CES: everything you need to know about the biggest annual event in tech

We live in the future, where drones skim the sky, corporations enter the space race, and smartwatches track our every movement. But how? And why? What's Tech? invites experts to explain the technology bit by bit, in clear, brief, enjoyable audio nuggets. These days, technology is everywhere. Let's make sense of what's around us.

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Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability and clarity.

Episode transcript:

Dieter: I think this was 2012. It was my first time going to CES with theverge.com to report on all of the electronics there. One of the vendors had a booth where they were selling an iPod speaker. You could plug your phone into it. It was called the iNuke Boom and this thing was huge. It was probably about 4.5–5 feet tall by about 10 feet wide by about 4 feet deep. It was just a massive box, and the only way you could play any sound on this gigantic thing was to literally plug an iPod on top of it.

Chris: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, this isn't, it's not a bomb?

Dieter: No, it's just a big-ass speaker and they were...

Chris: Called iNuke Boom?

Dieter: Called the iNuke Boom, and they were made by Behringer. They were, with completely straight faces, trying to sell this as though it were a great thing that regular people could buy. It was obvious that what it was there for was to draw people into the booth, so I wrote this post that compared it to this very heady thing called Learning from Las Vegas about architecture and how the buildings represent the things themselves instead of needing signs to tell you what's inside.

I was making fun of it because it was a ridiculous object, but the [Behringer people] loved the post so much, they loved the fact that I was making fun of it so much, that they took this gigantic monster speaker, dragged it out into the parking lot next to where we worked in our little double-wide trailer, and threw a dance party for us because they were so happy that we made fun of them. That is the essence of CES.

Chris: Hello everybody and welcome to What's Tech?, a podcast on theverge.com. I'm your humble host Christopher Thomas Plante, and today I'm joined by my pal, my colleague, executive editor of theverge.com, Dieter Bohn. How are you doing?

Dieter: I am doing excellent. How are you?

Chris: I'm doing well because when this episode is airing, I am not at CES, but you are.

Dieter: Yes. I am arriving on January 1st about three days before it begins in 2016, and staying all the way through the 10th.

Chris: Let's just start where we always start, at the top. What is CES?

Dieter: CES stands for Consumer Electronics Show, and it is the largest convention, you might say it's a show about, you guessed it, consumer electronics. It’s been in Las Vegas since the '90s. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 170,000 people showing up in a bunch of convention halls to look at gadgets.

Chris: When did this all start? What was the first one? What was that like?

Dieter: CES started in New York in the '60s, so this will be the 49th one in 2016. I guess that makes the first in 1967. CES started actually not that far off from what its purpose is now. It was to show off new kinds of electronics and gadgets to people that could potentially sell them in their stores. We'll get into this later, but that is the true purpose of CES. It’s partly there for consumers and everybody else to go and look at all the shiny lights and big TVs, but what it's really there for is for people from Best Buy and Amazon and everybody else to go and decide what they want to sell, and for all the Chinese parts manufacturers to prove to everybody else that they can make the parts that [the electronic companies] need to sell even more gadgets.

Chris: Wait, okay. We're going to go back in time.

Dieter: Okay.

Chris: 1967 right?

Dieter: 1967.

Chris: Consumer electronics, this is ... Nobody has a computer in their home, maybe two people do I guess. Two very confusing people. We’re walking through CES 1967, and we see, I don't know, like an aisle of toasters and then like ...

Dieter: You've got televisions right? You've got tape recorders ...

Chris: Radios ...

Dieter: Radios, of course. It originally, I believe, grew out of a music show; it originally grew out of an audio or music show. We've got a photo of a bunch of historical photos from CES over the years, and when you look at the stuff that's piled up, it's record players and TVs and radios and just hellaciously bad shag carpeting and ... You remember the vision of the future from the early '60s with flying cars and everything was very mod and shiny and silver like ...

Chris: Chrome.

Dieter: Chrome, but mix that beautiful vision of the future with dumpy retail shelving and bad shag carpeting and the worst of early '70s decorations.

Chris: Was there a pegboard?

Dieter: I'm sure.

