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January 6, 2023 22 mins

Robert ventures to the Consumer Electronics Show in the wake of a year of massive tech industry losses to ask, what does the future look like?

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Speaker 1 (00:05):
Things fall apart, the center will not hold, and journalists
will make a pretty good living writing about at all.
It's a good time to work the dystopia beat. The
pillars of our society have been crumbling for most of
my adult life and probably yours too. One exception to this,
up until recently, has been the tech industry. When the
rest of the economy shipped the bed back in two

(00:26):
thousand eight, big tech roared into the gap to prop
up the groaning timbers of capitalism. Sure, the housing market
was in free fall, huge numbers of people were out
of work, and American infrastructure was crumbling like a twice
baked pot brownie. But then Steve Jobs magicked up the
iPhone and the iPad and the app store. Google brought
us Android and a dizzying array of smart and connected

(00:47):
devices followed. Companies like Uber disrupted massive industries and briefly
made hailing a cab the cheapest it's ever been, although
they did this by lighting massive piles of VC cash
on fire. It was in this period of what would
prove to be a rational exuberance that I started my
career as a tech journalist. That was the job title
my boss gave me, and it's what everybody else in

(01:09):
the industry called themselves. In reality, most of us were
just extensions of big text pr agencies. All the big
tech news websites of that era, slash gear In, Gadget Boy,
Genius Review, and the place I worked for I FORU News,
made most of their money off the back of a
peculiarity in Google search algorithm. The gist of it was this,

(01:32):
if a bunch of websites all published articles that were
basically rewritten press releases about say a new gadget, or
rewrites of someone else's report on rumors about an Apple product,
Google would assume that this was a hot topic, and
they would bump everybody up on the algorithm. You could
make a tidy profit just paying a handful of writers
to rewrite press releases or copy reports from some of

(01:53):
the few sites doing actual tech journalism. And this is
where I got my start in reporting. I wrote ten
articles a day, five days a week for several years
until Google fixed their algorithm and wiped my silly little
industry out in the blink of an eye. It's fine.
In this case, we kind of had it coming. It
was nice to get paid to sit home and write.
And the experience putting out a shipload of words every

(02:14):
single day that were polished enough to print was pretty
good for me, but it wasn't journalism, and so while
I was doing it, I started seeking opportunities to actually
get out into the world and do original reporting. And
that's what first brought me to the Consumer Electronics Show
in Las Vegas in two thousand ten c s as.
It's known as a tech industry insider event for analysts, manufacturers,

(02:37):
and media. They come and they show off new products
and gadgets and apps, and journalists walk around and look
at everything and then write articles about it. Companies spend
millions of dollars every year on massive, multi acre show
rooms for their products and dream up ludicrous demonstrations of
their new tech. One that sticks out to me from
again about thirteen years ago, is watching some company or

(02:59):
another charge an electric car inductively. That means there was
nothing actually plugged into the vehicle. They just parked it
like you would put your phone on an inductive charger,
and they charged it that way. The whole process was
so energy intensive that it dimmed the lights in the
Loss of Vegas Convention Center, which if you've never been
inside of. It is about the size of a small city.
The spectacle was always the best part of CS and

(03:22):
with all the money pouring into big tech, it was
a great place to be a reporter. Every big booth
had free wet bars and piles of free swag. I
left every year with a sack full of USB drives
and thousands of dollars in products to test. There was
so much goddamn money everywhere that even a dumb kid
like me with no real connections could do okay. Collapse

(03:42):
was always and has always been present at c S, however,
looming in the background overdomed product categories and vast tottering
businesses that didn't realize they were already dead. I'm thinking
primarily of r I Am, the people who used to
make blackberries here. Another good example would be Motorola in
two thousand eleven. Their booth was one of the largest
at c E s now Apple was and still is

(04:05):
the biggest name on the block when it comes to
making consumer gadgets, but they don't go to c E S,
preferring to hold their own annual event to announce new products.
This has always irritated the people who run the show,
and so in the early two thousand tens, when androids
started to blow up as a rival to Apple's iOS,
a huge deal was made about Motorola's Droid line of phones.

