By Hope King
CES was what l might imagine a billboard factory to be ー that was the first thought that popped inside my head as I pulled up to the Las Vegas Convention Center on Tuesday morning. (This was my first CES.) There were signs everywhere: plastered over entryways, wrapped around buildings ー permanent and temporarily built for the conference, in neon, wood, white paint on dark walls, on bathroom doors. The number of shapes was dizzying, and made me feel as though I was in the movie "Inception."
My second reaction? Awe. Look at what people are building ー they're creating new products for us. Yes, of course, only a fraction will actually be used, but this was a land of imagination! How very cool to be here, in the middle of a desert with over 100,000 people from all over the world who want to build for the future ー and make money in the process.
Standing Out: Go Big or Go Weird:
I arrived hours before the doors opened (before I was suffocated by the crowds), so what stood out first were the big displays and booths as large as McMansions.
Our broadcast platform was in Central Hall, with the audio and video vendors. A huge two-story Hey Google pavilion blocked my view of the sunrise, followed by signs for Sony ($SNE), cars from Ford ($F), and a Huawei-sponsored doorway.
Money can buy you a lot of attention, and companies with a lot of it, like Intel ($INTL), Qualcomm ($QCOM), and Samsung ($SSNLF), proved just how much. The first two designed their spaces to resemble computer chips (from my perspective) that held lots of gadgets. Samsung built a mini city ー a huge black box with SAMSUNG painted in white letters on the outside, and little streets and neighborhoods and street signs on the inside.
Walking away from the big boys, there were smaller companies on display that sold everything from smart cookers to work tables attached to exercise bikes. I wasn't able to spend much time beyond our set over the two days, but I do know the weird stuff got all the buzz: a Google-ized ($GOOGL) version of the "It's a Small World" ride, face masks and headsets that claim to stop snoring and improve sleep, a vending machine that bakes bread, connected toilet from Kohler, and a diaper sensor from Seoul-based Monit.
Test Rides That Went Nowhere:
Although my time was limited, I was able to ride on Harley-Davidson's ($HOG) first-ever electric motorcycle and take a tour of a self-flying taxi prototype.
Harley-Davidson's LiveWire station was next to ours and for two straight days, I watched people hop on the bike for simulated rides through augmented reality. The FOMO drove me mad, and by the time I hopped on, I didn't care that it didn't go anywhere ー it was my first time ever on a motorcycle.
Unlike traditional Harley-Davidson motorcycles, this bike is quiet and didn't seem too intimidating for someone my size. The simulation was brief, but I got a feel for the power when I revved. Admittedly, I was a little scared.
Harley will start selling the all-electric LiveWire in dealerships in August, with a starting price of $29,799. According to Fortune, that's $20,000 more than the average selling price of non-electric models.
(My co-anchor Tamara Warren got an even closer look at the new bike during an extensive interview.)
Bell's Nexus flying taxi was the second big machine I was able to "try." With six ducted-fans, the half-helicopter, half-airplane vehicle can take-off and land vertically. It can also travel 150mph at top speed when the fans pivot to 90 degrees. On a single charge, the vehicle can travel 150 miles, Bell's vice president of Innovation Scott Drennan told me.
The interior is just as sleek as the exterior, seating four passengers and a pilot, or five passengers in total in autonomous mode. The vehicle took four months to build, according to Drennan.
Uber has signed on as an initial partner to offer the Nexus as an option for shared rides expected to start in 2023. Watch my chat with Tom Prevot, director of engineering of airspace systems at Uber here.
Neither Drennan nor Prevot gave me an answer on how much the vehicle cost to make or the price of a ride, saying only the companies plan to launch in Dallas, Tex., and Los Angeles, Calif., initially.
Lurking in the Background:
The government shutdown and Apple ($APPL) loomed large at CES this year.
As a result of the federal pay standoff 11 keynote speakers canceled their appearances, including secretary of transportation Elaine Chao, FTC commissioner Rebecca Slaughter, and FCC commissioner Ajit Pai (missing two years in a row).
Apple, which has never officially presented at CES, made an appearance this year in the form of a building-sized ad. "What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone," it read.
Many were quick to comment that this was Apple trolling competitors with its position on privacy, while others ー including yours truly ー believe Apple could be shooting itself in the foot by grandstanding too much. After all, with declining iPhone sales in China and a weakened stock market position, the company has to start relying on similar services-type business models for growth.
CES is put on by the Consumer Technology Association trade group, which expected more than 180,000 attendees (55,000 from outside the U.S). That's roughly the population of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Santa Clarita, Calif., or Chattanooga, Tenn.
I heard people saying attendance was down this year ー but we won't know the real numbers for at least a few more days. Yes, tech companies choose to announce major products on their own time. But given all the new entrants like self-driving car technology (they got their own section in the convention hall) and A.I.-enabled smart devices, I don't think CES is going anywhere.
If anything, CES 2020 could be even bigger and weirder! And as much as I am still in shock over this trip, I can't wait.