When director Michael Bay slunk off stage during a presentation at the International Consumer Electronics Show this week after a teleprompter failure, the gaffe instantly went viral on social media.
Buried amid the resulting coverage was that Bay was attending CES to help Samsung Electronics Co. introduce televisions with bendable screens. The director later tried to return the spotlight to Samsung’s products, writing in his blog that while “live shows aren’t my thing,” the curved televisions are “just stellar.”
By then it was too late. The walk-off would go down as a vivid reminder that the more than 150,000-attendee trade show in Las Vegas has evolved into an event that is all about theater, with celebrity-laden speeches and the antics of top technology executives threatening to overshadow the very gadgets intended to take center stage. While LG Electronics Inc. unveiled Web-connected televisions and exhibitors like Serene Innovations displayed vacuum food marinators, the buzz from CES converged more around sightings of famous faces such as musician John Legend and rapper Macklemore, as well as corporate run-ins like AT&T Inc. booting John Legere, chief executive officer of rival T-Mobile US Inc., from its party.
Bay was unavailable for an interview, according to Meredith Bocklet, a spokeswoman for the director's talent agency, William Morris Endeavor LLC.
To boost the drama at CES, CEOs often trotted out celebrities to make their product pitches. Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer brought along former “CBS Evening News” anchor and new hire Katie Couric and “Saturday Night Live” cast members Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong to her keynote. Comedian Sarah Silverman joined Cisco Systems Inc.’s John Chambers during his Jan. 7 presentation, where she discussed a poop-tracker application and said she hoped not “to pull a Michael Bay.” Sony Corp.’s Kaz Hirai welcomed “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan for a mid-speech onstage interview.
There was even theater on CES’s exhibition floor. Parrot SA, which has smart sensors for monitoring outdoor plants, featured an actual garden with a waterfall and artificial plants hanging upside down from the ceiling. And Dish Network Corp. brought an installation van into the ballroom where it held a press conference so CEO Joe Clayton -– trailed by five mascots dressed as kangaroos -– could point out the vehicle’s environmental friendliness.
“This is becoming more and more outrageous,” Jean-Louis Carrara, a vice president at SK C&C USA who was attending CES, said in an interview. “It’s so big, if you want to be noticed, you have to be out there.”
Less talked about was the precarious state of the consumer electronics industry itself. The Consumer Electronics Association presented research earlier this week showing global consumer spending on technology will drop this year to $1.06 trillion, down about $13 billion from last year.
Researcher IHS Inc. followed yesterday with a projection that the market will contract for the fourth consecutive year, as “products won’t ship in high-enough volume in 2014 to rescue the traditional consumer electronics device from a decline in revenue this year.”
Whether many of the whiz-bang gadgets on display this year will make it to market or be widely adopted was up for debate. A plethora of 3-D printers, smartwatches, drones and other products jammed the exhibit halls, with some requiring people to get used to new features. At CES Unveiled, a Jan. 5 event where startups showcased their wares, OrthoAccel Technologies Inc. displayed a device for straightening teeth that looked like a vibrating teeth night guard.
ARM Holdings Plc, whose chip designs are at the heart of most of the world’s best-selling smartphones, also showed off a plastic cylinder called the Cow Well. The device, which features sensors and transmitters and weighs 240 grams, is inserted orally into a cow and sits in its stomach where it measures the acidity of the animal’s gut contents every 15 minutes. The data can help a farmer alter the cow’s diet to keep it healthy and producing milk, according to the company’s website.
“Maybe 10 percent of what I’ve seen is something I’ll see next Christmas,” Jason Fox, president of Infinity ATM Solutions, said in an interview at CES.
Even with doubts about the viability of some products, technology companies continued to live it up at CES. Handouts were everywhere, with attendees stuffing gifts into plastic bags. Cisco gave audience members at Chambers’s keynote a coffee-table photo book explaining Big Data. Dish provided stuffed kangaroos to reporters and other media, while Huawei Technologies Co. similarly doled out portable speakers.
Some technology executives used the show to get in digs at rivals. After T-Mobile CEO Legere was kicked out of the AT&T party at the Palms Casino Resort earlier this week, he posted a slew of Twitter messages about the incident and struck back at his competitor in a CES press conference yesterday.
“AT&T is a total source of amusement for me,” Legere said at yesterday’s speech, where he held a Red Bull energy drink while listening to music from Macklemore -- who had played at AT&T’s party. “These are fat cats that can’t move.”
“I generally do enjoy doing things that cause pain to AT&T,” Legere later told Bloomberg TV’s Jonathan Erlichman.