(04:26):
They actually had to license the name from Lucasfilm for
obvious reasons. In two thousand ten, Motorola won the Best
in Show award for their Droid phone, despite the fact
that they hadn't actually brought a working example of it
to the show, something that kind of pissed me off
at the time. Now today, Motorola is basically dead. It's
a shadow of its former self. It's been bought and

(04:47):
sold several times. His companies like Samsung and HTC beat
the piss out of it on the open market. Other
famous collapses from c e s has past include the
entire three D television market. If you can remember those
heady day days after the release of the first Avatar movie,
the tech industry blue billions in R and D and
ad money trying to convince everyone that people would actually

(05:07):
sit down in their actual glass living rooms and wear
fucking three D glasses to watch movies or TV. It
was preposterous and obviously doomed. I have fond memories of
harassing pr hacks on the show floor, asking them, isn't
this just a big con from the entertainment industry to
make it harder for people to pirate media? Are there
any actual signs that regular people will pay thousands of

(05:28):
dollars for one of these things? At one point, a
rep from Samsung, I think, tried to show me a
glasses free three D TV. It only worked if a
trained professional told you precisely where to stand in order
to view it. I laughed so hard I snorted whiskey
and lukewarm Starbucks onto a stack of glossy product brochures.
Despite how obviously doomed it all was, the Internet filled

(05:49):
with fawning articles about all of the exciting new three
D televisions that were surely going to be in homes
in the very near future. Now, because the Internet moves quickly,
most of the websites that did tech news back then
are dead, and the ones that remain are filled with
busted links. But you can still find monuments to the
failure of three D television if you know where to look.
Take this excerpt from a PC World article on the

(06:12):
best of c E s two thousand ten uh. It's
titled the three D Revolution is here, and underneath a
broken link to an image that is no longer available,
is the line I don't think it's a false start
this time. The three D product plans for the coming
year represent the initial salvos of the coming three D revolution.
Panasonics three D demos were among the most convincing, but

(06:33):
the best implementation I saw, unfortunately, is one that won't
be coming to market anytime soon. Sony showed us it's
twenty four point five in three D O l E
d H D t V is a technology demo only

(06:53):
now in retrospect, I think the hilarious failure of three
D TV technology is actually what prepared me more than
anything for crypto. If you actually just go over that
paragraph I read a little earlier, you could replace the
words referring specifically to three D t V s with
various shit coins or blockchain related tech and it would
more or less work. The thing that set me off

(07:14):
with crypto was how similar the claim was that, like,
this thing is obviously legit because look at how many
people are talking about it. It's got to be real
now because suddenly it's all over the news This is
why folks like Sam Bankman Freed bought the naming rights
to stadiums and stuck f t X and crypto dot
Com up as publicly as they possibly could. It was
all a con to convince casual observers that the crypto

(07:36):
market was a serious thing they should invest in. It's
one of those things that really made me think a
lot about the role journalists play and hyping up nonsense
like this, And you can see it in three D
t v s and Crypto and a bunch of other spaces.
A big part of what convinces people that this stuff
is real is suddenly they start seeing articles everywhere talking
about it. Suddenly the press all over the place is

(07:57):
talking about the price of bitcoin or talking about this
this new thing as if it's it's going to actually
change people's lives. And so folks who maybe are not
super high information media consumers just assume that, Okay, I
guess this is here to stay. Um, it's it's a
danger that still exists. All of this brings me to
c E Sree collapse looms larger over the proceedings this

(08:21):
year than in any other prior event I've attended. Prior
to the pandemic attendance that c S had topped out
at around two hundred thousand people last year, though only
forty thousands showed, which is probably still vastly too many
folks to cram into hotel conference rooms that can see
a restaurants during a pandemic. And yes, c e S
two was a super spreader event. Korea particularly had a

(08:43):
problem as a result of it. The show itself for decades,
a central event in the global tech industry, seems to
be teetering. It is not alone there. The top ten
big tech stocks lost a combined four point six trillion
dollars in market cap in two, that significantly more than
the GDP of the United Kingdom around three point two trillion,

