At CES, a hunt for hidden treasure

A scavenger hunt sponsored by CES sends CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman -- and many others -- out exploring the lesser-visited parts of the show. Who knows what you'll find.

The list of iBeacons to track down in the CES treasure hunt. All were greyed out at this point, meaning that none had yet been found. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- I've done my good deed for the day.

To get CES attendees to visit the massive consumer electronics show's less-popular areas, CES put on a scavenger hunt this week. To play, participants run the show's official mobile app and head out on a trip around Vegas looking for nine hidden wireless iBeacons .

The app offers general information about their locations, essentially the name of a specific industry area, like 3D printing, or digital health, and the building it's located. Once there, the app alerts players that an iBeacon (which wirelessly transmits its location to mobile devices, as well as the distance to those devices) is nearby and gives them an approximate distance to the treasure.

That's what's led me to the Up Global Stage area of the startup-packed Eureka Park section in the Venetian hotel. According to the app, there's an iBeacon nearby, and I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so. At an information desk at the stage, a frazzled woman is apologetically telling one scavenger hunter after another she has no idea what they're asking about.

The app is giving no hints that an actual iBeacon is nearby -- despite suggesting that one should be -- so I suspect something's wrong. Indeed, when I leave that hall, cross a passageway, and go into the next hall over, the app catches a whiff of iBeacon. I'm 55 feet away, it says, and as I round a corner, I'm awarded the badge.

I consider keeping this information to myself, since prizes are at stake: the first three finishers get something special (a "tablet," I'm told later). Perhaps, I think, no one else will cross into this second hall to track this iBeacon, and I'll be one of those three. Instead, remembering the woman being deluged with questions about the beacon, I decided to tell her where it is. Along with my altruism goes my chance at a top prize.

No matter. The joy is in the hunt, right?

At the very first iBeacon I tracked down, I ran into Chris Sexton, who works for Radius Networks, the company CES hired to run the scavenger hunt. "We pitched this (to CES) as a fun idea," Sexton said. "The goal for CES was to drive people to go places they wouldn't have otherwise. To go to the Sands (for example) instead o f staying at the Las Vegas Convention Center. One of their biggest problems is how to get people to go to the back halls."

The transmitter in an iBeacon. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Sexton said that players need only be within 10 meters of an iBeacon to get the corresponding badge, but as I played, I discovered that there's definitely something buggy in the technology, either in the app, or in the transmitters.

The first place I notice this for sure is in South Hall 2 of the convention center. That hall had two sections -- Motion Tech and Digital Health -- that both promise iBeacons. I wandered and wandered looking for the Digital Health beacon, before the app finally told me I'd found it. But I simply could not find the corresponding sign on the wall, which I wanted to photograph. I wandered some more and suddenly got an alert that I'd found another beacon -- presumably the one corresponding to Motion Tech.

Looking at a pillar, I saw one of the signs, and standing it front of it, a slightly befuddled Jason Auger was trying anything he could to get his app to recognize it. We talk for a minute and agree something's fishy. I walked away quietly pleased that I'd found more iBeacons than he had.

As I wandered the back halls, I was at first dubious that CES' goal made sense. But the more I wandered, I began to be a convert. I realized that I was walking through halls I wouldn't have visited otherwise and wished I could spend more time in. The Robotics hall, for example, was full of interesting-looking products, things like telepresence robots, and little motorized things crawling around. And, wait, is that Pleo over there?

Pleo, if you remember, is a robotic dinosaur, first released in 2007 by Ugobe. After a couple of years of very enthusiastic media coverage, and lots of happy buyers, the company somehow succumbed to the 2008 recession, and went out of business. I was always a Pleo fan and was saddened when Ugobe went under.

Pleo, the famous robot dinosaur first released in 2007, has made a comeback after its manufacturer folded in 2009. The robot is on display at CES this year. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Yet here it was, looking exactly the same as ever -- except for the fact that it was now in new colors, like pink and blue, in addition to the original green -- and the Pleo booth was jammed with excited people. Oddly, they seemed totally unaware that this was a product that had been resurrected from the dead. What's old is new again, I thought -- if only you have a marketing budget and can afford a booth at CES. Even in a back hall.

On I went. One by one, the iBeacons fell. Before long, I had almost all of them. I got used to the fact that the app would provide slightly deceiving information about how close I was to an iBeacon, and kept on crossing them off.

Until finally, there was just one left -- in the driverless cars section of the "gold plaza" section of CES. I went there, and from afar, I saw the little sign signifying the beacon. I walked over to it, until I was standing inches from it. Yet, echoing Auger's problems from earlier, the app said i was 43 feet away and wouldn't award me the badge. This seemed like a cruel joke -- make me spend a couple hours on this, walking all over CES and then deny me my deserved glory.

But finally, the app did its thing, and I got the badge. Only this time it came with special words: "Congratulations! You have successfully completed the CES Scavenger Hunt."

It even promised I'd won a prize, and told me where to go to pick it up. Visions of new tech in my head, I finally made my way there, sure that even in spite of my good deed, I would have beat almost everyone to all nine beacons.

Well, OK, not so much. I was maybe the 25th person to show up. No tablet for me. But I did get a nice CES baseball cap and T-shirt. Perhaps more importantly, I saw nine areas of the CES floor I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise. If I have time, I'm definitely going back to at least a couple of them. Perhaps CES is on to something after all.

 

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