Rex Wong has picked the music and hired the runway models. Starting Thursday, they will strut his latest design: pink portable video players with matching pink faux-crocodile cases.
Like many designers planning to show spring lines here, Wong, the president of a new electronics company called X2, is hoping to impress some of the most discerning techno-fashionistas: the 130,000 people expected at the annual, which holds a preview on Wednesday for the news media and formally opens the next day. The show, Wong said, "is the one place where everybody is there--the media and the buyers from all over the world."
As the runways of Paris and Milan are to the garment trade, so will the hallways of the Las Vegas Convention Center be this week to the world of digital gadgetry. All things audio and video have become so woven into the fabric of everyday American life and commerce that the show, once a sleepy merchant fair for TV and stereo dealers, is now, in terms of exhibit space, the nation's largest annual trade show. It has held that position since 2001, according to Tradeshow Week, a trade publication.
For most of the 1990s, the biggest show was a computer exposition,. But now that computing hardware and software are considered simply the raw ingredients of consumer electronics, CES represents the vanguard of technology in taking sound and images--from a baby's first steps to the climax of a Hollywood blockbuster--and shrinking them to the size of a sugar cube. Or expanding them to fill a wall. Or transmitting them in an instant out to the patio, or around the world. All without wires, please.
The show and the $124-billion-a-year industry it represents have become primary in technology circles, so much so that computer industry luminaries now feel compelled to attend., the chairman of Microsoft, will be a keynote speaker. So will , chief executive of Intel, and , chairwoman and chief executive at Hewlett-Packard.
And such is the lobbying power of the Washington-based sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association, that 150 members of Congress and government regulatory officials, including the Federal Communications Commission chairman,, are expected to attend the event. It will be fact-finding, Las Vegas-style.
Mainly, though, small entrepreneurs and huge conglomerates--2,500 companies in all, spreading their wares across display space equivalent to 11 New York City blocks--will be competing to promote their newest innovations for an audience of electronics dealers, journalists, investors and one another. (Despite the "consumer" in its name, the show is closed to the public.)
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The new products ready for introduction include a highly anticipated first American version of Sony's, a wireless handheld game and entertainment device able to play music and videos. There will be thousands of digital cameras and car stereos, each relying as much on design as the underlying technology to distinguish itself.
At the extremes of size, Samsung plans to show athat is six and a half feet, measured diagonally, while Motorola will introduce cell phone headsets so small that they are woven into a beanie to wear while snowboarding.
The devices that generate the most buzz among merchants at the show will be among those likely to receive the most prominent promotion this spring at consumer electronics stores and online shopping sites. Other gadgets--available for glimpsing by invitation only in the hotel suites where distribution deals are made--may not be ready for public display until next year's show.
Digital-age commonplaces like e-mail and videoconferencing may seem to make a giant trade bazaar an anachronism. But the appeal of doing business in person makes electronics executives willing to subject themselves to the show's notorious traffic jams, 18-hour workdays and throbbing sensory overload. (The South Hall of the convention center, where car audio companies compete with the latest sport utility vehicle sound systems, can seem particularly perilous.)
"As we become more connected over the Internet," said David Lane, owner of the Stereo Shop, an electronics retailer in Rochester, "I can get the product information and pricing I need while I'm sitting in my store." But by making the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas, he added: "I can meet with the senior management of my vendors. Sometimes, people need to be face-to-face to develop personal relationships."
And there is no online replacement for being able to see what a product really looks like or how it feels when you sit on it.
"One thing you can't do on the Internet is let people experience what you are making," said Michel Jacques, president of D-Box, a company based near Montreal that makes a $5,000 leather armchair that rumbles and vibrates as the action heats up while you watch movies on your wide-screen television set. "What we are doing is very hard to explain in words."
When it began more than three decades ago, the Consumer Electronics Show was primarily a gathering of television and stereo makers and sellers. Later, it served as an exposition for producers of pornographic videos and of video games, until those industries grew so large that they had their own trade shows.
Only recently has the event risen to its current prominence, propelled by a stream of innovation in digital technology. Six or seven years ago, said Jeff Stone, chief executive of Tweeter, an electronics store chain, the show "was total drudgery."
"You would go and see the same TVs with just a few new bells and whistles," Stone said. But with the arrival of true multimedia consumer technologies, he said, "the last few years have been."
All the hubbub has forced exhibitors to ever-greater lengths to attract attention. Philips has built a 19-foot tower with glowing lights to show off its new line of television sets that illuminate the viewing room with different colors depending on the program. ("If you are watching a football game, it will show a green light," a Philips senior vice president, Des Power, said. "If you watch 'Lawrence of Arabia,' you will get an orange or yellow light to go with the sand.")
Motorola will have a team of champion snowboarders swooshing down artificial snow on a 150-foot ramp it has built in the convention center parking lot to show off a new line of clothing it is making with Burton Snowboarding. Besides the beanie, the line includes a helmet and a jacket, each with a built-in speakers and microphone that can connect wirelessly both to a cell phone and a portable music player.
Much of the real action, though, is expected to happen off the show floor. Hidden behind the stages at Panasonic's vast booth are 30 conference rooms where its executives will meet with dealers, negotiate deals with potential suppliers and perhaps forge alliances with competitors.
The show will also be the forum for a major battle between proponents of two competing formats for a coming generation of high-definition videodiscs--with one faction, led by Sony, pushing a technology calledand the other, spearheaded by Toshiba, called . Each will have a news conference to advocate its technology. And each will search the show to find allies among manufacturers, studios and retailers.
"We are hoping that the show will help the Blu-ray disc build up a lot of momentum," said Andy Parson, senior vice president for advanced technology at Pioneer Electronics, one of the Blu-ray promoters.
Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, plans to take lawmakers and regulators on a tour of the floor. His agenda will be to highlight industry views on policy questions, like encouraging the adoption of high-definition television and discouraging the imposition of import tariffs on electronics.
He will also reach out to visiting executives from Hollywood studios and cable television systems, industries that have battled the electronics makers over devices they say are undercutting their business models by allowing TV viewers to easily skip commercials, or swap digital copies of music and other media content.
Shapiro's annual dinner at the Bellagio Hotel on Friday night will assemble the Washington delegation and 350 titans from the industries represented here. "I have a big-tent theory," Shapiro remarked.
The dinner speaker is to be Michael Ramsay, chief executive of, the pioneering but money-losing video recorder company that has helped put consumers more in control of what television programs they watch, and when.
A more lively time, perhaps, will occur that evening at the Paris Hotel, at what is traditionally the most ostentatious party of the show, sponsored by Monster Cable, the maker of premium-priced audio-video accessories that are among the most profitable products in the industry. This year, it will feature a concert by Rod Stewart for 4,000 guests.
"Everybody there is somebody," said Noel Lee, the company's founder, who has taken the title of "head monster."
There is such a competitive urge to show off that one of the jobs of Karen Chupka, the Consumer Electronics Association's vice president for events and conferences, is to rule on what is too garish, disruptive or dangerous--even by Las Vegas standards.
"People have tried to bring in live tigers," Chupka said. "They were not approved."
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