After a fully virtual gathering in 2021, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was physically present in Las Vegas this year from January 5 to January 7. Described by its organizers as “the most influential tech event in the world,” CES is a publicity powerhouse attended by tens of thousands of industry professionals and thousands of media personnel. Every leading technology company maintains some sort of involvement in CES, and the show has become a lodestone for innovators from all over the world.
Gary Shapiro, the CEO and President of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)—the group that owns and produces CES—offers opening remarks at CES 2022. Image used courtesy of CTA
The event’s numerous devices, debuts, and demos are a representative sample of prevailing trends in technological research and development, and thoughtful analysis of this sample leads to questions that engineers should, perhaps, be attempting to answer.
These questions were on the minds of two electrical engineers, Themis and Ferris, while they were chatting a few days after returning from the show.
Flashy vs. Functional (vs. Fantastical)
Themis: The company itself describes the thing as “magical.” I’m not a magician. I’m not an alchemist. I’m an engineer.
Ferris: It’s just marketing hype. So what if they call it magical? There’s some incredible science behind it, and who knows where it will go.
Themis: A color-changing car? I’ll tell you where it will go: nowhere, and fast. Even if the technology eventually becomes commercially viable, which isn’t likely, there’s no market. People don’t want magical cars produced from some sort of cross-pollination between a Kindle and an SUV. They want reliable, attractive, comfortable, affordable cars. It’s that simple.
The BMW iX Flow, including the “E-ink” technology found in Amazon Kindle readers. Image used courtesy of BMW
Ferris: It’s not that simple. It never is. First of all, who says it won’t be reliable and comfortable? And if some folks have a bit of extra cash, who are you to tell them how to spend it? Look around, man. Novelty sells. This is just part of how modern economies work. Are there better ways to spend that money? Probably. Are there worse ways to spend it? Absolutely.
Themis: Fair enough, but this isn’t only about what ordinary citizens do with their paychecks. How much engineering money was pumped into this science experiment on wheels? How many useful, practical modules, systems, or algorithms could have been developed with that money? I could easily name a dozen achievable and truly valuable features that I would like to see in my next vehicle. CES gives me electrophoretic fenders instead.
Ferris: I hear you, but innovation is not a zero-sum game, and technological progress doesn’t always follow a smooth, monotonically increasing function from good to better. Maybe the color-changing car will languish for a few years then get tossed into the vast dustbin of extravagant prototypes and engineering pipe dreams. But knowledge remains: solutions have been explored, mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned. CES is showing us the avant-garde. Who knows where—and what—all these prototypes and demo systems will be when they finally emerge from the circulating currents of global innovation and human creativity.
Utility vs. Triviality
Themis: I could accept your point of view more easily if the Kindle Car were an exception to the rule. But for me, CES felt like a glitzy expo consisting of one uninspiring gadget or gizmo after another. Last time I checked, we haven’t exactly solved all the serious problems in the world. Why are brilliant, hard-working EEs devoting their professional lives to autonomous airborne selfie cameras? Is this why I spent six years in college? So that I would someday be smart enough to liberate humankind from the crushing burden of selfie sticks?
Ferris: Don’t get me wrong, the AirSelfie wasn’t the climax of the show for me either, but companies make what people buy. We need designers for life-saving medical technology, and we need designers for electronic toys and trinkets. If EEs don’t do the design work for flying cameras and the like, these products won’t exist.
Themis: Exactly, and maybe they shouldn’t exist, or at least they shouldn’t be stirring up fanfare at CES. Normal laptops work marvelously well; why do we need a foldable version? As an engineer, should I have any measurable interest in the next iteration of superpowered gaming monitors? Or in Sony’s newest virtual-reality headset? Or in a nine-hundred-dollar projector that turns a table into a TV screen and provides mood lighting when not otherwise occupied? Is Hyundai really convinced that the advancement of civilization depends upon “connecting robots to the metaverse”? Am I the only electrical engineer who feels lost—and increasingly indifferent—in this kaleidoscopic world of VR body-tracking suits, IoT window shades, and finger-nibbling stuffed animals?
The Amagami Ham Ham finger-nibbling robot from Yukai Engineering. Image used courtesy of Digital Trends
Ferris: I don’t think you’re the only one. But we also saw a sensible assistive robot, a production-ready self-driving tractor, and an eco-friendly dishwasher. In any case, what’s trivial for you is important for someone else. Everyone has their own priorities, and if engineers prefer to design flashy future tech or intriguing electronic curiosities, that’s their business. And it really is business—you know that some of these devices will find plenty of buyers. Should CES ignore innovative and potentially successful products simply because they don’t live up to your standards of beneficence, significance, or engineering rigor? Is technological sophistication irrelevant simply because it’s been blended with the verve and spectacle that we expect from any well-funded and wildly popular exhibition? CES is a show: if you don’t like what you’re seeing, change the channel.
The New Innovation
Themis: Next year I won’t need to change the channel. I’m done pretending that events like CES capture the spirit of engineering as I have always understood it. Let me ask you: When you ventured out into the professional world, with a shiny new EE degree on your résumé, how much did you know about real-life circuit design?
Ferris: Not much.
Themis: Same with me. That’s because our curricula emphasized theory over practice. We studied Kirchhoff’s laws, phasors, vector calculus, convolution, electromagnetism, semiconductor physics, backpropagation…. All this coursework gave us fuel for ingenuity and raw material for innovation. CES leaves me with the impression that it’s all about the market and the tech, and that genuine innovation is in decline because foundational engineering knowledge is increasingly passé.
Ferris: Sure, innovation isn’t what it used to be, but don’t blame CES. That’s just the nature of electronic technology. The industry is more mature now. We’re running low on pivotal new discoveries; we’re reaching physical limits. Innovation itself is evolving, and engineers are along for the ride. What do you say, Themis—let’s climb into that magical car and see where it takes us.
As an electrical engineer, what’s your take on consumer tech trade shows like CES? Are you intrigued by the fantastical demos or do you feel that these (sometimes outlandish) applications stand in contrast to the utilitarian engineering spirit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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