Chris: I love pegboard. When I see a pegboard, I am back at Electronics Boutique; it is 1992 and I am in heaven. I did a little research — I don't want to brag — most of the time I just don't do anything. I just show up and I ask some questions but I did a little bit of work this time and I found out that CES, at one point, happened twice a year, in Las Vegas and Chicago. What's interesting about this is Las Vegas is a dumpster. It is without question one of the worst places I have had to regularly visit.

Chicago, not so bad. Pretty okay. Also, Las Vegas CES — at least when I've had to attend or pay attention — happens right after New Year's, maybe the worst time to put anything in terms of just being a demoralizing mess. Chicago, nice in the summer, great time to visit. How did there come to be only one, and how did the seemingly awful one win out?

Dieter: The problem with any consumer electronic show is they need to show off the stuff in time to actually sell it at some later date. CES has tried a bunch of stuff. They started in New York; they tried some shows in Philadelphia; they tried a tour around different cities in America; and then they had one in Chicago and one in Las Vegas.

They were fine, they were successful, but they didn't stick as hard. Then they said, "You know what? We're just going to do one show in Las Vegas. Let's see how it goes." Their attendance just shot up, and if you've got 170,000 people going to a single show ... I hate Las Vegas, but what Las Vegas has is a ton of really cheap space filled with a ton of relatively cheap hotel rooms. Chicago would convulse with this, and I think Las Vegas just shrugs and says, "Oh yeah, the geeks are here this week."

For a time, CES was at the exact same time as the ... There was a porn show, there was an adult show where they sold porn videos to each other. A big adult industry convention was there and they used to coincide with each other.

Chris: Pure coincidence I'm sure.

Dieter: Oh God. I never went into the ... I think they were called the AVNs, or that was the award show, but just like walking on the show floor and looking at sweaty old guys with really bad suits just so excited that later on they're going to go look at another convention filled with cheap useless crap but now a naked lady is there. It was terrible. Now they’re at different times.

Chris: This is a very different complaint, but can I just tell you my big beef with the timing of CES? Christmas is here, but what you're really thinking is it's coming, it awaits. But the bigger thing, as a consumer, is that everybody just opened their awesome new gifts. You got a new TV, you are so pumped. You maybe just installed it on your wall. It took a week or two because the people that you hired to do it, they're busy doing this for all these other people. But finally it's on the wall. So you turn on theverge.com, your favorite website, and what do you see? A better version of that thing.

Not like humbly better. Something being sold as magnitudes better. I'm not saying it actually is that but these people ...

Dieter: The company wants you to think it is.

Chris: Yeah, they want you to think that you need this one. What an awful feeling.

Dieter: I will make you feel better about that feeling right now. The thing about CES that everybody needs to know is that virtually nothing, except in very rare cases, virtually nothing that happens at CES works in the year that follows. Everything that ends up being truly influential, truly a big deal at CES, it takes a few years for it to kick in. There has only been a handful of products or events that have been announced at CES that turned out to be a big deal that year.

You end up talking a lot about like TVs. CES is a big TV show. They tried to make 3D happen, and it didn’t, so now they're trying to make high contrast stuff happen this year, and there'll be a few high contrast TVs that will come out, but they're not going to hit mass consumer adoption for a few years. The same thing happened with VR, actually. We saw Oculus Rift three years ago I believe at CES. It was literally held together with duct tape, and I mean literally as the actual meaning of literally. It was held together with duct tape, and it blew our minds. We were totally amazed by it, and we still haven't seen that thing actually released as a consumer product that most people can buy. That's not coming till this year.

I can go on, the CD player, the compact disc player was introduced at CES in 1981, and I can't believe that compact discs hit widespread adoption until much later, like mid to late '80s. You shouldn't feel bad that there is newer, cooler stuff appearing at CES. And ultimately, you shouldn't just blow it all off as hype and smoke and mirrors because there actually are things there that you can see that turn into really important technology trends later on.

