words William Wiles
A general impression of CES, one of the world’s largest consumer electronics trade fairs. Looking out over the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center from the steps that descend into it, I was reminded of Andreas Gursky’s 1999 “99 Cent” photographs of American discount supermarkets. The garish details of individual items crowd each other out into a screaming chorus of hyper-abundance. But the South Hall is bigger than Gursky’s 99-cent stores by at least an order of magnitude, and it’s just one of the four halls in the Convention Center that are filled up with representatives of the world’s consumer electronics industry. (More than filled: there’s more at The Venetian hotel, among the gondolas.) The circulation spaces between the halls heave with slow-moving bodies; at one point LG’s stand was so crowded that movement in any direction was literally impossible. More than major sporting events or over-used transport terminals, it’s like a gigantic religious festival.
That’s not a wholly flippant comparison. CES is a pilgrimage for one of the world’s most important industries; it’s also a solar, astrological event, starting the new year, harking back to the days when druids gathered at the solstice to unveil new, more powerful henges to the strains of U2’s Beautiful Day. It is here that the global electronics giants (and their vast trailing shoals of minnows and feeder-fish) announce what 2010 is going to be about. “For the 17th year in a row, the future is here!” ran the joke in Futurama – and indeed, once again, the future was here.
This year, as you have probably read, the future is 3D. All the largest household electronics corporations were showing off 3D televisions. At the Sony stand a concert was broadcast live in 3D, a world first. A 3D image of Taylor Swift was projected on a big screen while, just in front of that screen, the actual Taylor Swift was performing – a disconcerting spectacle similar to the reflection-to-infinity seen when you stand between two mirrors.
That aside, it works a treat, and 3D certainly has come a long way. 3D systems like the one Sony is integrating in its Bravia range of TVs come with “active shutter” glasses, rather than the polarised lenses you get in the cinema. This means, in effect, each eye is getting its own TV broadcast, a huge improvement in clarity – but it also means that your glasses run on batteries and will cost a possible £100 to replace if you sit on them. It’s still early days.
Similar systems were being shown by Panasonic, LG and Samsung, but they weren’t paying icon’s airfare, so to hell with them. The stands of the large corporations were mostly slick affairs: Sony’s had a touch of the Korova Milk Bar and Microsoft’s space, suffused in blue light, gave a sense of what it’s like to be an icon on a Windows XP desktop. But the thousands of stands operated by lesser companies exerted their own fascination. There was that 99-Cent sense of nightmarish super-excess – the sheer amount of stuff on offer was bewildering. If any event allows you to look directly into the surreal mutations and remixes of the consumer economy, it’s CES.
Examples: a home generator shaped like Hello Kitty – the cartoon character’s arms have been replaced by cranks, turning her into something out of Jan vankmajer; a robot assistant for the elderly, lacking arms and legs, so it’s more a mobile table or the world’s worst Dalek; a “flight safe” Victorinox Swiss army knife, which includes a USB drive but doesn’t include any blades; and the gadget no one’s been waiting for, a home spectrum analysis kit. And of course there are thousands of headphones, digital picture frames, massage chairs, in-car sound systems – one begins to wonder at the amount of power being drawn by the Convention Center, at the air-conditioning load needed to deal with all those gadgets and bodies, and the vertigo comes on again.
top picture The Samsung Stand
picture Punters wearing 3D glasses
picture A robot by Kokoro