(09:03):
or the state of California three point six trillion. At
c S. The rot is most evident in the utter
lack of any kind of hype beast product this year.
So far, I've seen a flying hydrogen car, or at
least I've seen three d renders of one. Also, it's
meant for Formula one style race, is not actual civilian use.
The guy at the booths somewhat angrily told me the

(09:24):
anticipated retail price was around three million dollars. The MACA
flying car was one of many products that I looked
into at c S Unveiled, which is one of the
headline events of the show. It's basically a bunch of
manufacturers and booths showing off their gadgets to an audience
of journalists to drink heavily from an open bar, walk
around and prod things. In years past, smartphones and tablets

(09:47):
and their consumer gadgets tended to be the main focus,
but all that kind of stuff is boring as hell
now the smartphone market has stabilized. It's just not as
exciting as it used to be, and c e S
knows it. The big hype and Unveiled is around a
mix of electronic and autonomous vehicle technology and virtual reality.
Now at present, I'm not in a good position to
thoroughly analyze the specific promises made by individual autonomous driving

(10:11):
companies at CES. I'll just note that tech Crunch, normally
all in for hype about this kind of stuff, published
an article last October titled It's time to admit self
driving cars aren't going to happen. Here's a relevant quote.
Ford announced that it would be winding down our Goo
AI the company, backed by itself and fellow automaker votes Wagon,
focusing on developing full level four autonomous driving technologies. Ford

(10:34):
explained their justification in doing so when they release their
Q three earnings a few hours later, noting that not
only were they shutting down our GOO, but they were
also essentially deep prioritizing L four technologies altogether to instead
focus on advanced driver assistance systems with internal resources. Ford
CEO Jim Farley justified this by saying on the company's
earnings call Wednesday evening that profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at

(10:56):
scale are a long way off, and we won't necessarily
have to create that tech chnology for ourselves now. Obviously,
autonomous technology will of course have niche applications automating transport
of heavy loads at job sites and minds where routes
are predictable and controlled, but mass adoption of full level
four autonomous driving technology is at present a fantasy. The

(11:17):
same is true for one of the other major product
categories at c S, unveiled virtual reality metaverse nonsense. The
fact that Facebook let fifteen billion dollars on fire last
year chasing Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse dreams has convinced some people
that the idea is inevitable. This excerpt from a market
Watch article published during c e S is representative. You

(11:38):
can see the same thought process that led people astray
with three D TVs and crypto. In the long run,
the metaverse will be a major substitute for in person
conventions like c e S, said June Nichigucci, CEO of Tararu,
a Japanese company developing its own metaverse. So one of
the barriers to any kind of popular metaverse is the
fact that VR is actually not as immersive as it

(11:59):
needs to be. The technology does a pretty impressive job
of convincing your eyes that you are, in fact somewhere else,
and this is pretty neat, but the rest of your
body is inevitably standing or sitting awkwardly in a room somewhere.
This has led to a whole host of products that
are in development right now that attempt to engage the
rest of your body and basically trick it into believing

(12:21):
that you're somewhere else. I tried two products at c
e S that were meant to do this. The first
was the tax suit X from b Haptics. It uses
haptic feedback technology which is the stuff that makes your
phone buzz when you press a button on your touch screen.
Companies like b Haptics hope to use advanced versions of
the tech to mimic physical sensation. This would make the

(12:41):
metaverse feel much less awkward and associated, and also provide
a whole new market for online sex workers. There are
several of these suits at c S, and all of
them seem to have won innovation Awards, or at least
their honorees and the CS Innovation Awards, which is a
thing that basically anyone seems to get if they make
something expensive and and bring it to the show. To

(13:01):
be frank, I think these suits are bullshit. The one
slightly cool thing about the tax suit is that the
gloves it had like gloves and a feat component. Um
I was able to test the gloves and the the
actual chest suit thing. The gloves do a pretty okay
job of emulating a physical keyboard, or at least a
small keyboard on like a smartphone style device. Now that

(13:22):
is not a cool enough thing for someone to pay
hundreds of dollars and deal with the hassle of wearing heavy,
battery powered gloves every day. The b haptics. Folks eagerly
showed me how their suit could simulate hugging and touching
another human being in VR, and this seemed to be
the major selling point they saw for what they were
bringing to the table. I actually tried all this and
it was among the saddest experiences of my life. Hugging