Chris: I think that's what I was most surprised by last time ... Last year being my first CES. Who knows if it will be my last, but the things I was really interested in were those things that you were talking about: Chinese manufacturers trying to show that they can ... What they can create. It's not really a product in the consumer sense. It’s like, "Hey, this is a thing, and I bet somebody could do something great with it."

Last year, I remember seeing a lot of transparent televisions, and they were amazing. I can only imagine how much they cost but that felt ... I guess that was more enticing to me because it didn't have that marketing push because there's no hope of us normal humans having that in our life for a long time, but also what I always wanted CES to be was like Epcot. This is the world of tomorrow, and now I get to see it.

I feel like a lot of what ... I would say the majority of what I saw on the floor and what I see when it's covered is more like, here are the consumer-ready things that you'll eventually buy.

Dieter: Yeah, and the other problem is that CES exists for the companies that go there. Those companies, they also want to create their own Epcot World of Tomorrow. Sony wants to do it, Samsung wants to do it and Toshiba and LG. They all have slightly similar, or actually very similar, but slightly competing visions of what that future is. When I think of CES, here's what I think of. Just stick with me on this. I think of a pretty bad Marvel movie. CES is the Avengers 2 of shows because you go there and you're like, "It's fine, it's good. There are some really cool moments, and hidden in here is something really important that's going to matter later."

Marvel has a cinematic universe where everything ties together, and then eventually in 10 years it will all be one coherent story. Samsung wants to create its universe where everything ties together, and it will all be amazing, but the truth is that's not going to happen unless they can do a whole bunch of stuff between now and the next three years, and they have to keep on doing it and doing it.

The goal is to not get burned out by all the stuff, and still be excited by some of the stuff and experience the weirdness. That's the thing I love more than anything else at CES. It's really easy to turn your nose up, like when Sony re-released the Walkman last year. Nobody was asking for it, and it cost way too much money, but the sheer weirdness and spectacle of Sony having a Walkman and a TV that was as thin as the little knob on the bottom of a stick of ChapStick. And just drones floating around the conference hall illegally, because they're not supposed to be doing that. You put all that together, and you don't get Epcot World of Tomorrow, you get crazy Idiocracy or something. You get something surreal that does reflect a certain kind of culture, and it's directed at the consumers out there reading our website. It's directed at me as a reporter, but more than anything else again, it's directed at the people that are actually making the decisions about what they're going to build in the next five years.

Chris: You have been going to CES for how many years?

Dieter: This will be my 10th year attending CES.

Chris: In a way you could say you've been through two full cycles of the future. How have things changed since your first CES and this one?

Dieter: The biggest change is that in the mid-2000s till I think two years ago, Microsoft always tried to make a big deal out of CES. The trend for a lot of companies has been to not make their biggest announcements at CES, because they get lost in the noise. So they move them out. Microsoft pulled out of CES, but it was always our tradition where you'd go to CES and then Bill Gates would get on stage and there would be a fake living room and a fake kitchen and he would be like, "This is the home of tomorrow. You will have touch screens on your fridge and you will have a hologram reading the recipe to you."

And all the stuff that never happened, but it established that sense of, "We are trying to build really crazy stuff and you should be excited for the opportunities that are coming your way." But Microsoft pulled out, so now CES has been going through this rotating list of companies to help try and redefine that vision, and have some other company be the one that sets the future.

Of course, the one company that does set the future more than anybody else is Apple, and Apple just straight up does not go. In fact, the biggest story at CES is often a rumor or something from Apple. They counterprogram it or leaks just happen to go out in the middle of the show that's focused on Samsung and Intel and Qualcomm and all these other companies.

Chris: Can I tell you a crackpot theory about the living room of tomorrow? Take the big idea of today, and imagine it smaller and simpler. Microsoft used to be like, "All of your entertainment will be on your coffee table. It will be this giant touch screen thing and you'll just touch it and it will interact with you in interesting, crazy ways, and oh no, you have ... You forgot something at work. Just look at your watch and you can take care of it."

All those things came to be, but it's like, "Oh cool, that giant table, now it's just a Surface." It's just small. The Dick Tracy watch? It's just your phone.

