As the Consumer Electronics Show kicks off in Las Vegas this week, opinions among the media, and even attendees, diverge widely. CES is still the Mother of All Trade Shows for the electronics industry, and its sheer scale and spectacle make it impossible to dismiss. And yet many observers have been doing exactly that for several years now, pointing out that opulence does not equal influence, and that CES has a poor track record of hyping the technologies that truly transform lives and society. Both are correct, though, and this is ultimately the problem. We widely acknowledge that the future of technology lies not in amazing new features, but in connectivity and personalization, and CES in its current state is just about the worst place on Earth to showcase that future.
In the frenetic, gargantuan halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center, Shock and Awe is the primary exhibition strategy. Major exhibitors vie to create the largest, most impressive booths; mid-size companies roll out dance performances and sleekly minimal spaces peppered with perfectly staged product; the little guys do their best to create impact with visual density and aggressive representatives. It works quite well, in its way, with buyers flocking to the flashy displays, and lots of good old-fashioned social networking taking place right there on the carpeted floors.
But it's a strategy based on heroics, not experiences. Booth after booth centers on the Hero Product, attended by a representative whose job it is to demonstrate for you the Hero Interaction: press this button, watch this thing happen, and be impressed. It's a great way to show off a new function, but how many of the real innovations of the past decade have been about new functions? Increasingly, when technology comes along and shakes things up, it does it by integrating smoothly into our existing lives (Facebook, Nest, Nike Fuelband) or by giving us a platform to explore and personalize (SimCity, Netflix, XBox). Understanding the value in either requires a journey that's personal, and makes space for discovery and learning—the very opposite of what happens at CES.
Exhibitors can excuse themselves from addressing these needs by pointing out that CES is a B2B event, not a consumer-facing one, and that a carefully guided Hero Interaction is necessary to make your point quickly and forcefully. They're wrong though, on both counts. If the rise of design in the consumer electronics field has made one real impact, it's that businesses are finally recognizing the value in thinking the way their customers do. They want to empathize, they're getting better at it, and more than ever the buyer or potential partner you talk to on the show floor is looking for an experience, not a feature, even if they're not the one who will ultimately be experiencing it.
There's also some excellent precedent for mass personalization of experiences, especially in controlled environments like a trade show. Or a theme park. Disney's new MagicBand program gives guests the opportunity to state their preferences and provide some personal details ahead of time, then using a simple RFID-equipped bracelet to provide them with a customized experience based on that information. It's an approach that many guests have embraced, and prompted observers to hold it up as an example of the coming Golden Age of user experience. Similar technologies like the recently unveiled iBeacon are promising similar customization in contained environments like sports arenas, concert halls, and eventually stores and malls.
So why not CES? Instead of touting the wonders of the smart home by mounting a series of sensors, flatscreens and thermostats on a wall, surrounded by marketing text, why not have visitors walk into a model version of a smart home—their smart home? Interested attendees could be contacted weeks before the conference and offered an opportunity to see the power of a super-connected environment by providing a few links and some background info. Suddenly, when they walk in, the house scans their badge (everyone's already got one), welcomes them by name, cues up the song they last listened to on Spotify, puts their Netflix home page up on the TV, and asks if they'd like to dim the lights or adjust the temperature.
The booths of audio companies tend to play accessible pop standards, heavy dance tracks or occasionally classical, depending on the mood they're trying to set, but they could be playing your music, as soon as you walk in. A fitness tracking wristband could be pre-loaded with your details, so you can put it on and use it in a realistic way, shortly after approaching the booth. Shifting focus in this way could let CES transform itself into something far more relevant: a Customer Experience Show, not a Consumer Electronics one.
Doing this poses technical challenges, of course, but so does building a 40-foot-high wall of flatscreen displays, and that hasn't stopped CE companies so far. The difference in these approaches isn't really one of difficulty, but of intent. If the future of technology is personal and connected, then demonstrating those qualities is worth the money and effort. If CES is to remain relevant into the future, it may soon be a necessity.
For more Co.Design coverage of CES, go here, here, and here.
[Image: CES 2014 via Flickr user LG]