Deal Makers Invade International CES, the Land of Geeks

As I walked past the booth staffed by robots selling robots, the plants that water themselves and the prototype Mercedes with no driver at the International CES trade show last week, it occurred to me that the future of human existence might not require many humans.

At CES, the huge technology event in Las Vegas, reality is reconfigured and purportedly improved by the presence of software and machines and the absence of actual people. I watched one guy put on a pair of virtual reality glasses, then get strapped into a big, complicated contraption that mapped his movements as he trotted along hunting with a futuristic gun. I wanted to tell him: Find some friends, go outside, play paintball, run in three actual dimensions.

Huge crowds gathered around a robot from Toshiba named ChihiraAico, who smiled and gestured as she spoke to the crowd. Her performance, including preprogrammed winks, was equal parts cheesy and charming. As I watched her, I was reminded that the future never seems to quite arrive, and it ages quickly if it does. The spooky presence of the communications android brought to mind Disneyland animatronics from half a century ago and served as a reminder that people still cannot wait to have a robot for a friend.

Not to say that the spectacle wasn’t enjoyable. You can’t spend the day looking at butterfly cages full of tiny drones bathed in blue high-definition lights (from the vast television sets that are everywhere) and not be taken by the gee-whiz of it all. Sure, a lot of the stuff will never find traction any place besides the convention hall, but the concentration of ingenuity, design and wonder is remarkable to behold.

Then again, some, if not a good portion of the almost 200,000 people at the trade show never made it to the 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space. What used to be a gathering of geeks hugging themselves over new technology has become, along with the Cannes Lions festival in June, a kind of Woodstock for marketers, brands, agencies and media companies. Google, Facebook and Twitter were there, but so were Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Wells Fargo.

All day and every day last week, the people who run huge companies were having top-to-top meetings in various hotel suites to set up deals for the next year, while their underlings prowled the floor looking for the next big thing. In the evening, those hordes took over the mega-clubs of Vegas to toast common interests and good fortune. It’s a parallel universe that has little to do with the technology being showcased.

CES now has a gravitational pull beyond gadgets — everyone goes because, well, everyone goes. On Tuesday night, MediaLink, a media consulting company, hosted what it called a dinner but was really a full-on poolside bacchanal for the kings and queens of Silicon Valley and all the streets — Madison, Vine, Wall — frolicking together in the Foxtail nightclub at the chic, new SLS hotel. It was a target-rich environment for anyone who wanted to gain access to capital, technology, know-how or power.

Michael Kassan founded MediaLink, and many people blame him for blowing the whistle that turned CES from a nerd curio into a bonanza for marketers, agencies and media organizations.

“Originally, it was about bringing together the people who wear the pocket squares with the people who wear the pocket protectors,” he said by phone on Friday, the day CES ended. “There’s been a mash-up between chief technology officers and chief marketing officers as what they do becomes more interrelated. Now it has taken off, and it’s the place where Google talks with Unilever and Facebook gets together with Kraft.”

The ancient trope of the convention-goer in bad ties making bad decisions far from home has been replaced by something much sexier. Instead of golf and cigars, it was bottle service and exclusive seating at a Snoop Dogg concert. Top executives from technology and consumer brands met at a kind of convention over the convention, far from the floor and whatever gewgaw happened to be wowing the attendees.

At Cannes Lion, which takes place in the south of France, a similar explosion in marketing and advertising has emerged. The event was conceived as a site for creative talent in the advertising world to share ideas, but then big brands wanted insights into the creative process, and the account executives and media sellers soon followed.

CES gives people who market products a look at the context those products will soon fall into. People complain, trash-talking Vegas or the unwashed nerds who make it all possible, but they show up in bigger and bigger numbers every year.

“At CES, we end up seeing people that we also see in New York, and it can be sort of silly,” said Matt Seiler, global chief executive of IPG Mediabrands. “But we travel in packs, and because everyone is in the same place at the same time, good things tend to happen.”

Technology has come to so dominate culture that it can run over many things in its path. Car companies aren’t waiting for the auto shows to unveil products, because cars are now rolling data centers. Mark Fields, the chief executive of Ford Motor, gave a keynote address at CES this year, and Mercedes-Benz unveiled a prototype of a self-driving car called the F015 that looked more like a pod for consuming media than a road vehicle.

In the same way, Dish Network didn’t wait for the television critic’s convention to announce Sling, its low-cost, over-the-web package of cable channels that just happens to include ESPN — it did so at CES last Monday. (In case people didn’t grasp how big a deal it was, Dish’s president and chief executive, Joseph Clayton, came in banging a huge drum as he led a marching band accompanied by a bunch of people in kangaroo costumes.)

Watching it all, I had a feeling that consumers will be traveling around in big bubbles of data that will, if all goes as planned, make the things around them smarter and their own lives better, with much of the technology driving it barely visible.

Rather than emphasizing an individual product, this year reflected the growth of cheaper and smarter sensors, signal-gatherers that can be hacked together to create an interconnected life. Imagine your smart car pulling up to your smart house where your smartwatch will download your health data to a smart kitchen so it knows what you should have for dinner, while your smart television tunes in to programs it knows you want to see.

If you are in the business of marketing products that are going to be in that refrigerator or on those screens, you’d want to be in Las Vegas to see what is coming next. And while you are at it, you’d be more than happy to cut a deal with the abundant digital and traditional publishers who were there vying for attention and money. Think about it: What better place to explore the world of virtual reality than Vegas, a place where both Venice and New York are rendered as casinos?

The crush of all those people looking for a peek over the hill makes getting around a bit of a challenge. I was staying at the Mandalay Bay, at the opposite end of the strip from the convention center. The cab line was hopeless and I was relieved when a shuttle to the show pulled up. And just in case I’d forgotten where I was, the van was equipped with mood lighting and a stripper pole right in the middle. For all I know, the pole was embedded with a number of sensors, and at CES sometime soon, there will be a hologram dancing around it.

Original Article