Dieter: I will say that I'm not a die hard, "CES is amazing, everybody must love it" kind of guy. I recognize that there's a lot to be disheartened by there, but we saw VR and now VR is turning into a real thing. We would go every year and see crazy weird hackers building electric skateboards, and now these two-wheeled scooter hoverboard things are everywhere. We saw last year, they announced it in conjunction with CES, a company is making an electric scooter called Gogoro where instead of recharging it, there would just be little battery stations stationed in the city and when you need to recharge, you just swap batteries. That's a really clever idea. It's a really good idea, and that gets associated with CES.

There's going to be a future where these gadgets happen, and yes, it's not going to live up to whatever the hype is at CES, but it is going to be some cool stuff that could actually change the way that you interact with the world just down the line.

Chris:

This is something that we talked about I think last year on Vergecast at CES, but it feels like we're also finally getting out of the period in which every giant company and brilliant mind is working on apps, and into the period in which people are making lots of hardware again. Now when people talk about the world of the future, you can actually point to a tangible thing. Which is why I'm a little sad that I won't be at CES, because it does feel like there are better odds of walking into a room and being surprised by somebody who — with some duct tape and ingenuity — created something that you literally did not think would exist this year.

Dieter: Kickstarter is a big deal more and more, so a lot of those companies that are trying to do crowd funding will show up at CES to try and juice some attention to their products. Pebble did their smartwatch a couple of years ago and they had the first version that didn't look like total garbage, and now smartwatches are a thing so there's another thing that happened at CES but took a couple of years to become a reality.

The other crazy thing is you'll walk into the back halls, and you will find a note-for-note copy of an iPhone at some tiny little booth, and you're like, "Are you trying to sell this?" And they're not. What they're doing is they're proving to you that they could make it. They want all those crazy Kickstarter people to wander over, see that they're capable of making something like the iPhone, and then get together and make something actually new.

Chris: There are lot of humans at CES. That was the thing that intimidated me the most, and on top of that, none of them wanted to talk to me. I was very personable and they all just ... They all just kept their heads down, kept walking. As a person with something to sell, how do you not get lost in the crowd? Say you are this person, and maybe you're not the most media-savvy human in the world, or maybe you are, how do you not get lost amongst literally thousands of other people who want to be louder and get more attention than you?

Dieter: You get lost. That's the answer. The thing that you do is ... The reason that a bunch of people don't want to talk to you is you aren't who they’re targeting. There are only a very few companies that are big enough to push through all of that noise and get attention out in the wider world. Everybody else knows that they have to go there because that's where the deals get made and where the people are, but they're there to microtarget those people.

You might think some iPhone case is interesting, and want to talk to that person about it, but they're not there to show you the iPhone case; they're there to show the iPhone case to some buyer at Target and get them to purchase it. You go to CES, and you have to know exactly what it is that you want to get out of it before you get there. When I go to CES, what I want to get out of it is finding those stories that are going to become amazing things in two or three years, and I want to get the insane things that happen there like the iNuke Boom. Or a couple of years ago, Qualcomm put on phantasmagoric keynote with Big Bird and Desmond Tutu and an actress from whatever the Star Trek movie was released back then and Maroon 5.

There are just weird things that happen there. I'll say this: CES is one of those shows where Gallagher is relevant. That's like a crazy thing. Do you want to live in a world where Gallagher is relevant?

Chris: I don't.

Dieter: Do you want there to be a place where maybe what Gallagher does or says is funny and worth paying attention to for a couple of seconds? Maybe. Kanye West showed up last year.

Chris: There we go. I was waiting for anything else. I can't believe that you went from Gallagher to Kanye.

Dieter: I'm just saying that the juxtaposition of those two is the soul of CES, next to Toshiba trying to convince you ... Still trying to convince you that you want a 3D TV when everybody else knows that you don't.

Chris: Let's not think about that. Let’s not think about Gallagher. Take me through a couple of your favorite memories or just individual moments of the last decade of CES.

