If you walk far enough in one direction in any one of the seemingly endless exhibition floors at CES, you might get a chance to leave Las Vegas for a moment. The crowds slowly thin; the decibel level drops. The booth babes are nowhere to be found. It's just you and hundreds and hundreds of Chinese iPad knockoffs.
I found myself drawn to the Shenzhen pavilions during my first, often overwhelming CES. In the sunless depths of a city like Las Vegas, where everything is simulated and shipped in from somewhere else; which runs on the myth that everyone can have the best objects and experiences no matter where they come from; these miles of familiar, pristine black screens seem right at home.
Shenzhen is a port city of about 15 million near Hong Kong, which was made a Special Economic Zone in 1980. Since then it has become one of the biggest tech manufacturing centers in the world. It's home to Foxconn, the notorious plant used by Apple, as well as countless other high-tech factories. It has its own stock exchange; its GDP is larger than the entire Republic of Ireland.
But here at CES it keeps a relatively low profile. In the less-traversed corners of the expo halls of CES, with little to no fanfare, there is an entire economy humming away, and it is vast, and very little of it has anything to do with the US.
As the number of Shenzhen booths has increased over the past several years, it's been assumed by the US media that this is largely a show of industrial capability, a statement from a rapidly growing overseas industry made right in the backyard of Samsung and Sony. "We can make an iPhone," seems to be the subtext, "So hire us to manufacture your next iPhone competitor."
Longhao Computer Co. already has business in Africa and Central America. They would like to someday have distribution in the States, but are doubtful of the chances of that at CES. This year they're featuring a tiny, $200 PC that comes in an array of candy-colored metallic casings, as well as a customizable logo option.
I'm talking to a representative at the Cynoware booth at the Sands when a businessman wearing a Bangalore badge walks up briskly with a rolling suitcase. "I want to meet with you," he tells her, shoving a business card at her. "You want to talk now?" she asks, somewhat taken aback. "No," he says brusquely. "Email me." And away he rolls. It's one of the only interactions I see on the floor that day.
This familiar-looking tablet / laptop hybrid is on display at Homecare Technology's booth in the Sands Expo Center. Alex is one of many Shenzhen exhibitors attending CES for the first time. He and two other colleagues have made the trip to Vegas (the other two had temporarily left the booth to go buy iPhones when I stopped by.) Back in Shenzhen, Homecare has a staff of 400 designers and engineers.
Alex's primary market is currently Southeast Asia, but he's at CES looking to establish business relationships in South America. But he hasn't met any buyers, he tells me, because of the low foot traffic in their corner of the floor. "Next year we will come [to CES again,]" he says, "But not to the Sands Expo."
Last year, there was some controversy when CES convinced many of the smaller Chinese exhibitors to show in the "Gold Pavilion," a huge tent set up in an empty lot on the opposite side of Paradise Road. It was a long, inconvenient walk from the next closest conference venue. By all reports, attendance was close to nonexistent.
This year, the majority of Chinese exhibitors have moved to the far-more-central Tech East, with many mobile manufacturers concentrated in the Westgate Paradise Center. There are a lot of smartwatches on display this year at Westgate, but none with a design quite so compelling as Oplus Group Limited. As sales manager Lily Yin bluntly told Cult of Mac, "We took the Apple Watch and made a few tiny changes so Apple won't get mad."
For $35 you can own an object that looks, smells, and feels like Apple's highly anticipated wearable. It won't run iOS, or even an English-language interface, but Spanish and Turkish are available.
If you're an early adopter in a first world country, this probably won't be your next. But it will be somebody's next.
I ask Candy at South Digital Holdings if the assumption about companies like hers — that they're here to pick up contracts from big American, Japanese, and Korean brands — is true. In her opinion, Hong Kong's ICT show is more useful for that kind of meeting these days. She's mostly here to meet with clients from the Middle East.
The rest of CES vies for your attention span with an intensity that can be draining. Everybody wants your money, your eyeballs, or your good press.
But here, it's quiet. The hype levels have been thoroughly checked. And any American journalist strolling the booths in Westgate is immediately confronted with the unmistakable feeling that they are not supposed to be there.
Case in point: as I'm about to leave the Westside Pavilion, a unit at GoTech LCD Display Co. catches my eye.
The GoTech representative makes a beeline over as I pick up the prototype. "Are you a buyer? Distributor?" He asks. I show him my press badge and ask if I can take some pictures. He nods, hesitantly.
I thank him and take a couple hands-on shots — its weight and hand feel is uncanny. But when I go to turn it over, the rep plucks it from my hands. "OK, OK," he says. "You're done now."