The Future of CES

What did the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show tell us about the future of CES and our industry in general? That was the question on everyone's lips. When asked "how are you," I cheerfully answered: "employed." This never failed to bring a smile. CES 2009 was hardly a failure. While it did not draw the 147,000 people of 2008, it still mustered 110,000, according to a press release from the Consumer Electronics Association. That is not too shabby by any standard. On the magazine's audio beat, I found fewer audio exhibits in the South Hall, but more at the Venetian, so seeing stuff and blogging about it kept me busy.

Still, the recession has already hit Vegas hard. For the first time in living memory, folks are having a hard time finding jobs--this was all over local news telecasts when I tuned in. Leading the national trend in declining real estate values, housing is plummeting in value, and new developments at the edge of town are not being populated as planned. I feel bad about this, as the service people in Vegas have always been a spirited and kindly bunch. They help make the trip less unbearable.

There are reasons why giant trade shows in Vegas may belong more to the past than to the future. One is the peaking of the world oil supply. It takes a lot of energy to ship a hundred thousand people and tons of stuff to a sparsely populated area in the middle of a desert. Despite the recent pullback in oil prices from nearly $150 a barrel to roughly $50, fossil-fuel energy is something that will only get less plentiful and more expensive in the future, and renewables are unlikely to support our energy consumption at current levels.

Perhaps nothing summed up CES present and future better than the shuttle buses that carry people between the convention venues and the hotels. They're an absolute must--Vegas is basically unwalkable, and if everyone depended on cabs, CES would break down completely. At this show, the buses were rarely packed, and often they were nearly empty. Usually I leave the show floor an hour early to avoid the lines. This year, on one occasion, I was one of only two passengers on the five o'clock bus from the Venetian back to the Mirage. On another I was the only passenger. Drivers left the engines running while the buses were parked, which has given me a nasty sulfur dioxide cough. What is possible in a now waning era of cheap energy will not be possible in a future of limited energy.

Finally, Vegas has another structural problem of its own, and that's water. A fellow showgoer who drove in from New Mexico commented: "I drove past the [Hoover] dam and I've never seen it so low." There were signs notifying visitors that Vegas restaurants will no longer serve tap water unless asked. If people have trouble getting a shower after getting off the plane, that would certainly threaten the city's status as a convention and entertainment capital.

I think there will still be a CES in 5, 10, 20, 50 years. In my subject area, digital amps and more efficient speakers will still be bringing music to tortured souls in an age of scarcity and sacrifice, if that is our fate. But as the blaring noise of the slot machines dies down in my ears for another year, I'm not sure how big future CESes will be--or whether they will be in Vegas.