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First Click: What to expect from alternate reality CES 2017

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December 29th, 2016

Depending on who you believe, CES is either the most important tech event of the year, full of innovation, big announcements, and blowout parties, or totally dead. PR representatives spend months emailing hype about their products before the show begins, while jaded tech journalists trudge back from the Las Vegas Convention Center every year burned out on gimmicky gadgets and 15-hour work days. But for me — who after three years on The Verge has still never been to a CES — the show manages to hold an alluring mystique.

I find myself imagining the wonderful sights, the cacophonous sounds, and the uncategorizable smells of Las Vegas during early January. Without realizing it, I’ve built up a narrative of what I think CES is like, based on videos, articles, and snippets of stories from friends. From there, I’ve also extrapolated the kind of trends we can expect this year, product evolutions and revolutions both.

Upon arrival, guests will be presented with their personalized Uniwheel, a convenient and safe* device that will allow them to navigate the miles upon miles of hallways, conference rooms, tunnels, and dungeons that I (assume) make up the Las Vegas Convention Center. Hoverboards, of course, were banned at last year’s event, presumably because organizers were worried about a surplus of swag slowing the event down.

The Las Vegas Convention Center may be huge, but CES is bigger, forcing organizers to open a portal to the Exhibition Dimension. This is a formless, shapeless purgatory that works like the TARDIS, expanding to allow tens of millions of exhibitors inside. Tech companies, Kickstarter campaigners, car manufacturers, all step into the swirling vortex found at the entrance to Meeting Room 14D and find themselves outside of space and time a few seconds later. Humans have free movement between this time stream and our own, but there is one downside to this process: the floor, walls, and ceiling of the Exhibition Dimension are always decorated like your aunt’s house was in 1974. We haven’t yet worked out how to change that.

Pride of place inside the Exhibition Dimension will be Samsung and LG’s new range of levitating fridges. The ongoing arms race between the South Korean companies will see both manufacturers combining their hovering speaker tech with their Wi-Fi refrigerators, using ultra-powerful magnets to suspend your entire week’s worth of chilled groceries a few inches off the floor. The magnets involved may wipe any credit cards or hard drives brought within 10 feet, but I predict they’ll catch on fast with consumers, who will suddenly be able to clean behind the refrigerator without donning an exoskeleton.

Those fridges — like everything at CES 2017 — will also be Alexa-enabled. Amazon’s assistant was one of the big winners of 2016, and next year will be included in everything from Roomba rip-offs to Sonos speakers. For ease of navigation, all CES event staff have also assumed the name “Alexa,” making life simple for any tech bloggers who get lost on their way between appointments.

The show would also be a good time for Amazon to finally show off its Dash Button Dash Button: an easy and convenient way for you to buy more of the retail giant’s one-touch shopping devices. Simply tap the Dash Button Dash Button whenever you’re out of Dash Buttons, and Amazon will process your Dash Button order, shipping you more Dash Button Dash Buttons.

Drones were the hot new CES gadget a few years ago, but they’ve not broken into the mainstream as many expected. What’s holding them back? Are prohibitive prices, complex controls, or sluggish responses from lawmakers restricting their regular use? Or are people still turned off because they can’t climb aboard their drones and ride around like the Green Goblin? CES 2017, I predict, will bring a new range of rideable drones. We’ve already seen some drones capable of supporting human weight — now we just need to scale that up and install some kind of cockpit on these new devices. The devices could even be scaled up in the far future, with more powerful engines and large wings potentially capable of carrying hundreds of passengers between continents. For now, though, such a vehicle is obviously a pipe dream.

Elsewhere in transportation, Elon Musk will finally combine his SpaceX and Tesla businesses, creating rockets that automatically brake for asteroids, and electric cars that can land on barges at sea. Google will take its Android Auto project one stage further, promising to outfit new self-driving cars with actual android drivers: terrifying, endlessly grinning robot chauffeurs that come off like even creepier versions of Total Recall’s Johnny Cabs.

CES is increasingly a car-heavy show, but expect a good year for TVs, monitors, and other screens, with 4K, OLED, and HDR tech becoming more affordable. Curved screens, too, will have a solid showing. Samsung has already teased the range of super-curved quantum dot monitors it’ll show off on the event floor, but why not go one better? Which manufacturer will be the first to introduce a proper 360-degree monitor — a full circle of screen that can sit on the viewer’s head like a vastly expensive lampshade and offer total immersion, without the sweaty eyes and sick feeling that comes with hours in VR headsets.

Even if these excellent ideas don’t actually appear, and even if attendees increasingly view CES with tired eyes, the show still holds a weird kind of magic for the tech industry. For a week, Las Vegas plays home to some of the most promising (and most pointless) gadgets on Earth, and The Verge will be there to see it all in person.