CES 2012: the shape of things to come?


— 11:08 AM on January 17, 2012

One of the funny things about going to CES is that you're expected to be plugged into the overall vibe of the show, so you can return and tell your friends and family about "what's hot" in technology. As a journalist, that's especially true, because we have access to press events, show previews, and the like. The trouble is, as I've explained, CES for us is an endless parade of meetings, cab rides, rushed walks, and foot pain. The time we spend on the show floor itself is minimal and mostly involves rushing to that next meeting. Beyond that, we simply don't cover the entire span of consumer electronics and don't get much insight into what's happening in the broader market there—not that, given the scope of CES, any one person or small team really could.

One can catch the vibe of CES in various ways, though. I've already offered my take on the state of the PC industry at CES 2012, which was more about following Apple's template than bold innovations, somewhat unfortunately. In other areas, a few highlights were evident as we rushed through the week.

One new creation that stood out easily at the press-only Digital Experience event was Samsung's amazing demo unit: a 55" OLED television.

 

This puppy was big and bright, even in the harsh lighting of the MGM Grand ballroom. The most striking thing about it to me, on first glance, was how impossibly thin the bezels were around its edges. To my eye, which has been frequently exposed to various Eyefinity demo rigs and display walls, the sheer thinness of the frame around the screen was jarring—in a good way. After that, one noticed other nice things about this OLED monster versus the average display: near-perfection at difficult viewing angles, amazing brightness and contrast, and much truer blacks than you'd see on an LCD. Unfortunately, this display is still far from being a true consumer product. We didn't get a price tag from the Samsung rep on hand, but the number $50,000 was thrown around only semi-jokingly. If you wanted to see something wondrous from the future at CES 2012, though, the display itself certainly qualified.

Another way you can catch the tech vibe at CES is simply observing the attendees. That's been a reliable method on many fronts, from the number of folks there to the gear they're carrying. In years past, CES has been all about iPhones and an utterly, laughably jammed AT&T network, unable to service 'em all. iDevices were again everywhere at CES 2012—I'd put the iPhone ownership among attendees at somewhere around 50%, easily—but what impressed me this year was the apparent consolidation of non-Apple phones. That contingent didn't consist of a host of smartphones of various types or even a varied selection of Android-based phones. Instead, it seemed like virtually all of the cool kids were toting one of two devices: a Samsung Galaxy S II or a Galaxy Note. Those big, bright screens and thin enclosures were everywhere, and one had to do a double-take at times: does that dude have a really small head, or is he using a Galaxy Note as a phone? Or, you know, perhaps both? In a world where two-year contracts tend to define when a smart phone upgrade makes sense, it's amazing how many CES attendees had upgraded to one of Samsung's new offerings in recent months. Also impressive was how much those big screens and thin cases looked like the future, and how much the tiny little iPhone 4/4S display looked like the past.

CES attendance is also considered something of a bellwether for the tech economy or even the economy as a whole. In 2009, as the wheels were coming off of the banking system, attendance at the show dropped dramatically. I was there, and although things felt a little lonely in the convention center, the upside was most evident: no cab lines, no pressing crowds, few waits at restaurants. Recovery was slow and incremental. The show felt like it was back in force last year, and this year, the crush of people was as inconvenient as anything since 2008, probably up a bit from 2011.

One thing that hasn't changed much is the state of Las Vegas itself. For a number of years, we had the fun task of scoping out the latest massive new casino hotels as they opened up, from Paris and the Venetian to the Wynn and Aria and so on. In 2009, though, commercial building loans dried up, construction stopped, and half-completed structures sat idle, some partially built with cranes atop them. Some still sit that way. One of the more memorable examples was the frame of a new tower for the Venetian, left sitting exposed to the elements for years, obviously rusting. That always stuck out at me, an odd contrast to the bustling activity of the Venetian below.

This year, while approaching the Venetian for the second or third time, I realized I hadn't noticed the half-completed tower yet. That's when I looked up and saw this:

Yep, they've wrapped the rusting frame of the tower in a plastic shroud, colored to look like the buildings around it. That, my friends, is more like what I'd expect from Las Vegas. Let that structure rust in obscurity while giving us the approximation of something better.

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