(13:44):
someone in a haptic suit through VR feels like having
a dozen or so in sixty four. Rumbull packs activate
up your chest in arms. If you touch a virtual
person's shoulder, your hand will buzz and vibrate. Now, buzzing
and vibrating are not sensations I attribute to physical intimacy
with a physical person. I actually found this attempt at

(14:04):
mimicking the sensation of human contact much more disturbing than
the lack of contact in most VR experiences. The tech
industry has also penned a lot of hopes on augmented reality.
I think this is closer to being realistic, but there
is still a metric fun ton of vaporware and snake
oil products often marketed as increasing accessibility. One example would
be the luvic. This is a device you wear around

(14:26):
your neck. It's roughly the size of a pair of headphones.
It's supposed to buzz on one side or the other
of your body to let you know when to turn,
all the while delivering audio map directions for you. Luvic's
press materials highlight what a win this is for accessibility,
saying Luvic is a device designed to solve the challenges
of those who have difficulty with spatial cognition. It is
an IoT Internet of Things device that is one around

(14:48):
your neck and uses tactile notifications and bone conduction voice
to guide the user along the way naturally. Now, this
tech does identify a real need, but I'm sorry to
say it does not work at all. I tried this thing.
Luvic people put it on me and ran through a
walking root of New York City. I couldn't tell which
side of my body was being buzzed, so that was useless.
It just felt like a smartphone was ringing on the

(15:08):
back of my neck, and the speakers weren't loud enough
to hear directions. Now, when I mentioned this, the Luvic
people told me, well, there's too much noise in the
conference room for you to hear it, of course, new
York City being famously quiet. And then there's the stuff
that I suspect was just outright snake will rather than
being broken like the luvic. This is probably best embodied
by the electric circlet I saw there that's supposed to

(15:31):
stimulate your brain to reduce your stress while you sleep.
Uh they advertised, I think the number was eight percent
reduction and stress while you sleep. This is not a product.
I feel the need to review some claims they're not
worth taking seriously, and this is one of them. So far,
I've seen little at c S that struck me as
likely to be a massive financial success. But there were
some potentially groundbreaking products on display. Unfortunately, nearly all of

(15:55):
these were in the realm of health and medical technology.
Let me explain why this is troubling with an example
from the show. The most potentially influential device I saw
there was called Viral, worn by Optive. It is a
multiple use breath analyzer self test that will tell you
if you are positive for COVID nineteen R s V
or influenza UM. It just lights up if you're positive

(16:16):
for one of them. They promised that in the future
it'll tell you what you have. But then that's still useful, right,
Still a hell of a lot better than anything we've
got right now. Rather than sticking a thing up your nose,
you just blow into this thing like a breathalyzer. It's
about the size of a key fob, and you can
charge it with a normal USB cable. It can be
used dozens of times before being reloaded. Optive's rough price
point is around a hundred dollars if this thing works

(16:39):
the way they say it does. I cannot exaggerate what
a big deal it would be. Imagine being able to
blow into a little device and know in a couple
of seconds if you're safe before you go into a
store or a bar or a party, go see you know,
an elderly relative for a birthday. Lives could be saved
by this thing if it works. And to their credit,
the good folks Adoptive immediately told me that this was

(16:59):
not on sale yet, as it was still waiting for
FDA approval. I take this as a good side, and
I sincerely hope it works as well as advertised. But
products like this do present a problem for the tech press.
When I'm at a show like c e S, it's
generally easy to determine if something has promise by step
into a booth for a company advertising rugged speakers. Well,
I can drop those speakers from a height, I can

(17:21):
drop stuff onto them, I can throw them. I can
test if they're rugged because I can try to break them,
and if I can't, then they're rugged. Likewise, I can
strap on a VR suit and I can tell you
if it makes the experience more immersive. Neither I nor
any other members of the press can tell you how
well a medical diagnostic device works in the same manner.
This isn't anyone's fault, but as connected tech and AI

(17:44):
are included in more healthcare devices, the potential for snake
oil and for dangerous failures to generate mass hype increases exponentially.
I want to be clear that the medical devices I
have seen so far at c S do not strike

(18:06):
me a suspicious and company representatives were extremely good at
explaining what stage in the FDA approval process they were at,
and I saw some really cool shit. My favorite was
probably a new streamlined a E D from Life a
Z at a thousand dollars or thirty five dollars a
month with a four to five years shelf life. This
thing makes having a defibrillator on hand affordable for regular people.

