Reports of CES’ death greatly exaggerated

The techie masses at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show seemed burdened by a general sense of disappointment. Minds were not blown. The digital firmament was not torn asunder. Wallets were not gripped tightly in fearful anticipation of the imminent need to drop a paycheck’s worth of earnings on the new must-have, show-stopping electronic object of lust.

Of course, there was still plenty to see and much technical wizardry on display, but we are a furiously jaded audience. The escalating pace of innovation has created an expectation that each new generation of products will create both terrified awe and wondrous delight. For example, it was a few short months ago that Microsoft started promising the future of gestural control via Kinect, a new peripheral for the Xbox 360. A completely new interface went from the pages of sci-fi to the pages of a Toys-R-Us sales circular overnight. Just four months after its release, few people seemed to crowd the Kinect booth. CES attendees don’t want amazing. We want new amazing.

It’s worth restating: gestural interfaces are really cool. 3D TVs are really cool. Tablets are really cool. Mobile devices on 4G networks are really cool. Most of the stuff at CES is really cool. But, several years of stupendous advances have left us so jaded that a show teeming with such amazing gadgetry felt quaint and lacking in the fervor that we crave. Instead, we got screens.

Line up all the mobile devices from this year’s show and you’d be hard-pressed to say which phone was which; every new phone is just a rectangular sliver of glass. All those tablets from all those manufacturers looked awfully similar to one another; every new tablet is just a rectangular sliver of glass. I saw hundreds of TVs and they all looked the same; every new TV is just a rectangular sliver of glass. Not only is there ubiquity in glossy slenderness, but functionality now tends to extend across categories. Size is the only reliable difference among products. Some of the supercomputers fit in a pocket, while others get hung on a wall.

A shiny button or new form factor are powerful attractors to a gadget lover. However, the current design aesthetic eschews those features in favor of streamlined simplicity. The dramatic innovations in Las Vegas were more often related to greater power, speed or capability – in other words, beauty on the inside. A very powerful tablet can be beautiful, but it’s almost inevitable that the kneejerk reaction to several hundred thousand square feet of subtly stunning gadgets is boredom and disappointment.

So, if the show wasn’t as dreary as reported, what was interesting? Behaviors. Remember those undifferentiated products? If there’s little or no difference between any of the screens through which we consume content, the ways in which we consume content to change. I watch video on my small, medium and large screens. I play games on all of those screens. I even communicate through each of those screens. With media device and media function even further unhinged, conventional models of consumer behavior will continue to change dramatically. Marketers relying on conventional assumptions run the risk of very modern disappointment.