Spills and thrills at electronics show

Hi boss! I’m back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. You assigned me to report on what’s new and exciting, but the answer is: almost nothing.

Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook don’t even attend the show. They’d rather make their product announcements on their schedules without being locked into this January thing.

It’s still a big show, bigger than ever this year, with 3200 exhibits and 150,000 attending, but I wonder why people bother. Whose product announcement will get any media coverage at all when it’s buried by 3199 others?

The organisers publish a daily magazine during the show that profiles new products announced there. For example: “Braven expands Bluetooth speaker line;” “Armpocket unveils smartphone cases” and “Bits Ltd expands line of surge protectors.”

So if you want an exciting column from me, the thrills won’t come from the new products at the show. I’ll have to spice things up another way. See what you think of this . . .

As he plummets towards the Nevada desert, two deafening sounds assail Daxton Blackthorne’s eardrums – the wind rushing past his ears at terminal velocity, and a deafening explosion over his head. Fumbling for his parachute cord, he’s blasted by the searing heat from the fireball that, until seconds ago, was his Cessna Citation.

For now, though, his concern isn’t the air-to-air missile that has just dispatched his jet, courtesy of the Bora Boran Mafia on his tail. It isn’t even the fact that Daxton is all that stands between them and the collapse of US democracy. It’s finding a good place to land.

Squinting in the blinding sun, he spots an enormous chain of low-slung buildings, stretching through the bustling downtown like a sleeping cobra – the Las Vegas Convention Centre.

He hits the roof hard – too hard. Keeping low, he scuttles across the gravel to a ventilation shaft and emerges, moments later, in a cacophony of colour, sound and electronics.

He hears the crash of boots as his pursuers explode from the same shaft. Got to move, Daxton thinks. Detaching his ‘chute, he darts among the booths, dodging clumps of buyers, reporters and electronics executives.

He weaves among the exhibits, barely noting their wares. External battery packs for phones. Car chargers for phones. Screen protectors for phones. Cases for phones.

What is this place? he thinks, pulse pounding.

Booth after booth. GPS units. Tablets. Earbuds. Bluetooth speakers. Phone cases. Row after row of Chinese manufacturers he’s never heard of. Like this one, Huwei, selling the world’s largest Android phone – the thin, shiny Ascend Mate, with a 6.1-inch screen. That’d be like talking into a cutting board, he thinks.

He bursts into the central hall and the sensory overload is immediate. He pauses, gasping, to take it in. TV screens. Thousands. Screens bigger than a man. Screens stacked up to the distant ceiling. Screens brighter and louder than explosives in the morning. Sharp, Sony, Samsung, LG, Toshiba, Panasonic. The bombardment is almost as lethal as the one that took down his Cessna.

Here are OLED screens, with incredibly black blacks, vivid colours and razor-thin bodies; this LG model is only 0.16 inch thick. Panasonic and Sony each claim “the world’s largest OLED screen” – 56-inch prototypes.

Footsteps pound behind him. Too late to run. He’ll blend in. He merges into a throng of eager showgoers.

“Three-D may have been a flop,” a rep is saying, “but this year, the industry is back with an irresistible offering: 4K television. Ultra HD, we call it. You thought HDTV was sharp? Now imagine: four times as many pixels. Stunning picture quality, in stunning screen sizes.”

Daxton figures you’d have to sit pretty darned close to see any difference between HDTV and 4KTV. But never mind that. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots the black uniforms of his pursuers, fanning through the crowd.

Play along, he thinks. “Excuse me,” he shouts in a faux French accent. “What is there to watch in 4K?”

“Unfortunately, 4K video requires too much data for today’s cable, satellite, broadcast, Blu-ray, or internet streaming,” is the reply.

“But at Sony, we’re leading the way! If you buy our 84-inch 4K television for $25,000, we’ll lend you a hard drive with 10 Sony movies on it – in gorgeous 4K.”

Daxton can think of better uses for $25,000. A jetpack would come in handy right now. He dives into the crowd. Must. Find. Disguise.

A crowd wearing headsets is gathered before a Samsung TV. That’ll do. He grabs one; it covers both his eyes and his ears.

“You’re seeing a prototype of Samsung’s OLED dual-view technology,” the spokesman says. “This TV can display two 3-D video sources simultaneously, or four regular ones. Imagine: your children can be playing Xbox while you watch the Super Bowl!” Daxton moves the switch on the earpiece. Sure enough, the TV’s image changes accordingly, along with the audio from the tiny earpiece speakers.

But angry shouts in Tahitian are closing in. He bolts through an archipelago of audio booths, hawking celebrity headphones bearing the names of rapper 50 Cent, heavy-metal band Motorhead, runner Usain Bolt, NFL quarterback Tim Tebow and TV reality star Snooki. When did Snooki become an audiophile? he wonders.

By the time he storms into the north hall, his lungs are screaming. He stands, panting, in an area populated by gleaming, polished cars. Ford and General Motors are announcing new programs, open platforms for new apps that will run on their cars’ computer screens. Ford’s Sync AppLink bans games and video apps, for safety reasons. Good thinking, Daxton thinks. Wouldn’t want distracted driving.

Here are Audi and Lexus announcing self-driving cars. Glancing at the video loop, he notes that the Audi prototype can drive itself only through especially equipped parking garages, such as the one set up at the Mandarin Oriental for a demonstration.

But on the Lexus stage, he spots something much more enticing: a car festooned with sensors that can drive itself on regular roads, much like Google’s fleet of 12 autonomous cars.

“California and Nevada have both made self-driving cars legal, with certain restrictions,” the executive on stage says. “And this Lexus LS safety-research vehicle is a pioneer.” The 360-degree laser on the roof detects objects up to 70 metres away; the front camera knows if the traffic light is red or green. “Side cameras, GPS and radar enhance what could someday be a safe, efficient, road-aware vehicle.”

There’s a burst of commotion from Daxton’s near right. It’s them. He vaults onto the stage. “Love the idea of self-driving cars,” Daxton tells the presenter. “But right now, I need a car I can drive myself.”

A sabre blade shatters the air next to his ear. With a burst of adrenaline, he dives through the open window of the Lexus. His assailants push through the crowd and clamber after him, but he’s already in the car. Huddling low, he guns the engine and shifts into gear.

As a hail of bullets shatters the rear window, the Lexus arcs off the stage, ploughs through seven rotating shelves of phone cases and, in a cloud of plaster and twisted beams, erupts through the wall of the convention centre.

With a wry smile, Daxton adjusts his rear-view mirror in time to see the knot of black-suited Bora Borans shaking their fists in the distance.

He brushes some safety glass off his shoulder, slips on sunglasses, and leans back in the leather seat.

“Now that’s what I call an exciting show,” he says, grinning, and swings onto the open road for home.

The New York Times

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