CES tech fest is really important to Las Vegas. It's also really not

What do a former mafia hitman, a couple about to be married and some Vegas partiers have in common? They have no idea why so many nerds were in town this past week.

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Outside of CES, Vegas is still happening -- like people getting married at the famous Little White Wedding Chapel.

Richard Nieva/CNET

At 2 p.m. on a Monday, I'm having drinks at the Peppermill Fireside Lounge with Frank Cullotta, once the most notorious mafia hitman in Las Vegas. Of all the things we could discuss, we're talking about Google Cardboard.

I'm here for CES, the biggest convention for all things personal tech. For a week every January, tech worshippers meet in the desert to bear witness to product pomp from tech upstarts and tech giants like Samsung and Google -- and to quench their thirst with Vegas's alcohol-soaked nightlife. It's one of the city's largest conferences and last year drew more than 170,000 attendees from around the world.

But I know lots of people are in Vegas doing what Vegas goers normally do -- gambling, taking in shows, partying, standing up in their limos as they take a ride down the famous strip. So I set out to find out what regular folks think about such a major event in town and what technology means to Vegas. I wasn't too surprised to learn that Cullotta -- and most of the other people I talked to away from the show floor -- had no idea there was a big tech conference even going on this week.

Las Vegas has hosted CES for the past 38 years. The show now covers more than 2.4 million square feet and sprawls across the three halls in the Las Vegas Convention Center, as well as the ballrooms of some of the big casinos nearby including The Venetian, Cosmopolitan and Mandalay Bay. This year, Snapchat's logo is emblazoned on the center of the pyramid at Luxor and visible from the air as you fly in. Tech industry luminaries, tech industry hacks, actual hackers, backend Web designers, salespeople, journalists, A-list celebrities, B-list celebrities, C-list celebrities and D-list celebrities all journey here, looking for a little bit of luck.

There may be no better place to reflect on our relationship with tech. At its best, tech is a lifeline and connector, letting us see more, do more and swell with empathy. At its worst, tech can be stifling, pummeling and a source of constant overstimulation. Now take Vegas. It's a place where the ringing and lights of slot machines never stop, and one of the few stretches of land where your senses bow to the clamor of the casinos instead of the fainter ding of your smartphone.

"Whatever you have and wherever you live, Las Vegas has more of it. Bigger and better," says Michael Green, a Las Vegas historian and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But as the city embraced the tech industry and has become more modern, it's changed, too.

"Las Vegas used to advertise itself as a frontier town," he says. "In a lot of ways, it's different now."

If anyone can tell me how this town has changed, it's Cullotta. Why him? He's a custodian of old world Las Vegas. Cullotta was the mob enforcer depicted in the Martin Scorsese film "Casino," the right-hand man of Joe Pesci's character. Now 77 years old, his blue-tinted shades cover his blue eyes. He's got a pristine white beard, and he's wearing a black fedora and brown trench coat.

"Do I look 77?" he asks me.

"I feel it," he says with a weary laugh, taking off his sunglasses for the first time since entering the dark room.

I wanted to ask an old timer about some of the new toys the tech companies, guests in his city for the week, are hawking. Virtual reality is a big deal this year, so I ask him to tell me what comes to mind when he hears the words "Google Cardboard," the search giant's made-of-paper VR headset.

"It means you're looking for cardboard and searching on Google to find it," Cullotta replies, with deadpan logic.

'This town became a kindergarten'

The Peppermill, where I'm meeting Cullotta, is a time machine back to another era of Vegas. The room is bathed in neon pink and purple lights. They're so overpowering that even though I know Cullotta is wearing a Movado watch made of precious metal, I can't tell what color it is. The light is reflected in the small, mirrored tiles on the ceiling; it looks like a hundred disco balls have been flattened and wallpapered above us.

The place, for the most part, is empty besides the bartenders and a few regulars playing video keno at the bar.

When the mafia ran Vegas -- Cullotta's outfit controlled the Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda and Marina -- there was a gritty lawlessness to the town. Now, big corporations, like Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts International, own it all. "This town became a kindergarten," Cullotta says.