Dieter: I mentioned the Qualcomm keynote which really is ... It was so insane and surreal. It led with a bunch of actors playing millennials, saying ridiculous things about generation M, which by the way stands for mobile because they were born mobile. Just the most off-key, ridiculous thing ever. It had Big Bird making racist jokes about owls and it had Desmond Tutu again, it had Maroon 5 but the live stream didn't have the rights to play Maroon 5, so they dubbed Dido in over Maroon 5's live show.

All of this, all of this insane spectacle was designed to convince some engineers at Microsoft, Samsung, LG, and a few other places that they should put Qualcomm chips into their phones instead of somebody else's chips. That was it. That was what it was for. That madness, an hour and a half of the most insane presentation I've ever seen in my life was to maybe make sure that somebody who already knows everything about Qualcomm didn't forget about them a year later when they decide on their next chip.

That's disheartening, but there have been genuinely amazing things. I mentioned the Oculus Rift, the experience when you first put on real proper VR not like the Google Cardboard stuff. It's mind-blowing, and we had our minds blown a full three years before anybody knew that such a thing was possible. There was ... This was five, six years ago now. The release of the Palm Pre, which I know, it ultimately failed, but they got on stage and announced a brand new phone that had new ways of thinking about the ways that phones should work. They were mind-blowing.

The way that your notifications work on your phone now, the way that you can switch between apps on your phone, there are a whole lot of things that they created there and then, or showed off there and then for the first time, and then released not that much later that nobody saw coming, and it was truly impressive. I just like walking around the show floor and just seeing craziness. There's always something that is just nuts.

There's bad music blaring everywhere, and there are millions of people, and some of them are using roller bags which is the most annoying thing on the planet because there's just too many people to have roller bags, and then you turn the corner and there's one little quiet guy at a booth and he's got self-morphing sand or he's got something crazy, and you're like, "What is this? Why is this not a cultural institution now? This gadget that you've created?" And he's like, "I don't know. I'm just trying to find a supplier."

It's those moments when you are in the craziness, and then you turn right and run into something that genuinely feels new. That's what CES is for.

Okay, I'll end on one other story. Do you know Steam Machines? Have you heard of Steam Machines?

Chris: Yeah I've heard about Steam Machines.

Dieter: They're PCs that are designed to make games on PCs work more like games on consoles. Two or three years ago, one of our editors, T.C. Sottek, was walking into the bathroom, and Gabe Newell comes out, and T.C. is like, "Hey, I know you. Do you want to do an interview about what you're working on right now?" And he like shrugged his shoulders, and said, "Sure." And we got a big exclusive interview detailing all of the stuff that Valve was working on well before they really started pushing out any sort of PR announcements about that stuff.

CES has all of those big players from all of those companies in one spot, and although it's all marketing and all show and all iterative updates to TVs that you don't care about, and even if you did, you won't be able to buy it for another 18 months, it’s also the meeting point for a whole lot of important people just being weird and running into each other. On top of that, our whole staff goes and we get to ride around on crazy scooters and robotic spiders and fly weird drones that don't exist anywhere else, because someone’s just made it and they're trying to sell it. Maybe they failed but we got to play around with it for 10 minutes and show it to the world.

That's fun. It's fun to just go to a bizarro land for 10 days, and that's why I suggest that you go to theverge.com right now and experience the bizarro land with us.

Chris: I think that's a great place to end it. Thank you for getting me really hyped for the event that I'm not going to. Now I'm pretty sad.

Dieter: You're very welcome.

Chris: Thank you for listening. We're here every Tuesday on theverge.com, and on lots of podcast platforms, and on iTunes where I recommend you leave a review. Your review goes a long way to getting our show out to more people, and as always I encourage you to share this podcast with family and friends. What a great episode to share with people who are probably asking you, "Hey you niece or nephew or cousin, you know a lot about the technology. I was watching Dateline and they mentioned the CES? What is the CES?" And you can be like, "It's called CES and I have a podcast for you." Dieter, where can people find you on Twitter?

Dieter: On Twitter, I am @backlon.

Chris: You can find me on Twitter @plante, the show @whatstech, and there’s one more person to thank. I want to thank our producer Andrew Marino who does a fantastic job making this just a lovely thing for you to listen to each week. Other than that, we will see you next time. Bye.

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