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CES In Three Phrases

Vox Media’s Zach Kahn, Brand Marketing, shares his top takeaways from CES 2018, originally featured on Shots.net.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is often regarded as a unique mashup between a traditional trade convention and a thought-leadership gathering for leaders in tech, media, entertainment, auto, retail, and more. Every year, leaders from these industries descend to Las Vegas to get their hands on the latest gadgets, and up close with the people responsible for dreaming up the future, whether it’s platform partners like Google, Twitter, and Spotify or vendors like LG, Sony, and DJI.

There are, of course, other large scale, multi-day conventions and thought leadership gatherings throughout the year, and even a few mashups like the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in June that come close to CES in terms of scope and feel, but there’s nothing quite like it up-close. It’s truly one of a kind, and worth making the trip at least once if you find yourself working in one of these industries, or simply interested in the future of technology.

After reading about it for nearly a decade, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend on behalf of Vox Media with our technology brand, The Verge. As it turns out, this wouldn’t just be my first time at CES, but also my first time in Vegas. I knew I was in for quite an experience. Here’s what I learned.

Bright lights, big city. In a way, as I’m sure many annual attendees have come to realize, Vegas is the perfect home for CES: it’s a city constructed for the purpose of gambling on today for an even bigger and brighter tomorrow. From the bright lights of the Vegas strip and casino floors to the beeping, blinking, and buzzing of hundreds of thousands of gadgets on the show floor, it’s a recipe for sensory overload with a promising tendency to leave you overwhelmed, if not elated.

This year, however, Vegas was also a bit unforgiving.

With its first rain storm in hundreds of days and seemingly the first convention center-wide power outage in the conference’s history, it’s almost as if there were a supernatural presence encouraging attendees to leave in pursuit of something more meaningful, or that there’s value in disconnecting from this connected age, even if only for 90 minutes. Will CES find a new home? It has for many of the major tech companies, from Apple to Microsoft, which have found greater success in hosting their own press events and developer conferences. If some exhibiting companies are to be believed, perhaps the future home for CES won’t have to be in Vegas, but will instead be accessible year-round in a new “Emerging Tech” section of your local WalMart or Best Buy.

There’s no place like home. Speaking of home, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger and more relevant trend at this year’s show than the proverbial battle for the home. After being shown up by Amazon and the Alexa platform for nearly two years, Google came out in full force this year to promote the Google Assistant, its take on the voice-based personal assistant.

In the parking lot across from the convention center, the company constructed what it referred to as the Google Assistant Playground, a multi-million dollar pop-up exhibit that ushered visitors through a series of manufactured scenarios where you could turn to the assistant for seemingly quick, reliable help using its new, shorter alert phrase, “Hey Google,” (previously “OK Google,”). In my experience, these scenarios seemed a bit too contrived to be relatable, and the value the Assistant provided wasn’t leaps and bounds faster than performing these same actions manually. That’s actually my general impression of smart assistants, no matter the manufacturer – they’re nice to have for a limited set of ordinary tasks, like turning on the lights or raising the volume, but they’re not going to revolutionize the way you live your life for the better. Not yet, anyway.

And in the main convention center, nearly every one of the big manufacturers’ (i.e. Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, etc.) booths were constructed to feel like a home, or had some large portion dedicated to experiencing the “connected home.” That makes sense given the battle for your phone has essentially ended, and every company is looking to plant their flag atop the next big platform less they lose out on the opportunity to remain relevant consumer brands, and recognize enormous profits. At this time, the home seems like a pretty safe and reliable bet.

If you see something, say something! Speaking of safe and reliable (last segue, I promise), I often heard these words come to the forefront of many conversations throughout the week in two distinct but related contexts.

The first, and perhaps biggest of the week, was in the context of personal devices.

Intel, as you may be aware, was alerted flaws in its computer processors that have given way to two major bugs, dubbed Meltdown and Spectre, that affect nearly every device made in the last 20 years. I won’t get into the specifics of the compromises (you can, and should, read up on it via my eloquent colleagues at The Verge), but the company, though they addressed these bugs at the top of its keynote presentation, hasn’t been transparent from the get-go, causing consumers and manufacturers to be rightly concerned. As we move forward in the connected age, where everyone increasingly depends on their smartphones for personal and professional matters, and technology moves into just about every other category and device on the planet, the need (read: right) of safety is paramount. This is especially true as we continue to see nefarious actors target and successfully exploit these platforms.

The second was in the context of advertising.

It’s no secret that the online advertising industry is in trouble and everyone that exists outside of the Facebook-Google duopoly is, at the very least, concerned. Facebook, in the midst of CES, rushed to announce major changes to News Feed that will dramatically affect the way its billions of users interact with news and entertainment publishers. Meanwhile, Google’s YouTube issued what its community dubbed a half-hearted apology for the behavior, and its lackluster response, to one of its most popular creators, Logan Paul. The Paul incident is only the latest chapter in a string of blunders that have caused creators and advertisers to grow concerned about the safety and reliability of the platform. You’d be hard-pressed not to find a YouTube creator, which have become one of the largest cohorts of attendees at CES over the past 2-3 years, without an opinion on the matter.

In short, as consumer audience behaviors increasingly shift toward consuming video, and increasingly experiencing it through these platforms, advertisers will naturally follow, and so too does the expectation for both creator and advertiser safety, which is something only the platforms can control. Expect this to be a major topic of conversation for the tech and media industries throughout 2018.

Phew! Sorry, those last two are a bit heavy, but such is the nature of a post-CES recap. After a week of talking to just about everyone who touches the industry about the future, it seems natural, if not ritualistic, to shift from the extraordinarily positive, bright-eyed view of “what could be” to the more stern, realist perspective of “what is.”

Hey Google, time to get back to work.