In "Casino," Robert De Niro's character laments the sea change. "In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checking into an airport," he said in the movie. That's actually come true: In October, Caesars Entertainment, which owns nine hotels in Vegas including Caesars Palace and The LINQ, added self-check-in kiosks that look and feel like the ones at the airport.

Still, Cullotta isn't a complete stranger to technology. He says he wouldn't mind trading in his Movado for an Apple Watch. "They're really sharp," he says. But he'd need to get an iPhone for the watch to work. Right now, he's using an old LG handset. He also uses Facebook to promote his current gig: Giving mob tours of Las Vegas to mafia enthusiasts. He used to be on Twitter, but not anymore. "They've got all these hash marks," he says.

"What the f--- is that all about?" he asks me. "That's not telling me anything."

Ghost hunting

At the Little White Wedding Chapel, famed as the place where Elvis, Michael Jordan, Frank Sinatra and Britney Spears were married, Pierrette Burton sits on a bench in the lobby, wearing a red coat over her wedding dress.

She's waiting for her fiancée, David Hayes, to change into his tux. The couple was visiting family in Calgary from Australia over the holidays, then decided to stop by Vegas to get hitched.

At the chapel, there's a live stream option so couples can beam the ceremony to family far away. Pierrette, 47, and David, 43, don't need it. Both of their parents made the trip.

I ask Pierrette if she knows much about technology. "Hell no," she answers.

"What do you thinks CES stands for?" I ask. She has no idea. I tell her it's a tech conference that's currently taken over the town. She makes a valiant effort to guess. "Maybe the C stands for 'communications?'"

"Do you know what Oculus is?"

"Sounds like something used for ghost hunting," she answers. It's actually a VR headset company owned by Facebook.

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Pierrette Burton and David Hayes came to Las Vegas from Australia to get married.

Richard Nieva/CNET

The one effect CES and tech have had on the Little White Wedding Chapel isn't a good one, says owner Charolette Richards, who has been performing marriages for over 60 years. CES coincides with one of the slowest weeks of the year for the chapel, which charges $75 for a no-frills ceremony and courtesy limo ride. Business drops to about 15 weddings a day when tech hits town. They normally do between 30 to 50, says Richards, sitting in a pew in front of the chapel, her black poodle Lily by her side.

Richards doesn't know quite why. She thinks it's because the city's rooms fill up with so many conference attendees, there's not much room for anyone else.

But there are others. At the Bellagio on Thursday night, throngs of people are imbibing. One of them is John, a 26-year-old oil and gas industrial contractor. He's a big, gregarious guy, the clear leader of his three-guy wolfpack. What's the occasion for the Vegas trip? "Drinking and gambling," he says, knocking back a vodka, soda and lime.

When you think of Vegas, what's the first thing that comes to mind, I ask. "Whores."

He does know what Oculus is. He points to his friend, saying that he was going to invest in the company, but didn't. Before I can ask him about it, he scurries off.

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Perhaps the first time Google Cardboard has been worn outside a Las Vegas club.

Richard Nieva/CNET

The other groups I talk to don't know about Oculus or Google Glass, or about the new Lenovo notebooks or Samsung camera-equipped refrigerator unveiled this week. I ask a woman named Sarah and her group of twentysomething friends from New Zealand, who are in line to get into The Bank, a nightclub at the Bellagio. Blank stares. Anna, a 51-year-old interior designer from Florida who's also waiting to get into the club for a friend's birthday, ponders my question about Oculus for a minute. "I don't know, but is it eight of something?"

I've come prepared. I pull out my Google Cardboard to show her. She's hesitant to try it out. "Are you sure? I have pink eye."

A master of tech

Back at the Peppermill, I talk to Cullotta about his life with the mob. He tells me about growing up in Chicago, about his father, who used to drive getaway cars for the mafia, about meeting the cast of "Casino" for the first time (they were nervous around him). He also tells me that pretty much everyone he knew is dead. The mob, he says, was his biggest regret.

He's co-written a tell-all book about his life and shares even more stories.

But then we come back to technology. He says if he were 30 years younger and still in the game, he'd be a master of tech. "How do you think guys like us learned how to shut off alarms? It was all done by computers."

He points to the Macbook Air I'm typing on. "If the mob was still like it was, that stuff over there would work for us."

It's classic Vegas after all: Anything to tip the odds.

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