LAS VEGAS — For one week a year, thousands of people gather here to ponder some of life’s big questions. Can robots make us feel less lonely? Have we invented enough devices to replace walking yet? Does an internet-connected vibrator count as technology?
Thousands of people are headed to Las Vegas for CES, a massive marketing event where technology companies show off their newest innovations. What does CES stand for? The more than 50-year-old event was the Consumer Electronics Show until 2012, when organizers declared it was going by International CES, then simply CES in 2016. The change was to accommodate all the new categories of nonconsumer products at the show.
Now it’s a parade of product announcements of all types, including health tech, self-driving cars, very sharp TVs and weird gadgets, many of which will never be released. The show floor doesn’t open until Tuesday, but events begin Sunday, and there are already some hints of what the biggest stories will be out of the event. That includes newly sanctioned sex tech and facial recognition to track attendees — plus stealth marketing outside the official CES venue.
Sex toys yes, cannabis no
CES organizes its thousands of exhibitors into categories like smart home, augmented reality, transportation — and the fast-growing health and wellness segment. And for the first time in its 52 years, the conference will allow sex-toy companies to exhibit on the show floor as part of that group, including a multitasking bed for sex and a number of “smart” and internet-connected vibrators.
CES changed its policy after some drama at last year’s show. Sex-toy company Lora DiCarlo won a CES innovation award, but it was later taken away for being against CES policies prohibiting “immoral, obscene, indecent, profane” products.
The award was later reinstated, and Lora DiCarlo received far more press coverage than it would have for an award alone. After that, CES updated its policies to allow “sex tech” exhibitors in the health and wellness group.
Not all vices are getting an invite. Cannabis and tobacco technology, such as vaporizers, is still forbidden at the show. But if past years are any indication, crafty cannabis-adjacent companies will find a way around the rule with clever marketing and euphemisms. There are indoor-hydroponics systems and machines that blend essential oils (including, say, THC). Expect more of the same this year, including a secure, odor-concealing box called Trova for “objects that aren’t for all audiences.”
When attendees register at CES this year, there will be a new option to confirm they are who they say they are: facial recognition. Certain CES check-in locations will have a camera set up that will snap a person’s photo and automatically match it to the photo they used to register. It’s opt-in and an example of how the conference and its exhibitors are trying to give the technology a more consumer-friendly image.
Facial-detection technology has caused a lot of controversy and concerns over privacy and bias. It’s already in use at airports and by law enforcement and included in other surveillance systems. Now the same companies making those systems want it to be embraced as a fun, user-friendly technology that makes tasks easier.
CES is organized by the CTA, an industry group that represents technology companies — many of whom would like to give facial detection a friendlier consumer image. Companies like Australian retail ad firm Mikara want to sell facial recognition to stores so they can serve targeted advertisements, while Black and Decker’s Pria home-care robot uses it to identify users.
Balancing ethical uses of facial detection with the industry’s desire for profit could be complicated for the show. Two previous CES award winners listed as exhibitors at this year’s show — security camera company Ezviz, which is owned by Hikvision, and voice recognition company iFlytek — are no longer attending, CNET reported. The U.S. Commerce Department added the companies to a blacklist in October over their alleged use in human rights violations by China against Muslims. The CTA said it does not comment on individual companies.
Smart-home technology, like web-connected thermostats and security cameras, has been a hit in nearly every part of the house. One room that technology companies seem set on infiltrating this year is the bathroom.
At CES, a number of companies are planning to show toilet-related tech and other gimmicky products that even they admit will never go on sale. They might, however, draw some attention to normally overlooked faucet and toilet paper companies.
Toilets are getting sensors to help determine how much water each flush requires, voice assistants are standing by to flush your toilet, and wearables monitor your stomach and send you a smartphone notification when it’s time to use the bathroom. Toilet paper maker Charmin is even showing off demos of something mysterious called a “roll bot.” And multiple companies promise to revolutionize teeth with high-tech toothbrushes.
The head of the CTA’s research team, Steve Koenig, sees toilet tech as the next logical step for connected home technology.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re fulfilling the original promise of the smart home, which is creating intelligent living spaces that take care of us instead of the other way around,” he told The Washington Post.
Inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, companies like Sony and Samsung still jockey for the biggest floor spaces and flashiest displays at CES. But not every tech company participates in the event itself. Apple, Facebook and Twitter have been notable holdouts in recent years.
Companies that don’t participate in the event itself have found a way to break through the noise, sometimes without paying a cent to the conference itself.
For the past two years, Google has gone from a minimal CES presence to plastering every available surface in the city with “Hey, Google” ads for its voice assistant, including the coveted front entrance to CES. It is competing with Amazon’s Alexa, and to a lesser degree Apple’s Siri, for partners to include the assistant in their upcoming products. Last year, in addition to monorail trains and billboards, it built an elaborate working ride — like Disney’s It’s a Small World but for Google products — in front of the convention center. This year, there is already a giant Google structure with slides in front of the convention center and more monorail ads.
Last year, Apple spent a fraction of the cost of actually attending the event on a single, snarky ad that generated far more attention. The giant billboard pasted on the side of a Marriott near the convention center read, “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” It was widely interpreted as a dig at Google and a promotion for Apple’s marketing push as the “privacy” company.
We’ll find out whether Apple started a new sub-tweeting-via-outdoor-advertisements trend in a few days. The company will also have a speaker at CES for the first time in 28 years via an appearance from its senior director of privacy, Jane Horvath, on a privacy roundtable.