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My first CES was a magical mess

On surviving a convention of dreamers and cynics.

I swing by a booth tucked in the back corner of a show floor to find a plastic dome that supposedly speaks.

It doesn't.

"We can't connect to the Wi-Fi," one of the developers explains. She looks down at my press badge with drowning eyes.

"I'll come back," I say politely, but I probably won't.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Every year, thousands of exhibitors gather in Las Vegas to show off their wares. And like the rest of the city, they hope the neon hides any dirt.

The packed convention centers are scattered like cavernous bunkers. They aren't the ziggurats to technology writers 80 years ago might've imagined. Instead, they sprawl so completely you forget you're inside -- or more accurately, you forget anything exists except "inside."

Between the centers are a mess of streets, clogged with Ubers and bedazzled limos -- all bathed in the glow of signs. Vegas is a city ready-made for the mobs, but CES is something special.

"Just walk," one cabbie says when I tell him where I'm headed because the streets are so choked.

So I walk.

My job is to comb the show floors and emerge with visions of the future for a salivating internet. There are toddler toys that talk and alarm clocks that fart. There are cars that wink and robots that dance.

At each booth is a developer showing off a dream. Around the convention center, thousands of whirring, buzzing dreams have been dressed in gears and plastic and are being introduced, stutters and all, to the world.

Like all dreams, they're often unintelligible to anyone except those who had them. And like all dreams, some are better than others.

A PR woman approaches me after catching sight of my badge. (I mentally chastise myself for not stowing it at the press tables.) As usual, I listen to a sentence or two, put on a sympathetic face, and say, "Not my beat. Sorry!"

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Many of these people will come to realize over time that they aren't in fact visionaries. They're just people with an idea that didn't work.

But maybe the problem is using words like "visionary" in the first place. We mythologize figures like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. We treat them as miracle workers. And in a sense they are. But their work is no more miraculous than the struggle of anyone with a good idea against the skepticism of people like me, or the strictures of a niche audience.

One developer is explaining her product to me -- a hands-free breast pump -- when a bystander with no badge calls over a friend, and they laugh at the shape of the device, pointing like children. The developer tries to keep her eyes on me, but her words falter.

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Claire Reilly/CNET

And I realize, this product is a good idea. I've watched my own wife navigate the travails of pumping in the past nine months, and I know making it hands-free could be a life saver, even if it relieves only nursing mothers, a much smaller target audience than Zuckerberg's billions.

Writing about this sort of device has been the most rewarding experience in my week here at CES. It's so easy to get bogged down in covering tech for its own sake, but this funny-looking breast pump is doing something meaningful. That's the real difference between the good and bad tech at CES: whether it means something -- to nursing mothers, to overwhelmed cab drivers, to sore-footed journalists.

As I circle the room once more, I catch the familiar face of a woman and see a lit-up plastic dome beside her. It's the gadget that couldn't connect to Wi-Fi.

She smiles and beckons me over. After I push through the crowd, she leans in and says to the device, "Tell us a story," and by some magic, it does.