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Conventional Wisdom

Even at the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual high-tech powwow, business is done the old-fashioned way: pressing the flesh.

Author Adam K. Rraymond Photography Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Illustration Crush

Image – Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

EARLY IN JANUARY, hordes of giddy technophiles arrived at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas to gawk at more than 20,000 cutting-edge gadgets (think Winnebago-size TVs) and, perhaps more importantly, to meet people. In an effort to make networking a little easier and a little more innovative, the organizers of CES provided all attendees with a magical plastic card with their name on the front and a magnetic strip on the back. Its purpose: to relay, with a simple swipe, one’s vital details—name, address, hat size—to the occupants of booths touting cell phones, vacuums and cell phone vacuums.

At least that was the idea. “I don’t know what to do with it,” says the woman working a booth for one of the many e-readers introduced at the show. “Do you have a business card?”

She’s wasn’t alone. For all the interest in innovation among the 120,000 buyers, sellers and just plain curious, few in the crowd seemed willing to abandon their three-by-two-and-a-half- inch rectangles of card stock, slinging business cards rather than exchanging digits, um, digitally. No matter that the gadgets on display include countless devices that supposedly allow users to collaborate from opposite ends of the globe via videoconferencing, virtual whiteboards and real-time document editing. CES itself is based on a time-honored model, virtually indistinguishable from trade shows that filled the Las Vegas Convention Center when it arrived in the desert in 1959.

Ironic as it may sound, even technology’s top evangelists prefer tried-and-true methods when it comes to accomplishing their business goals. “Technology makes our lives easier in a lot of ways, but exhibitors strongly believe that in-person interaction is essential,” says Tara Dunion, senior director of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade organization that puts on CES. But it’s not just exhibitors, it’s business people everywhere. A recent survey of executives by the United States Travel Association found that 28 percent of their business would be lost without in-person meetings. Executives also estimate that face-to-face meetings convert 40 percent of potential customers into actual customers, while meetings conducted electronically convert only 16 percent.

“It’s extremely beneficial to shake someone’s hand and to look them in the eye,” Dunion says. That’s especially true at CES, where the average attendee holds 12 business meetings during each show. After all, are buyers more likely to carry your robot dog after receiving a press release or watching it e-bark?

“You don’t know what you have until you get your product in front of people,” says Kinesis Industries president Tod Wagenhals, who attended the convention for the first time last year. He came to show off a prototype of the K3, a wind-and solar-powered portable electronic device charger. With its two- inch fan blade, the contraption looks more like something meant to keep you cool than power up your phone. But plug into one of its ports, and one thing is clear: If you’re ever stuck in the desert with a dead cell phone, this is the device you’ll want (just watch those roaming charges).

Wagenhals left CES 2009 with a long list of suggestions from attendees—make it lighter, add more connection ports— and changed the device accordingly. “These aren’t the reactions you could get from having people watch videos or look at pictures,” he says. “People need to hold it, touch it, feel it.”

This year, Wagenhals is back with an improved product. Rather than soliciting feedback, he’s cutting deals.

Melanie Pearson, the owner of Liquid Image, a company that manufactures scuba, snorkeling and ski masks with built-in video cameras, is making her third visit to CES. The reason she keeps returning is simple: the crowds. “The sheer number of people gives our products enormous exposure,” she says. “It’s integral to our business.”

Liquid Image introduced its first camera-equipped goggles at CES 2008. Pearson says the ability to show off the product to buyers, distributors and press led to more than a million dollars in sales in the first year. “We started from scratch and instantaneously had orders,” she says. Sales more than doubled after CES 2009 and if all goes as planned, they’ll triple in 2010. “There was no way to do what we did without CES,” Pearson says.

Don’t be fooled though; CES isn’t just about business. Remember the sensory overload and subsequent glee of walking into the carnival? That’s what CES is like, except Whac-a-Mole has been replaced by Halo, and six-year-olds in chocolate-stained overalls by 36-year- olds in chocolate-stained overalls.

The biggest draws and most buzzed- about gadgets at this year’s show included the technologically impressive (a laptop with a transparent monitor, super-light tablet notebooks) and the simply bizarre (a blob of slime used to clean keyboards, a 19-inch high- definition television inside of a stuffed polar bear). But the products that drew the longest lines and loudest chatter were the 3-D TVs.

Some of the credit for the fervor probably belongs to James Cameron’s Avatar, which had been in theaters for a few weeks at the time of the show. Given the demographics of the CES crowd (young, male, nerdy) it was hard to imagine that anyone there hadn’t seen the movie, twice. And by the looks of the TV companies’ overflowing booths, they were eager for more. It took much patient waiting and, when the time was right, aggressive jostling to snag a pair of the glasses needed to partake in the 3-D experience (warning: watching without glasses may cause vertigo). Once the specs were on, it was finally possible to see what the fuss was about. Images popped out of the TV so convincingly that the occasional viewer would reach out and try to grab them. It didn’t work. But for all the splendor of the third dimension, the typical color, sharpness and eye-popping clarity we’ve come to expect from 21st century TVs were mostly lost.

Still, the eager crowds didn’t thin out for the entire four-day festival.

They devoured the 3-D TVs, just as they fiddled endlessly with the digital cameras and pounded mercilessly on the fancy keyboards.

The insistence on touching and tinkering made it clear that there’s really no substitute for being there. Even the companies whose products attempt to make being there unnecessary, like Cisco’s videoconferencing software TelePresence, recognize that nothing can replace the power of touch.

“We’re not at a point where we’re going to substitute for the tactile,” says David Hsieh, Cisco’s VP for marketing and emerging technologies. “It’s much more about having an increasingly blended experience.” What that experience will look like decades hence remains unclear. One thing, however, is certain—it will almost definitely involve business cards.

At his next trade show, associate editor ADAM K. RAYMOND will wear more sensible shoes.

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