(18:27):
It's extremely light and small and can be easily carried
in a backpack. I do have a little bit of
medical training, and I tried this thing out on a
dummy and test mode. I can confirm it appears to
work like any other more expensive a d The device
is still awaiting FDA approval, but it has been approved
and as being sold in France and Germany, so I
feel pretty good saying this thing probably works the way
Life a Z says it does. And then there's my

(18:49):
favorite product from c E s unveiled, the nan She
domestic violence app from ath Bash, which is a French company.
This was first suggested to me via one of the
most awkward PR emails I've ever received. Eaved forward Media
Alert groundbreaking domestic violence reporting app launching at CS and
when I got it in my email, it just said

(19:09):
forward Media Alert Groundbreaking domestic Violence, which fun thing to
get in your inbox. In fairness to their very nice
PR lady, there's probably not a non awkward way to
title an email about this kind of thing. The app
itself is really innovative, though it provides you with options
to record voice or video and to take photos of
documents or to photographically document your own injuries. All the

(19:32):
data that you save is stored off site, so you
take a picture or your record audio and it's immediately
off the phone and off the app. You actually can't
access it without contacting the company directly to get it.
All of it is stored on the cloud, and it's
also on the blockchain, which is used to verify data integrity,
making this probably the first blockchain related product I've ever

(19:53):
heard of with a realistic use case. Nan She seems
to be pretty well thought out from the top to bottom.
Once you start recording, you can swipe away from the
app and it will keep recording without being visible anywhere
on your phone. So if you're in a fight with
a domestic abuser and they take your phone away, they
will not see that you're recording, but it will keep recording.
You can also change the logo and name that the

(20:14):
app displays itself under on your phone, so that it
won't say that you have Nanci anywhere. You can make
it look like basically anything you want. It really does
seem like they've thought this through and it's about the
best version of this kind of thing that's possible. There's
more a particular note at the show was an unpowered
mechanical exoskeleton I got to try on. It doesn't increase
your physical strength, but it does allow you to sit

(20:34):
while standing. The manufacturer or Kellis, sees this as a
way to let workers stand on factory production lines and
in retail stores all day long without straining themselves. I
feel profoundly mixed about this product, more so than anything
else that's ees. On one hand, it it works really well.
I got to try it on, and it's kind of
a marvel On the mechanical level. You can still walk

(20:55):
perfectly well with it on, but you can just kind
of sit at any point going limb and it's actually
really comfortable. On the other hand, it costs three thousand dollars,
which means very few retail workers were ever going to
see one. So far. It's primary use in the real
world has been helping to keep auto workers comfortable while
they've shotgun more cars out into a world with far
too many of them. It's all very emblematic of the

(21:16):
way CS makes me feel these days. Inside the roiling
sea of snake oil and broken ship. Are some really
cool ideas, but they're all wedded to an industry that
has mostly forgotten how to do anything new. Over the
coming days, I'm going to look at a new smartphone
from Samsung. It rolls up, I guess, check out more
VR Haptick devices, none of which I expect to work

(21:37):
very well, and I will hopefully get to lift some
heavy weights wearing a powered Exo skeleton. That one I'm
actually looking forward to. I am open to the possibility
of finding stuff that's cool here, but at the end
of the day, nothing I've seen anything I'm likely to see,
has changed my overall impression of where the tech industry
is today. It's a big, bloated monster slowly bleeding out

(21:58):
before our eyes. It could Happen here as a production
of cool Zone Media. For more podcasts from cool Zone Media,
visit our website cool zone media dot com, or check
us out on the I Heart Radio app, Apple Podcasts,
or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can find sources
for It could Happen Here, updated monthly at cool zone

(22:19):
Media dot com slash sources. Thanks for listening.

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