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Looking for—and finding—dumb stuff at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show

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Oh, grandpa … He may be excited by new technology revealed at CES, but he also uses dial-up.
Photo: Sam Morris

I’m at the International Consumer Electronics Show, where one of my missions is to find the dumbest technology available. Right inside the doors, I see phones and a tablet computer submerged in an aquarium. Fujitsu has done it. Finally, I can check Facebook in the pool.

To be fair, anyone who has had a phone or computer go bad after it got wet would be thrilled with waterproofing—a friend’s IT department once took a good sniff of the keyboard and told him his laptop went bad because of the beer.

Maybe it was just the marketing that left me unimpressed, including video of a phone in a toilet. Waterproof or no, the phone in a toilet is a dead phone, as far as I’m concerned.

This was my first CES, the mega trade show that brings more than 140,000 people here to sell and network and leer at the latest gadgets. As with New Year’s on the Strip, once was enough, though I admit the show offers a fascinating blend of commerce, globalism and technology.

Victorinox, the company that makes the Swiss Army Knife, now has a tool that looks like a Swiss Army Knife but has a memory stick in it. Whose nephew came up with this? When I brandish the memory stick like a weapon, a company man says, “That’s not cool. It’s a tool, not a weapon.” Fair enough.

The Huawei booth is a gleaming, shimmery white, like a Miami nightclub. Where is Huawei based? I ask a woman. It’s a trick question, because I know it’s a huge Chinese company trying to get into the U.S. market.

“Plano, Texas,” she responds.

The rear of the convention floor, featuring a “patent brokerage” booth and numerous displays of batteries and bejeweled cases for cell phones, is like a neighborhood with payday lenders and tattoo parlors.

A foreign company, the name of which is written in a language I can’t read, has its “models” wear bikinis and gold sequined dresses that don’t cover much. Hypothesis: Las Vegas is a leader in the trade show modeling economy. The women look mostly bored. Can’t blame them.

Later, “A free limo to Sapphire’s?” No, but thanks.

Anna La Londe is sitting, resting on a stairwell. She and her husband are here from Yuma County, where they run a little store that brings the Internet to the people of rural Arizona. There’s something great about this, though I can’t put my finger on it.

The Sphero! “The Ball. Evolved.” This is a smart phone- and tablet-controlled ball. “Part Robot. Part Ball. All Fun.” $129.99.

Video name tags. It’s a name tag. But it’s a video name tag.

The Emperor! This looks like a La-Z-Boy in a spaceship, a “workstation” with arms that come over your head so that as many as three screens are in front of your face, plus cup holder and keyboard tray.

A guy is trying it out, and his badge says he’s from Crazyfunbabe. Remarkably, that’s not a porn site, though I can’t say for sure what it is.

Paul Reynolds, an editor at Consumer Reports, tells me this year CES isn’t about one breakthrough product, but improvements on existing technology. He mentions TVs.

Sure enough, Samsung has TVs that are pretty cool—a half-inch thick, if that.

I follow the Bob Marley music and get to Marley, which has headphones named after songs, like “Redemption Song,” that are supposed to be environmentally friendly, and I do admire the wood styling. Some of the profits go to the Marley family foundation. Still, kinda gross.

Perhaps the coolest booth of all: Called a “3D” printer, but it’s really like a little manufacturing device for your home. You design the object you want to build, like, say, a chess piece, and then the “printer” builds it out of plastic—$1,299 and $50 for the “spool” of plastic.

At the booth of the Quality of Life Technology Center, which is a project of Carnegie Mellon University and the National Science Foundation, a guy is trying out a robotic arm brace, which helps people who’ve suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries relearn how to use their muscles. The company that made it spun off an MIT mechanical engineering lab.

About time to cut funding for higher education again, ain’t it?

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Tuesdays at 5:30 p.m. on 91.5 FM.
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