CES and the law of accelerating returns

13 Jan

With the Consumer Electronics Show wrapping up for another year, it’s time to reflect back on the mega techno circus and try to decipher what all the hubbub was about.

Before the show began, the Associated Press ran a story asserting that CES has a poor track record. In assessing how recent shows had done, the story concluded that the annual event was becoming a big dud factory. After all, netbooks, 3D television and a swarm of tablets were all introduced over the past few years, most of which  didn’t make it to market or made a resounding thud if they did.

From one perspective, it’s true – CES does produce its share of technologies that fail to catch on. But for the most part, the AP story missed the point. For one, it glossed over some obvious facts, such as that 3D has basically become a standard feature of flat-panel TVs. I remember doing radio interviews at the 2010 CES show where such sets were first unveiled and saying exactly that would happen – while 3D was the big thing at that event, it would eventually become just another TV viewing option, like gaming or vivid mode.

The story also mentioned “smart” TVs, which were also introduced at previous CES events. Far from being duds, such sets are fast becoming the norm, with about half of all TVs to be shipped this year expected to have internet connectivity and features. In other words, the show may produce some high-profile failures, but it also kickstarts a lot of gadgets and features that quietly catch on.

More to the point, there are many technologies shown off at CES that are perhaps not quite ready for the big time, so they don’t get a lot of attention from the likes of the mainstream media. These are usually shown off by smaller companies or entrepreneurs who are hoping to sell their wares to some of the bigger names in attendance. For all its headline-making flash and glitz, CES is after all a trade show where business deals are made. There are some of these every year that will inevitably end up as the big news stories of future events.

At least one good example that I saw of this was Tobii Technology, a Swedish company developing eye-tracking software. It’s the sort of stuff we’ll doubtlessly be seeing everywhere a few years from now.

Most importantly, technological progress is speeding up. The phenomenon starts with Moore’s Law, or the notion that computing processing power doubles every 18 to 24 months, and continues into what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, which basically applies Moore’s tenet to all information technologies. Advancement and therefore new gadgets are happening at an exponential rate, which has a significant bearing on CES.

In the past, the show was an annual launching pad for grand new technologies. Things like the VCR, CD player and DVDs were first introduced there. Now, with the increasing rate of development, it’s understandable that companies and entrepreneurs are not going to save their big new inventions for the once-a-year event. There’s just too many of them.

While some media like to pooh-pooh trade shows and CES in particular because it’s such a big and exhausting event, it may in fact be more relevant than ever. With so many new technologies popping up every day, it’s becoming increasingly important to put them all in one place so they can be juxtaposed, examined and assessed against each other. From a scientific perspective, CES is becoming a giant test lab while on a business level, it’s looking more like a shopping mall where companies go to see what stuff might appeal in the future.

As anyone who has ever bought something online can attest to, there are certain items – shoes, or a bed, for example – that you probably should never purchase sight unseen. That’s the case with new technologies, which is why CES is likely to remain relevant despite the always-connected and increasingly fast-paced nature of technology.


Posted by on January 13, 2012 in CES, ray kurzweil


2 responses to “CES and the law of accelerating returns

  1. Marc Venot

    January 13, 2012 at 1:37 am

    After this year’s show, Microsoft is pulling out of CES entirely. Apple is absent, but so, too, is Facebook. Google and Amazon have only a small presences.
    Vegas is the most interesting place in the USA but CES has to reinvent itself.

  2. Russell McOrmond

    January 13, 2012 at 11:40 am

    I guess I don’t see companies like Microsoft or Apple being or not being there all that relevant. They may have some connection to consumer electronics, but aren’t what buyers are going to need to see at a trade show. They do their own separate shows focused on their own product lines.

    I look forward to the more in-depth reporting that people like Peter or networks like TWIT do of CES. I don’t pay attention to the mainstream or more general-audience tech reporting as, again, this is a show for those purchasing and not a mall for general consumers. I wouldn’t expect it to be interesting to a mainstream audience, and I wouldn’t be interested in reporting that is aimed for that audience.

    Wish I had the time to watch the live streams this year as I did other years. Things are getting so busy on the tech policy side that it makes it harder to keep up with the tech itself.

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