Spicing Up a Ho-Hum Tech Show

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Hi boss! I'm back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. You assigned me to report on what's new and exciting, but I have some bad news. The answer is: almost nothing.

I mean, think about it: Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook don't even attend C.E.S.; they'd rather make their product announcements on their own schedules without being locked into this every-January thing. It's still a big show, bigger than ever this year, with 3,200 exhibits and 150,000 attendees, but I wonder why people bother. Whose product announcement will get any press at all when it's buried by 3,199 others?

C.E.S.'s organizers publish a daily magazine during the show that profiles new products announced there. Here are some actual examples: "Braven Expands Bluetooth Speaker Line." "Armpocket Unveils Smartphone Cases." "Bits Ltd. Expands Line of Surge Protectors."

So if you want an exciting column from me, the thrills won't come from the news of new products at C.E.S. I'll have to spice things up another way. See what you think of this.

As he plummets toward the Nevada desert, two deafening sounds assail Daxton Blackthorne's eardrums -- the wind rushing past his ears at terminal velocity, and a deafening explosion over his head. Fumbling for his parachute cord, he's blasted by the searing heat from the fireball that, until seconds ago, was his Cessna Citation.

For now, though, his concern isn't the air-to-air missile that has just dispatched his jet, courtesy of the Bora Boran Mafia on his tail. It isn't even the fact that Daxton Blackthorne is all that stands between them and the collapse of American democracy.

It's finding a good place to land.

There! Squinting in the blinding sun, he spots an enormous chain of low-slung buildings, stretching through the bustling downtown like a sleeping cobra: the Las Vegas Convention Center.

He hits the roof of the South Hall hard -- too hard. Keeping low, he scuttles across the gravel to a ventilation shaft and emerges, moments later, in a blasting cacophony of color, sound and electronics.

He hears the crash of boots behind him as his pursuers explode from the same shaft. Got to move, Daxton thinks. Detaching his 'chute, he darts among the booths, dodging clumps of buyers, reporters and electronics executives.

He weaves among the exhibits, barely noting their wares. External battery packs for phones. Car chargers for phones. Screen protectors for phones. Cases for phones.

What is this place? he thinks, pulse pounding.

Booth after booth. GPS units. Tablets. Earbuds. Bluetooth speakers. Phone cases. Row after row of Chinese manufacturers he's never heard of. Like this one, Huwei, selling the world's largest Android phone -- the thin, shiny Ascend Mate, with a 6.1-inch screen. That'd be like talking into a cutting board, he thinks.

He bursts into the Central Hall, and the sensory overload is immediate; he pauses, gasping, to take it in. TV screens. Thousands. Screens bigger than a man. Screens stacked up to the distant ceiling. Screens brighter and louder than explosives in the morning. Sharp, Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Panasonic. The bombardment is almost as lethal as the one that took down his Cessna.

Here are OLED screens, with incredibly black blacks, vivid colors and razor-thin bodies; this LG model is only 0.16 inches thick. Panasonic and Sony each claim "the world's largest OLED screen" -- 56-inch prototypes.

Footsteps pound behind him. Too late to run. He'll blend in. He merges into a throng of eager showgoers.

"Three-D may have been a flop," a rep is saying. "But this year, the industry is back with an irresistible offering: 4K television. Ultra HD, we call it. You thought HDTV was sharp? Now imagine: four times as many pixels. Stunning picture quality, in stunning screen sizes."

Daxton figures you'd have to sit pretty darned close to see any difference between HDTV and 4KTV. But never mind that -- out of the corner of his eye, Daxton spots the black uniforms of his pursuers, fanning through the crowd. Play along, he thinks. "Excuse me," he shouts in a faux French accent. "What is there to watch in 4K?"

"Unfortunately, 4K video requires too much data for today's cable, satellite, broadcast, Blu-ray, or Internet streaming," is the reply. "But at Sony, we're leading the way! If you buy our 84-inch 4K television for $25,000, we'll lend you a hard drive with 10 Sony movies on it -- in gorgeous 4K."

Daxton can think of better uses for $25,000; a jetpack would come in handy right about now. He dives into the crowd. Must. Find. Disguise.

A crowd wearing headsets is gathered before a Samsung TV. That'll do. He grabs one; it covers both his eyes and his ears.

"You're seeing a prototype of Samsung's OLED dual-view technology," the spokesman says. "This TV can display two 3-D video sources simultaneously, or four regular ones. Imagine: Your children can be playing Xbox while you watch the Super Bowl!" Daxton moves the switch on the earpiece; sure enough, the TV's image changes accordingly, along with the audio from the tiny earpiece speakers.

But angry shouts in Tahitian are closing in. He bolts through an archipelago of audio booths, hawking celebrity headphones bearing the names of the rapper 50 Cent, the heavy-metal band Motorhead, the runner Usain Bolt, the N.F.L. quarterback Tim Tebow and the TV reality star Snooki. When did Snooki become an audiophile? he wonders.

By the time he storms into the North Hall, his lungs are screaming. He stands, panting, in a broader area populated by gleaming, polished automobiles. Here are Ford and General Motors, announcing new developer programs, open platforms for new apps that will run on their cars' computer screens. Ford's Sync AppLink bans games and video apps, for safety reasons. Good thinking, Daxton thinks. Wouldn't want distracted driving.

Here are Audi and Lexus, announcing self-driving cars. Glancing at the video loop, he notes that the Audi prototype can, at this point, drive itself only through specially equipped parking garages, like the one set up at the Mandarin Oriental for a demonstration.

But on the Lexus stage, he spots something much more enticing: a car, festooned with sensors, that can actually drive itself on regular roads, much like Google's fleet of 12 autonomous cars.

"California and Nevada have both made self-driving cars legal, with certain restrictions," the executive on stage says. "And this Lexus LS safety-research vehicle is a pioneer. The 360-degree laser on the roof detects objects up to 230 feet away; the front camera knows if the traffic light is red or green. Side cameras, GPS and radar enhance what could someday be a safe, efficient, road-aware vehicle."

There's a burst of commotion from Daxton's near right. It's them. He vaults onto the stage. "Love the idea of self-driving cars," Daxton tells the presenter. "But right now, I need a car I can drive myself."

A saber blade shatters the air next to his ear. With a burst of adrenaline, he dives through the open window of the Lexus. His assailants push through the crowd and clamber after him, but he's already powered on the car. Huddling low, he guns the engine and shifts into gear.

As a hail of bullets shatters the rear window, the Lexus arcs off the stage, plows through seven rotating shelves of phone cases, and, in a cloud of plaster and twisted beams, erupts through the wall of the convention center.

With a wry smile, Daxton adjusts his rear-view mirror just in time to see the knot of black-suited Bora Borans shaking their fists in the distance.

He brushes some safety glass off his shoulder, slips on sunglasses, and leans back into the leather seat.

"Now that's what I call an exciting show," he says, grinning, and he swings onto the open road for home.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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