By the end of last week's International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attendees seemed to share a collective lethargy. Was there really anything new?, they asked each other on the crowded and claustrophobic exhibition floor. In an onstage interview hosted by the technology blog AllThingsD, Twitter Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo exemplified the jadedness, calling CES a "quantum conference"—with progress that occurs on a subatomic scale. "This seems like an incremental year," he said.
Perhaps high tech's most celebrated annual gathering, which concluded on Jan. 9, simply wears its participants down. More than 140,000 people crammed in, up 17 percent from last year. At times it seemed like most of those attendees were waiting in the same cab line—or trying to make a phone call on the same overtaxed cellular network. But for someone who had stepped into a time machine a few years ago and emerged in Las Vegas earlier this month, the conference would have felt momentous, perhaps magical. The technology on display at CES was more diverse, more interconnected, and in some cases just plain more weird than ever.
The most dramatic evidence of innovation could be found, as in past years, with trophy TVs—those cutting-edge displays meant not to appeal to regular folks but to win bragging rights. There were impossibly large screens (Panasonic's (PC) 152-inch plasma, which sells for about $500,000, cost of new house not included) and incredibly thin ones (LG Electronics' 2.9-millimeter-thick OLED TV, which is not yet on sale and was enshrined in protective plastic). Toshiba (TOSYY) and Sony (SNE) showed prototypes of 3D televisions that dispense with the dorky glasses but oblige viewers to sit directly in front of the screen. It's an early glimpse of a technology that the companies say is still several years away, though one wonders whether it will undermine the present prospects for 3D TV as people wait for a goggle-free future.
While tablets of almost every size and shape dominated the media coverage, consumer-electronics makers also showed off the next generation of handsets, which will be smarter, faster, and more versatile than those in our pockets now. Motorola Mobility's (MMI) Atrix 4G phone, for example, has an Nvidia (NVDA) dual-core microchip—that's more processing power than the laptop you owned four years ago—and can obviate the need to carry a separate computer by plugging it into a lightweight laptop with no processor of its own. Manufacturers of just about everything promised that their new devices will connect to each other and to the Web. "It's inescapable now," says Charles S. Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). "If the device in your hand or in front of you doesn't connect to the Internet, it seems almost deficient."
One recurring theme at this year's CES was that the familiar keyboard, telephone dial pad, and video game controller might soon become artifacts of our computing past. At the sprawling Microsoft (MSFT) booth at the center of the show, attendees stood in long lines to get their chance to wave madly at a video game screen. Many were seeking out their first experience with Kinect, the company's add-on for the Xbox gaming console that lets people play games and control the device and services like Netflix (NFLX) with hand gestures and voice commands. Along the same lines, TCL, a Chinese consumer-electronics manufacturer, demonstrated a television with motion sensors that lets viewers change channels with a flick of the wrist. The system is still in development. Dijit, a five-person startup based in San Francisco, demonstrated a mobile application that will allow people to use their smartphones as TV remote controls, browsing through program guides that incorporate on-demand video from sites like Netflix and recommendations from friends on social networks. "Just figuring out what you want to watch these days is becoming a beast," says Maksim Ioffe, Dijit's Lithuanian-born founder.
Attendees could find even wackier products if they knew where to look. In the Robotics TechZone, the Wheeme robot massager, from the hedonistic inventors at an Israeli company called DreamBots, wheeled over the torsos of attendees, gripping and lightly caressing their sore back muscles. It's the size of a radio-controlled toy car and costs around $69. Elsewhere, a pair of graduates from the famed MIT Media Lab said they wanted to restore the magic of tactile play to video games. Later this year, their startup, Sifteo, will start selling packages of white cubes with 1.5-inch touchscreens. The cubes connect to each other and to a PC, and can be loaded up with a variety of games that require players to move and manipulate them like a set of high-tech dominoes. "We are inventing the future of games by incorporating from their past," says Sifteo's co-founder, David Merrill.
Adding to the aura of randomness, Lady Gaga swept onto the show floor to demonstrate Polaroid sunglasses that take photos and video and have built-in screens. The rappers 50 Cent and Ludacris each unveiled a line of wireless headphones. And an actor in Darth Vader garb appeared in the booth of 20th Century Fox (NWS) to help announce the Blu-ray release of the Star Wars films. Those movies are science fiction, but as this year's CES demonstrated, the present now has its own shades of sci-fi. Drained attendees may dismiss that notion; maybe it's just happening too slowly for them to notice.
The bottom line: The technology at this year's CES, high tech's premier event, was more diverse, more connected, and sometimes more weird than ever.