At 50, CES is a show in transition

Most of the attendees I spoke with walked away a little underwhelmed, struggling to put together a solid list of the things that truly wowed them at this year’s show. Even a cab driver or two, in all of their infinite Las Vegas wisdom, perceived a palpable decrease in excitement among their passengers and the city at large.

Not every year can be one for the record books. That’s kind of the thing about record books. And certainly the Consumer Electronics Show, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, has had its ups and downs, along with the rest of the consumer electronics industry. But even with all of the triumphant pomp adorning its badges and signage, this year’s event felt like a show in transition.

It’s still big and well attended, but many of the larger names have taken a step back in recent years. The promise of showcasing a year’s worth of high-tech innovation has taken a backseat as manufacturers look to other events like the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to offer a launch for a much more targeted audience.

Others, meanwhile, have sought their own platform for announcements — throwing massive parties for themselves for single products, so as to avoid getting buried beneath the deluge of announcements that’s enough to send a poor gadget blogger into an existential spiral.

Others still sprinkled the often quiet days and weeks leading up to the big show with small scale announcements – knowing full well that to do so during CES would mean being the fifth company to show off an Alexa-controlled robot vacuum that week (I’m looking at you, Samsung and LG), making for decidedly less news-packed events.

But as bigger names have seemingly taken a step back, the (non-robotic) vacuum has opened to allow distinctly different categories to flood in. The first and most interesting is the startups. Over the past few years, Eureka Park has arguably become the focal point for the show’s most interesting announcements. It’s certainly the place everyone from the smallest upstart blog to network morning news turns to illustrate the show’s true excitement.

Located a quick cab ride from the Convention Center at the Sands Expo, Eureka Park is overwhelming, in mostly good ways. It’s the product of the rise of the hardware startup – a phenomenon facilitated by a perfect storm of crowdfunding, rapid prototyping, investment and scalable manufacturing. The hall bustles with a sort of energy you won’t find in the other corners of CES, excited founders pitching products directly to passersby, weird and exciting innovations too off-center for the big, lumbering tech giants to attempt to maneuver.

A walk through the aisles is almost enough to burn away layers of cynicism built up like plaque in an artery after years of covering the ins and outs of this industry. Almost. It’s the sort of thing that inspires your Samsungs and Sonys to launch their own in-house incubators, in hopes of capturing that manner of lighting in a bottle.

Of course, as with any other part of the show, there are a million me-too products. Fitness bands are still very much a thing here, and these folks are every bit as eager to be your smart home hub as Apple or Google. But you won’t have to walk down too many rows before something different catches your eye.

Interestingly, one of the other big winners of the shifting consumer electronics sensibilities over the past few years is, in many ways, the complete antithesis – old companies recently becoming relevant in the face of new technologies. Just as modern technologies like smartphones were credited in helping getting a number of faltering carmakers back on track in recent years (many of whom have found a willing partner in CES), long standing appliance, electrical and utility companies are seeing new trends as an opportunity to breathe life into business.

When we had August CEO Jason Johnson on stage this week, he explained that much of his competition was coming from old school lock manufacturers pivoting toward a new technology. Similarly, I’ve found myself meeting with a number of old guard companies eager to embrace the burgeoning smart home space. A far cry from my usual startup meetings, in recent weeks I’ve found myself meeting with Sylvania, Leviton and Honeywell, all of whom had Homekit compatible devices to show off this week.

Even with all that, CES 2017 felt like an in-between year, from where I sat. A transitional year for a show that has seen plenty. Let’s not forget that the thing began life at a trio of hotels in New York City, during the summer of love. Or that it was once held in both winter or summer, the latter of which was planned as more of a traveling show.

CES’s organizers have proven themselves pretty good at rolling with the punches – a necessary trait when vying to maintain one’s position as the biggest show for one of the world’s most dynamic industries. As long as the show never gets too stuck its ways and embraces the next steps for the industry, it should comfortably transition to that next iteration.