In a convention hall along the Las Vegas strip, a nice man is trying to be diplomatic about my stupid house. “You can keep living the old-school way if you want, man, but this is the future,” he says, looking out over the sensors, cameras, gizmos and apps that power the so-called smart home. “This is inevitable.”
“Inevitable”—it’s a word heard frequently around CES, the annual launching pad for new gadgets, devices and technology. It is “inevitable” that our washing machines will be connected to the Internet. It is “inevitable” that our laundry will be folded by a robot. It is “inevitable” that our robot will mistake the cat for a sweatshirt. CES is sometimes described as the tech world’s Super Bowl, but it’s actually more like baseball’s spring training—a yearly exercise in unbridled optimism and unfailing hope. All that’s truly “inevitable” is that thousands of entrepreneurs and corporations will show up here each January with their new products in tow and their fingers crossed.
The smart home was huge this year. Before visiting CES, I had no idea how dumb my house truly is. For instance, you may not believe this but we currently turn on the lights using something called a “switch”—like some kind of savages. Even more embarrassing, I somehow get through the day not knowing the precise configuration of the air quality in our hallway, and without an array of sensors that send me a text alert so I “know when to air out [my] home.” I politely question the utility of this particular feature. “Can’t you just open the windows when it’s nice out, and keep them closed when it’s not?” I ask. A smartly dressed young man gives me the same stare I once gave an older boss when he asked me to “Telex” a message to a colleague. “That is not optimal,” he says.
Turns out my life is also dumb. I don’t know how many steps I walk in a day, nor my current heart rate, nor the chemical content of my breath or the moisture ratio of my skin. I do not have 24-hour video surveillance of my dog, nor a “connected doorbell” that shows me who’s come calling. Heck, it’s entirely possible that lady dogs are dropping by in droves while we’re at work, ringing our dumb old doorbell and entering our dumb old home. “This will make your life easier,” several people say about several things, though sometimes they instead use the word “better” or “simpler.”
Alas, all this simplicity can be complicated. One company at CES set out on a noble quest to free humanity from the onerous chore of pressing a button to open their garage door. (Who among us hasn’t been winded by this exhausting ordeal?) Happily, now that we reside in the glorious future, we can henceforth open our garage door simply by unlocking our cellphone, scrolling to the correct screen, launching the relevant app and tapping the button that appears. What could be easier?
This year, CES attracted some 3,800 exhibitors, approximately 3,799 of which make headphones. This is a slight exaggeration, but it is possible to roam the floor at CES and come away convinced that the whole of the global economy is today powered by sales of earbuds.
More than 170,000 industry professionals attended the show to build relationships, attend meetings and check out the new products. A few suckers regretted spending their lunch hours playing blackjack. (Note to editor: please see line in expense report entitled “blackjack.”)
Part of the charm of CES is the eclectic mix of exhibitors—from the world’s leading automobile and electronics manufacturers to the sweaty guy in the basement peddling a headband that supposedly empowers people to turn off lights, switch on music and accomplish other household tasks using only the MIGHT OF THE HUMAN MIND.
Could you have walked by this booth without asking for a demonstration? I couldn’t. (For the record, I also requested eight to 10 demonstrations of a nearby high-tech home brewing kit.)
Sweaty Guy obliged. “I will turn off this light with my brain,” he said, pointing to his head. (A strong start—he got the location right.) He had his tech assistant reboot the headband. Then he tried to connect to Wi-Fi, but it wouldn’t work. Then he rebooted the headband again. And again. And then a fourth time. About six minutes passed. By this point, I was pretty sure I could have already have turned off that light the old-fashioned way. The forehead perspiration intensified.
“At your home, this would work perfectly,” he said.
The stakes at CES are high, especially for companies bringing their first products to market. Gesturing at his elaborate booth, which included a couch, some terrible electronic music and a bowl of free gum (full disclosure: I stopped for the gum), one exhibitor told me: “Want to know our annual marketing budget? You’re looking at it.”
There are different strategies here to lure in potential buyers and build buzz. Some have their employees literally rush out into the aisle and grab hold of passersby. More than a few rely on the age-old Busty Women in Tight T-shirts gambit. A few adopt a more laid-back approach. The booth of one gadget manufacturer from China was staffed by an elderly man who was playing chess on his phone. I moved in to examine one of the products, which appeared to be a humidifier of some kind.
“What is this?”
“Mist,” he said, not looking up.
“Why would I want mist?” I asked.
“Mist is good,” he said, not looking up.
Check and mate. You win this round, old man.
The products vary; the pitches are similar, and often the same. This is the product you’ve been waiting for. It will let you take control of your life. It will make you happier. You’ll be more in control if you can monitor your kids by living-room camera when they’re at home, and by GPS tracker when they’re outside, and by companion robot when they’re asleep. You’ll be a happier person if you can use your smartphone to look inside your refrigerator from anywhere in the world, a terrific technological advance for people who get separation anxiety from their butter.
“Learn how to feel better in your home”—that’s the slogan for the Eve smart-home system, by the German company Elgato. In many ways, it’s also the foundation of almost everything on display at CES: You probably didn’t know you should feel bad about the way things currently are—but now that you do, buy this to feel better!
Did you know you were breathing dumb? “Breathe smarter,” urged one company display. Does your fridge do only stupid things like keep stuff cold? Buy this new refrigerator that plays music, shows you the news and allows you to tweet—so long as you remember your PIN. (Yes, the fridge of the future requires a PIN.) Have you ever thought about whether your vents are smart? Of course not. But please now live in mortal fear of having the dumbest vents on the block.
Rest easy, consumer: A contented life is as close as the purchase of this smart pillow, or smart coffee maker, or smart garden hose, smart bed, smart skin monitor, smart belt, smart electrical outlet, smart window, smart toaster. CES 2016: Never has there been gathered together in one place the solutions to so many problems that no one is aware they’re experiencing.
But even for the skeptical, the lure of the shiny and new is strong. As I further explore the information available to owners of a truly smart home, it occurs to me: I do not currently know the exact humidity level in my living room. Should I know that? Maybe it would be good to know that. “Be honest: is it really going to change my life if I know exactly how humid it is around my couch?” I ask an exhibitor.
“Yes,” comes the reply. “Because then you will know: ‘Oh, it feels humid because it is humid.’”