ONE OF THE most enduring views of CES happens to be one of the first things anyone sees there. You squeeze through the crowds of businessmen, hangers-on, and professional conference-goers, and push through the doors of the Las Vegas Convention Center. You walk down the hallway that’s somehow already filthy, even though the show started just 16 seconds ago, and you look to your right. You can’t help it: It’s impossible to not notice LG’s preposterous array of 112 TVs that covers the walls and ceiling just outside its hangar-sized booth. Each high-def set moves and changes and glows bright enough to send your retinas running out the back of your head. There’s no particular point to the setup, except LG wants to blow your freaking mind with technology. Every year, every resolution bump and color-spectrum upgrade, it does just that.The 2017 Consumer Electronics Show begins on January 5th. It’s a four-day gadget gala, the time every year that companies the world over descend on Las Vegas to show each other and the world the stuff they’re making this year. Last year, more than 177,000 people wandered 2.47 million square feet of exhibit space—and that number doesn’t include the hotel suites, craps tables, and strip clubs.
The most important thing you have to understand about CES is that it’s not really about the gadgets. Much, if not most, of the things on display in Vegas will either never be on sale at all, or never be available where you live. Some things will never be heard of again once the show ends—it’s like it’s all loaded into shipping containers and dumped into the sea somewhere, and there’s a giant Island of Misfit Gadgets somewhere in the Pacific. Best-case scenario, things debuted at CES show up in stores in August. You can use the show to start making tentative lists for the 2017 holidays, but make sure you write in pencil.
What really happens in Vegas is that, if you stand back just far enough and squint your eyes a little, you can get a sense of what’s on the mind of the tech industry. In 2011, after the iPad came out, CES was filthy with tablets, as everyone else looked at how and whether a glass pane could be the future of computing. The year after, in a panic over the crashing PC market, everyone yelled Ultrabooks! in unison and showed off the thinnest laptop they could conjure. In 2016, it was clear that everyone was leaping on the nostalgia train. Almost none of the products we saw any of those years mattered by itself, but together they set the tone for the year to come.
What to Watch For
This year, don’t get hung up on any particular drone, but instead notice the sheer breadth of the offerings: the shapes and colors, the drone races and drone rodeos, the drones that carry cameras and the drones that carry people. Everyone in tech knows drones are going to be…something. Nobody knows exactly what yet, so they’re trotting out their newest idea to see what you think. All the pieces are there, but nobody’s yet put them all together the right way. Likewise, there’s no point in getting your hopes up for a single piece of VR kit, because you’ll probably never see any of it again. But notice how many companies are starting to explore inside-out tracking, haptic feedback, or augmented reality.
Artificial intelligence is almost certainly going to be the story of the year at CES. Smart speakers that look suspiciously like the Amazon Echo; in-home gadgets that can automatically organize your life or build a playlist to your liking; approximately 643 billion different ways to interact with bots. It’ll make abundantly clear that AI is definitely the future, but that nobody knows why or how yet. In the smart home, too, everyone smells the opportunity but can’t find the way to grab it. Do people want smart doorbells? Lights? Toasters? Waffle irons? Cars? Washing machines? Sex toys? You could make a case for any of them, but the market so far seems to favor none. So these companies keep pushing.
When it comes to mature tech, like televisions, there’s quite a bit less experimentation. This year’s CES will have the biggest, brightest, HDR-iest TVs the world has ever seen, breaking last year’s record in the category. Which broke the record from the year before. In TVs, smartphones, and a few other categories, most companies have coalesced on how things should look and feel. But if you look away from center-stage and dig around in the corners, you’ll still find new ideas and designs. The CES convention center is less like a Best Buy and more like a teeming electronics market in Shenzhen, with every imaginable part and idea and Frankenphone—all you have to do is see the connections, put the pieces together.
What fills the halls of the LVCC aren’t the next big things, the solutions to problems we have and problems we don’t. They’re not answers, but questions. Companies all over the world come to Vegas to focus group. They gussy up the booth, blast techno music, and hold out their new creation. And they ask you, us, and everyone else the same question: Is this the one?