Geek Vs Geek: Was There Anything Good At CES?

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The Consumer Electronics Show is the annual gathering of tech companies in Vegas each January. CES 2014 had about 3,200 exhibitors and 20,000 individual products — but were they any good? Dave and Rick argued last month about whether innovation is dead at CES. Here they are to pick up where they left off, and discuss their experiences at this year’s show.

Once a month, eHow Tech editor Dave Johnson faces off against Rick Broida, who writes about technology for CNET, PC World, and Wired. Follow along as they tackle this question from opposing corners.

Dave: Before CES 2014, we sat in a room with Helen Hong and debated the merits of the Consumer Electronics Show. I contended that innovation was dead; the show is filled to the brim with boring, incremental products that are just a little bigger, louder, or faster than the ones they had last year. I think this year’s show vindicated my position. There’s surprisingly little cool stuff debuting at CES anymore.

Rick: This is going to be one of those rare times when we’re in agreement, but I’ll argue that you’re actually understating matters. The tech industry as a whole feels far more evolutionary than revolutionary these days, and CES just exemplifies that. It seemed like every other booth was packed with smartphone cases, mobile chargers, or some everyday item–”now with Bluetooth!” The show itself isn’t necessarily to blame for that, but it’s increasingly feeling like a pointless exercise.

Dave: Indeed, one of the most hilarious aspects of CES this year was seeing all the various ways companies were trying to cram Bluetooth into ordinary devices that don’t really need to wirelessly connect to your iPhone. We saw a Bluetooth breathalyzer. I like the idea of of having a personal breathalyzer to make sure you don’t drive drunk, but I would love to watch someone pair their breathalyzer and read a detailed graph on their phone when they’re sloshed. And that’s just scratching the surface. Bluetooth water bottles! That post badges on Facebook when you’ve consumed enough water during the day! If you ever post — or allow your water bottle to post — that you’ve had a glass of water, I’ll punch you.

Rick: That’s definitely a de-friending offense. But don’t forget the Bluetooth toothbrush, which thinks you need hard data to improve your dental hygiene. Um, no. It’ll be a cold day in Vegas before I pay $70 for a toothbrush. Or $150 for a breathalyzer. (You could call a lot of taxis for that.) So, yeah, that’s not innovation; it’s adding unnecessary complication and expense to stuff that doesn’t need it.

On the other hand, I was really excited to see the Nanoport, a magnetic, wireless implementation of USB that was arguably the most innovative tech at the show.

Dave: Nanoport was admittedly cool, but it’s years away from seeing the light of day as a real product, of course — if it ever gets integrated into products at all. I was more impressed by stuff that has a good chance of really happening in 2014, like the Onewheel. That’s an electric, self-balancing one-wheeled skateboard. And 3Doodler, a glue-gun-like handheld gadget that you can use to “3D print” objects just by drawing in the air. What did these (and many other products) have in common at CES? They were born on Kickstarter — crowd-funded, not financed by a big company or venture capitalists. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the new innovation engines these days, and you can see more exciting stuff by browsing the pages of Kickstarter than by walking the halls at CES.

Rick: Quit making sense; you’re blowing my mind! I agree the 3Doodler was one of the standout gadgets at CES, especially with its impulse-buy price of just $99. Though I’m surprised to see you mention the Onewheel, because it requires a level of coordination that eludes you. (That level: any.) Still, you’re right about Indiegogo and Kickstarter, which have birthed some of the most innovative products in recent years: the Pebble smartwatch, the Form1 3D Printer, even the Ouya game console (which emerged a flop but was still an amazing Kickstarter story). So let’s get back to the key question: Is CES still necessary? Why do we bother going (save for the free food and booze lavished on us press types)?

Dave: As much as I poo-poo the show for its lack of innovation and creativity, I think we still need an event like this for the tech industry to roll out its goodies, find inventors and distributors, and let the press soak it all in. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be rebuilt and remade. After all, when there are 150 companies hawking virtually indistinguishable iPhone cases and big vendors spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on gargantuan booths — yet have no new products to show off — there’s something broken about the way we do business.

Rick: Yeah, it’s hard to fathom how some of those booths do anybody any good, though I suppose there are things about purchasing and retail that we don’t understand. For me, the real value of this year’s show appeared in three press-only events where roughly 90 percent of the really interesting products and services were on display. It’s like concentrated CES, but with a martini bar. I suspect everybody could save a ton of money if they focused more of their energies and expenditures on these showcases for us, the people who really matter. Also, would it kill them to put in a chocolate fountain? Now that’s innovation.

Who won? We’d love to hear from you. Weigh in with your opinion in the comments, or tweet @davejoh.

What other tech topics would you like to see Dave and Rick discuss? Send your ideas to Dave via Twitter @davejoh. And if you follow Dave, he promises to come to your home and explain something techy to your dad.

And hey, have a question about tech? You can talk directly to one of our nerds and get an answer right away.

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