Shanghai Diary: CES Debuts in Tomorrowland

Shanghai, for me, is literally halfway ‘round the world. Some 20 hours flying time from New York, it is 12 hours ahead in time zones and across the International Dateline: the very definition of “Tomorrowland.” The post-modern, sci-fi landscape of the Pudong section of China’s biggest trade center and most cosmopolitan city does little to deter that notion. Bound on one side by the 128-story Shanghai Tower and on the other by the Oriental Pearl, a futuristic, 1,500 foot broadcast tower, it looks like a bold experiment in animation made concrete, a slice of society that has, to date, only been imagined for amusement parks. On first sight I could only gasp at both the scale and shape of it, then grew silent with respect for not just the accomplishment, but the gutsy vision it must have took to start it.


I begin with this—an homage to China’s manufactured salute to all that mankind can create—because seeing it helped me crystalize, finally, what I really learned during my recent visit for the inaugural CES Asia trade show. One thing that was immediately obvious was that history of a sort was being made in Shanghai. The timing of the show acknowledges a region on the verge of explosive growth. China has nearly 1.4 billion people vs. the 320 million or so in the U.S., and it’s growing much faster, both in population and the size of its economy. Among the telling statistics cited during the show’s various seminars was that in 2009, worldwide distribution of the so-called “middle class” population put 36% of it in Europe, 28% in Asia, 18% in North America, 10% in South America, and 6% in Australia (Africa’s middle class simply didn’t exist.) By 2030, due to growth and advancement among the Chinese and Indian populations, that will shift to a whopping 66% in Asia, while Europe’s share drops to 14%, North America’s to 7%, South America’s to 6%, and Australia’s to 5% (The remaining 2% will be in Africa). Even today, 68% of urban-dwelling Chinese are said to be middle-class, and China already has huge consumption of electronic goods and appliances, said to be worth $268 billion annually. To be in this business and not take efforts to be positioned in Asia as this market opens and gains affluence would be foolish.


Not surprisingly given the stats, CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro said in his opening remarks that he expects CES Asia to eventually rival the attendance and physical scope of the International CES held in Las Vegas each January. That’s bold: the Vegas event brought in 176,000 attendees this year (including 7,000 press and analysts) and had 3,600 exhibitors stretched across 2.23 million net square feet (205,000 net square meters) of space. By comparison, this first CES Asia, several years in development and co-produced by a Shanghai based exhibition company, was but a sliver. By the end of Day 2, the CEA cited 24,000 attendees (including 1,200 media); some 55% were from mainland China, another 18% from other Asian nations, and 27% from elsewhere around the world. There were 200 exhibitors representing 16 countries, covering 20,000 gross square meters. The whole show fit easily into not quite two of the 17 halls of the giant Shanghai New International Expo Centre that, I suppose, may someday be full-up and overflowed into other nearby venues like the Las Vegas Convention Center is today.

A walk through those halls revealed a few recognizable names among the exhibitors, including some American firms. Harman International was displaying headphones and wireless speakers from its AKG and JBL lines, Klipsch was touting its namesake speakers and those of its Jamo brand, and Klipsch parent Voxx International was in a separate booth hawking accessories. DTS was there, as was Monster. Intel and IBM had a significant presence with technology displays. Automobile manufacturers Audi and Ford were on the floor. There were also Chinese and Euorpean companies previously unknown to me, but many exhibitors appeared to be distributors representing various American and worldwide brands.


Top: Some familiar names on the CES Asia floor. Bottom: The Hisense golden girls

Noticeably absent were the Japanese and Korean brands that so dominate the Vegas show and the rest of the world’s consumer electronics consciousness: no big names (or commensurate city-block booths) from the Sony's, Samsung’s or LG’s of the world. On the first day I spotted Mike Fasulo, Sony Electronics' president and chief operating officer, and a CEA Executive Board member, participating in the ribbon-cutting and being escorted about by show officials, but the company had no obvious presence. Samsung sponsored the CEA’s annual CEO Summit gala dinner that ran during the show, yet did not exhibit. In their place, Hisense—one of several large Chinese TV and cell-phone makers—took a prominent space on the floor and showed off their latest Ultra HDTVs and a cool short-throw projector. (Chinese manufacturer TCL, the third-largest TV maker in the world and the firm now building a name for itself in the U.S. with Roku TVs and their naming rights to the former Grauman Chinese Theater in Hollywood, was seen only on the nameplate of the flatpanel in my hotel room.) There was some speculation among the press that this first show perhaps wasn’t the right time, for business or political reasons, for huge, non-Chinese, Asian manufacturers to mount a full-scale public statement in the provincial Chinese market.


Can you believe that’s a…Ford?

Nor was this inaugural effort the showcase for introducing cutting-edge technology that Vegas has become. The CES Innovations Award-winning products appearing in display cases at the back of Hall N2 were all carryovers from January. The car makers did show off their latest in-car tech, and Audi made some news announcing its R8 e-tron self-driving supercar. Beyond the auto booths, the biggest crowds could be found around Moley Robotics, the British manufacturer of a kitchen robot system that uses a pair of articulating arms capped with the world’s most sophisticated mechanical hands mimicking the motions of a master chef. Throughout the show, the bodies were lined up six or eight deep to get a glimpse of the giant, disembodied arms floating through space while they made the same crab bisque, over and over again, delicately picking up little bowls and cups of ingredients to dump them into the pot, then grabbing a spatula to delicately stir the soup. At one point, I carefully watched the company set up for the demo; an employee working off a cheat sheet precisely placed each ingredient in just the right spot so the arms, which were working off a recording of the chef’s actual movements, could properly locate them. No one who watches The Food Channel would believe anyone actually cooks in this perfectly fluid manner, but the slow, dance-like motion and the proof of concept were mesmerizing.

Moley's kitchen robot arms drew big crowds at CES Asia.


In perfect choregraphy, three Chinese teens kill time on the show floor.

With so little to chase on the floor, I spent the majority of my time in the conference sessions and keynotes. They were mind-opening. The dominant theme across all the discussions, by far, was the Internet of Things, or IoT for short, which seems to have picked up additional steam as a trend even since the January show.


Gary Richardson's picture

Super interesting exhibition! I dream to visit it once. Last year I have no such opportunity due to lots of work and college assignments. But now I am fully packed to go for CES 2017 because I get the writer for my paper here thus I am free to go!