CES: Showcase of the great and mundane

Screensters from Toddy GearThe International CES (don’t you dare call it Consumer Electronics Show) is coming up next week, and I look forward to prowling its exhibit floor in search of serendipity and the Next Big Thing. That search will include the huge displays that you’ll see in the news, plus lots and lots of small booths that you probably won’t see. That Next Big Thing is often found in one of those little booths, but finding it requires glancing at hundreds of exhibitors promoting stuff that’s actually pretty mundane.

You see, down deep CES is a trade show. Only folks who are involved with the industry are allowed to attend (if you want to qualify, see my workaround). With all these industry people walking around, a lot of companies are just trying to get their products featured in stores. And a lot of those products are accessories to popular devices, accessories that are just a little better, or just a little different, than what’s already available. For example, I know from a press release that the fine folks at Toddy Gear will use their CES appearance to unveil Screensters, “their latest collection of cleaning solutions for touchscreens and sensitive surfaces. Inspired by the characters you encounter in everyday life and catered to children and adults alike.” We all need cleaners for our smartphones and tablets, and these look as good as any of them. But I really don’t think that I’ll be telling my grandkids about the time I was present for the debut of Screensters.

Take that scenario and multiply it by hundreds. Need an iPhone case? CES exhibitors will have hundreds, maybe thousands of models available. G-Form has a case that dropped 100,000 feet to “a rocky hillside” and successfully protected its iPhone 5. (I’ve embedded G-Form’s video below.) There’s OtterBox, a well-known company from Colorado that’s been making great protective cases for years. And there will be dozens of other companies with multi-colored, character-licensed, oddly textured, or just plain cheap iPhone cases on display.

How about some earbuds for that iPhone? For every earbud that monitors your vital signs (cool!), there are dozens of fine, regular earbuds on display. Want speakers? You’ll find lots of really wonderful speakers in every size for every purpose. And the same for electronic toys and connection cables and car stereos. And every booth is operated by earnest, friendly people who are eager to tell you about the fine quality and unmatched user experience provided by their earbuds (or iPhone cases, or speakers, or whatever) if you pause long enough to let them get started. I haven’t yet learned a diplomatic way to tell them, “I thought I saw something relevant to what I cover, but as you explain it, I see that I was wrong. Excuse me, but I need to move on to glance quickly at the next 20 rows of small booths.”

Make no mistake, there are truly innovative technologies that are first exhibited at CES. And you can get a feel for trends just by seeing what technologies are attracting a crowd. Two years ago, there were dozens of different electronic book readers with little to distinguish themselves from each other. Last year, there were dozens of Android tablets that looked a lot alike. I wonder what everyone will be showing this year.

CES has some great stuff to see, but sometimes it’s just a needle in a haystack. What I learned is that to find that needle, you’ve got to look at a whole lot of hay. I’ll tell you here what I find next week.