I stepped onto a suite balcony on the 21st floor of the MGM Grand in the late afternoon of the first warm day of CES. Blessed with a rare moment of peace found in the chaos of the first 48 hours, I almost missed will.i.am zip by me through the door. A few minutes later a rep for 3D Systems — the company whose event I'm there for — turned to him and said "I’m going to power you down. I'm going to have to turn you off."
"I’m going to power you down. I'm going to have to turn you off."
Okay, so will.i.am wasn't actually there — he was attending the event via a telepresence robot made by Beam. And after some technical difficulties were fixed by rebooting "Will," the celebrity greeted the small crowd. He is there because he is 3D Systems' Chief Creative Officer, the newest high-level (and perhaps questionable) title the Black Eyed Pea has added to his resume over the years.
The event for the 3D printing company itself was typical of many I've experienced here at my first CES with The Verge. There was stuff that was seen last year, like these colorful and sugary 3D-printed candies. There were few announcements, like a dedicated chocolate 3D printer called CocoJet. And there was stuff in between, like an overlooked but significant product from mid-2014 called the Ekocycle Cube. The last one is a compact 3D printer that prints with post-consumer plastic — a cool first step down the road that leads to discarded soda bottles becoming the material your home printer uses to make your kid's toys.
That's the problem with these events — the news of small but meaningful advances gets clouded by the attempts to make them stand out. There was valuable information about what 3D Systems is doing, you just had to look for it. In a darker, less-prepared room on the second floor, creative director Annie Shaw showed off a line of fashion items with open-sourced designs next to an underdressed worker who was manning the audio for the event. Back out on that balcony, 3D Systems' Keith Ozar was explaining how the Ekocycle Cube worked while his colleague Joshua St. John was walking people through the company's Touch haptic stylus — a funny-looking device that's actually quite innovative.
There was valuable information, you just had to look for it
It's a pen that, at the tip, is connected to a cylinder by a motorized arm that gives feedback relative to whatever's happening on a screen. You don't write on a surface with it, you write in suspended space and the feedback mimics the contours of what you're working on. It's a solution the company has provided to professional 3D designers and sculptors for a while. The demo game it runs along with Oculus Rift was a repetitive but fun Jenga-style puzzler set on a Mars-like world. You use the pen to "grab" the bricks you want to move, and as you do the motors drive force feedback that makes it feel like you're actually touching them.
St. John excitedly described other possible applications, some of which have already been developed. One is a program that lets students peer around a 3D archaeological dig and use the pen as a brush. When a bone is successfully unearthed, the student receives a file that can be used to 3D-print their treasure. It's not revolutionary, but it's the kind of thing that could change a classroom experience and add to a school's curriculum.
The flashy parts of 3D Systems' event — the chocolate, an ornate 3D-printed cake, and yes, the robot — were in the main room of the suite. It was there that CEO Avi Reichental addressed the press from between the telecelebrity and a ChefJet 3D printer that perturbingly rocked back and forth as it toiled away on another piece of candy. If the suite had been filled with true CES show-goers, these things would make sense.
In 2013, we said will.i.am was "the most CES celebrity ever," and it appears that nothing has changed. Even with celebrities being incongruously handed honorary senior and advisory positions by tech companies left and right, he's still one of the most visible. He's the Director of Creative Innovation for Intel. He created the Puls smartwatch. He is responsible for creating a monstrosity of a phone case called i.am+ foto.soho. And after watching him speak from a script via a robot from a grey-walled room in London, part of me is convinced will.i.am's real job is actually being an outsourced CCO. There he sits, day after day, waiting for companies to call his people to reserve a time so he can beam in and wax futuristic.
But there was a moment where he went off script and effused about teaching a child how garbage can be used as raw material to make something new using the Ekocycle Cube. And those devices he created came from a company he started that gets kids involved. He’s not the first promote these things, but he does it just well enough that we will never, ever escape him at CES.
And maybe that’s okay.