Innovating a racket: the awards sideshow at CES

If everybody's special, then no one is


UrbanHello, a new home phone, proudly displayed its CES Innovations Award at a press event early in the trade show.

The Chinese electronics maker Hisense won two CES Innovations Awards this year, one for a 55-inch Google TV-enabled television and one for a 65-inch ultra-HD television with 4K resolution. But product manager Chris Porter isn't entirely thrilled about the achievement.

"Every company I've worked with, every time we get a CEA Innovation Award, the product does not do as well in the market as we had planned for it," Porter, a 31-year CES veteran, told The Verge after the company's press conference at this year's trade show. "Everybody talks about the CEA Innovations Award jinx. If you look at it historically, it is. Look at OLED. Last year Samsung and LG both got awards for OLED. They never were even able to deliver the product."

So what is he going to do to avoid the curse? "I don’t know," he said. "I guess just not be superstitious."

"Everybody talks about the CEA Innovations Award jinx."

The CES Innovations Award probably isn’t jinxed, but isn’t exactly prestigious. Every year in November, the Consumer Electronics Association announces the winners in a slew of categories — 29 this year, with the addition of Accessible & Universal Design Technologies and Tech for a Better World.

The award has a spotty track record when it comes to predicting success in the market (although the products can be up to nine months old and still be eligible, which means some may already have proven traction).

The top winners in 2011, for example, included Sony’s first Internet TV powered by Google TV, which had poor sales. Also honored were LG Electronics' NANO full LED TV, which sold fine but not exceptionally well in the market, and the Kenmore Elite dishwasher with interactive color LCD controls, which has positive Amazon reviews but didn’t exactly shake things up. The association also picked Xbox Kinect, already a monster hit by the time the awards rolled around, and the HTC Evo 4G, which was one of Sprint’s best-selling phones even after erroneous initial estimates were slashed in half. Products in the lower-profile categories, like Wireless Handset Accessories, were forgettable.

Most of the Innovations Award recipients are designated "honorees," but the CEA may choose an exemplary applicant to receive the "Best of Innovations" award in its category. The awards are given to small, unknown companies as well as the big players like Samsung and Sony. This year, the CEA gave out 342 awards total.

The sheer number of categories and awards makes it hard to take the distinction seriously. There were 16 winners in the Portable Power category, 19 winners in the Headphones category, and 22 winners in the Portable Media Players and Accessories category. Worse, applicants don’t submit their products; they submit specs and photos — and they only have to submit two photos.

This year, the CEA gave out 342 Innovations Awards

The competition is open to companies that don’t participate in CES, but it’s necessary to submit an application and pay from $750 to $1,200 (discounts were given to early applicants). That means the Tablets, E-readers and Netbooks category ignores the iPad.

There are a number of upsides to the Innovations Award, however. Winners get extra exposure at the show in the Innovations Design and Engineering Awards Showcase, if they’re also exhibiting at CES. The winning products are included at the official press preview, CES Unveiled, and winning companies can set up a booth as well at a discounted rate.

For small and lesser-known companies, it means extra exposure and a bit of credibility. The iPhone and iPad accessories maker Rokform was honored in the Portable Media Accessories category. "Awards, especially the CES Innovations Award, because it's awarded by the show itself, is worth it for companies like Rokform because it brings a great level of brand awareness in a crowded show," publicist Ashley Halberstadt said in an email. "There are obviously a lot of companies here, and anything we could do to stand out was worth a try."

For large companies, the barrier to entry is so low that they might as well apply. It also lets them issue press releases with impressive titles like, "Samsung Electronics Honored with 27 CES 2013 Innovations Awards." The award also sounds pretty legit to anyone who isn’t familiar with the process.

The association says it received 978 applications for the 2013 awards. Most applicants paid the $265 rate, a CEA rep said, although the four companies we spoke with all paid between $750 and $1,200. That would mean a relatively easy quarter-million, at least, in income for the CEA.

To the association’s credit, the awards haven’t devolved into a total pay-to-play scam. The association says entries are judged by three experts in each category: a member of the press, an industrial designer, and an independent engineer. "To maintain program credibility, new judges are always brought in each year, and a judge may only participate in the program for three years consecutively," the CEA says. "Judges are also subject to a strict conflict of interest policy."

In addition to the Innovations Awards, CES is hosting the 47th Photo Imaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association awards ceremony. There’s also the International Academy of Web Television Awards, CNET Best of CES, 2013 CES Hot Stuff Awards, Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards, and the 2013 What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision Stars of CES awards.

With so many accolades, everyone can be a winner.

Update and correction: An earlier version of this story said the CEA does not release the number of applicants, which is what the association says on its website. However, a CEA rep wrote in to say there were 978 applicants this year. The association also says most applications pay the lowest rate, which would be around a quarter million in income; not a half-million as previously stated.

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