Diablog: Welcome to Hell

We're in Vegas! We're in Vegas!

I have successfully avoided this city for five years and now I'm baaack. Back in this mock-urban horror, this neon tumor metastasizing in the desert, peopled by the wandering dead, the lost souls looking for the next big thing.

What is it with you? Look around! The riot of lights, the high-rise glamour, the amusing tackiness, the crowds. People having fun. Fortunes being made and lost—

Mostly lost, I'd say.

In the casinos, sure, but it's a different story here at the 2006 International Consumer Electronics Show. Perfectly sober people come to Vegas to do business, even if they're not sober by the end of the night. Last year's CES drew an officially audited total of 145,868 "industry professionals." Those are your people, aren't they?

Yeah, but that doesn't mean they like being here any better than I do. For years I avoided this show, and whenever I told an industry contact I wasn't going, the response was "I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!" Gosh, that always felt good.

What's not to like here?

For years I've given the same answer to that question. It's not the show that bugs me—the Consumer Electronics Association does an awesome job of pulling together this huge multifaceted event covering every imaginable consumer tech toy. What kill me are the setting and the timing. Some stupendous six-figure number of people converge at the height of the cold and flu season in a place where the desert air takes 24 hours to strip every membrane in their respiratory systems. Then they run around shaking hands and breathing on each other. There you have it, a giant microbiological moshpit, and I have never come away from it unscathed. Usually something starts in my throat, moves up to my head, and then heads down into my lungs, where it stays for a month. As a longtime freelancer, I couldn't justify spending my own pennies to put myself through that.

Well, now you're the Audio Editor of Home Theater. Welcome to hell. You have an obligation to visit the kingdom of darkness and let your writhing industry contacts bow down before you and hesitantly touch your sleeve.

At CES my star is just one pinpoint in a vast constellation. At other shows, I actually get to talk to my homies, but at this one it's always "hi how are you nice to see you bye!" Usually blurted out over the shoulder as people pass by. So I'll walk the aisles, hand out business cards, flog the blog, and say "see you at CEDIA!" Then I'll go home and be sick.

Perhaps you overstate your case, as usual. So talk to me about trends and goodies. You've spent weeks trawling through hundreds of emails and piecing together a schedule slash wish list. What do you read in the tea leaves?

That reminds me—I need to pack my green tea bags. Well, last year was the year of the iPod explosion. I expect to see more iPod accessories, systems, and gimmicks but 2006 may be the year of the iPod alternative. Meanwhile, home distribution, wireless or otherwise, is bursting out of the custom-install industry where it's been gestating for 20 years to become a mainstream consumer phenomenon. We'll see a lot of products that fling entertainment throughout the home and some of them will be simple gadgets anyone can afford. Speakers are getting flatter to match displays. The innards of amplifiers are going digital, making them lighter, cooler, more energy-efficient, and more potentially convergent. HD Radio will bring digital audio to the airwaves, for free, while subscription-based XM and Sirius will make further inroads in both products and subscribers. Plasma and LCD will continue to reign supreme, and 1080p will be the drooler's favorite alphanumeric mantra, but showgoers will also get a look at next-generation video technologies like SED, a flatter tube technology, and OLED, potentially the flattest display type ever. Blu-ray and HD DVD will bid to replace the current DVD-Video format and probably strangle one another in the process. And then there's convergence.

You mean your rack full of black monstrosities will try to be more like my laptop and my iPod? I've been hearing about that for years and it never happens.

True, home theater gear still makes a lousy computer, just as a computer still makes a lousy home theater system. The only thoroughly convergent products are PlayStation and Xbox and of course the iPod. They've left the orthodox audio, video, music, and movie industries with egg on their faces. And that's the plot twist that ends the first chapter of the convergence story.

What happens in chapter two?

The next chapter, to begin unfolding at this year's CES, will be far more entertaining as we watch other players jump in and trample each other. Have you noticed that cable operators want you to rent your DVR from them? And that they're offering TV, telephony, and net access in neat little packages? And that the telcos, especially Verizon and the newly reorganized AT&T, are hot to do the same? And that old-school television networks and music conglomerates are racing to port their programming to iPods and cell phones? And that a top-line cell phone now has everything except a can opener and that may be added any second now? Not to mention that LG fridge with built-in LCD TV?

So the question is no longer whether technologies will converge but where they'll converge next.

Well said. What will be the next hot device? Who will build the next media empire by providing programming for it? And who will convince skeptical digital-era consumers—less trusting than ever after the recent Sony BMG scandal—that digital rights management is not a dark specter but Caspar the Friendly Ghost?

It kind of makes my head swim. Isn't convergence supposed to be about consensus, simplification, doing more with fewer gadgets? Isn't it supposed to make my life easier?

Consensus? Simplification? At CES?! You dream of a better world, and I like that about you, but you're not being realistic. OK, if you've got the money, an experienced custom installer can help bring order out of chaos. But the electronics and entertainment industries are naturally competitive, as opposed to cooperative, and lots of new players are joining the fray from other industries. So true convergence, as you've defined it, will remain out of reach, always visible just over the horizon, but a mirage. That's the mirage that one hundred thousand plus people are going to be chasing at CES. If anything about this is enjoyable, it's the chase itself.

What will consumers get out of it, then?

Balkanization, not convergence. Quantity, not quality—the number of choices will be privileged over the intensity of the experience. Maybe the comeback of audio and video performance will be the theme of some distant future CES. In the meantime, more gadgets, more services, more confusion. And for those who know how to play the game, more fun.

And what will you get out of it?

At worst, a 103-degree fever. At best, a persistent cough.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. For links to the latest edition, visit www.quietriverpress.com.

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