ninety minute keynotes spent in uncomfortable chairs... and while those things are all part of the experience, they don't define the experience. Sure, we might complain from time to time (especially when we stagger back to our rooms to find that the only thing on TV is Red Eye), but more often than not we're too busy being distracted and amused (some might even say titillated -- not us, but some might) by that day's discoveries.

How about Skiff, the e-reader that weighs in at a truly impressive 11.5-inches? If the publishing model is as sweet as the device itself, Amazon just might have a worthy competitor. As for the myriad of 3DTVs we saw, quite a few Engadget editors are ready to embrace the technology -- which itself can only represent a solid improvement over what we saw last year. Additionally, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Notion Ink's Adam smartpad and what amounted to a coming out party for Pixel Qi's next generation low power LCDs. And then there's the Boxee Box (yes, please), the Inbrics M1 Android slider, USB 3.0, and more netbooks and tablets than you can shake a stick at (proverbial or otherwise). If all that isn't enough to put a smile on your face, how about opportunities to converse with the likes of Motorola's Sanjay Jha, Android's Erick Tseng, and Roger from the LVCC? This is more than enough to get us out of bed every morning, and it sure seems to be more than enough to get you back to the site, in record numbers, each and every January.

Which leads us to the Last (Not So) Secret of Engadget.

It's not that we're doing this all for you. No, sir or madam -- we're doing this because we are you. We'd be poring over forums looking for leaks, obsessively searching for hard-to-find gadgets on eBay, scouring the blogs, and pestering devs and company reps even if we weren't getting paid to do it -- just like you do. There is a reason that we were still kicking around on Sunday night when all the other sites had long since fled Las Vegas for their homes and families. In some weird way, we didn't want the show to end.

And we are so looking forward to CES 2011.

Special thanks to Trent Wolbe for many of the photos used in this report, Joshua Topolsky, Laura June and Darren Murph for input above and beyond the call of duty, and apologies to Tim Stevens for eating his macaroni and cheese.

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