Jason BlockDesigner and Front-End Engineer

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by Jason BlockDecember 15, 2013

My time at CES

In 2009 I needed a job. I was getting a degree in mechanical engineering, but I wasn’t good enough to get an internship. My summer began with an age-old dilemma: work at Sunglass Hut or start selling my Pokemon card collection.

One week into the summer I decided to try Craigslist. What I was looking for? I didn’t know. I saw video editing, landscaping, escort services (so I could be arm candy for the rich and powerful), video game writing, make-me-a-Facebook-clone-ing, part-time work cleaning posters off of telephone poles, part-time work putting posters on telephone poles. This was to be my first foray into the working world; the cold, salty sweat of a hard day’s work running down my face as I do whatever it is I was planning on doing. I needed it to be a good decision.

And that’s how I became a cell phone blogger.

I wrote about and reviewed cell phones for a little over a year. The blog was run through a web development firm as a side project. I’d get review models of phones from Samsung & Nokia and do combination written/video reviews in my dorm room.

Sidenote: The Nokia E63 is still my favorite phone ever. Incredibly thin, stainless steel frame with a nice, grippy texture, incredible battery life, and faster than any iPhone I’ve ever owned.

Now we’re in November 2009. I get an email from my boss, one that I thought was a joke: “Do you want to go to CES?”

A great idea. An amazing idea, even. Only problem was that I would be 20 years old during CES 2010. A child in a world of adults. What follows is a collection of stories and memories from the trip, collected and divided in a somewhat-intelligible fashion.

Snow. Lots of snow.

My flight out was at 9AM, 45 minutes away in Indianapolis. With the snow we had to double that, plus a buffer to let me get to my plane. 5:30AM, we said. My RA was kind enough to drive me down an unplowed highway in his Mini Cooper, which made for one of the most tense passenger experiences of my life.

I got to the airport with about 45 minutes until takeoff. It’s those moments when you cherish amazing urban planning and civil engineering, because the Indianapolis Airport is designed to get you through security in 15 minutes on a bad day. I remember seeing a person I went to high school, for some reason in Indiana, also for some reason going to Vegas, though he looked old enough to drink alcohol and as though him and his friends had other purposes and desires in the city of Sin.

I decided to get on the plane in a nice button-down shirt and slacks. Why? I don’t know. I figured that this was how people dressed at trade shows. I knew that our blog wasn’t a CNET or an Engadget, and if I wanted a Samsung representative to take me seriously I needed to not look like a kid who wrote about cell phones when he wasn’t playing video games.

I landed about midway through day one of the convention. Bag in hand I took a cab to the convention center, alarmed by the heat, and the sun, and the overall weather for what I expected to be a January day. I didn’t have time to go to my hotel, so I got out near the convention center dragging my suitcase and backpack through crowds of people wielding swag bags, cameras, businessman-like rolling luggage, all going every which way.

I got stopped by a short man slapping cards with pictures of escorts on it. No one told me about these people, standing on every street corner, selling sex to everyone from children to people on Elvis pilgrimages. I put my hand out to deflect the card, which was taken as a sign of acceptance. Within seconds, unlike anything I had ever seen, a group of similarly built men had placed a stack of these cards in my hand. Each picture different, each pose sexually forthcoming and desirable in a primal way. Without a trash can nearby, I walked 20 feet away and dropped them on the ground next to the Engadget and Techcrunch trailers. There were other, similarly disheveled piles.

I got in and found my boss and his coworkers, three men I had never met, men who I trusted to fly me out to Las Vegas and let me go to a trade show with no reporting skills, to let me explore a place I had no business being in, no business missing school to experience, and no understanding of how to navigate an environment of excess and id with any sort of grace or mental fortitude. I was standing at CES, unprepared.

On the second day we had a scheduled booth tour with Huawei, a monolithic Chinese OEM that was just getting into manufacturing their own, non-whitelabeled products. If you bought a 3G/4G USB stick in recent years from T-Mobile or a self-install home security kit it was likely to be from Huawei.

My boss had a meeting right before. I didn’t know what it was for, but he told me to go to the booth and wait for him. 20 minutes of calling and texting and he was a no-show. Without wanting to leave them waiting I found the PR representative and introduced myself.

Most of these booth tours involved me holding a camera while a temp worker walked through a laundry-list of recently announced products from their upcoming lineup. They were all the same. Sometimes I’d chime in with a question from behind the camera, other times I was simply a walking lens, attempting to be my own steadicam. This one began differently. I was led into an unmarked doorway next to a few home security cameras.

Inside sits two people: a woman, grinning like I’ve never seen someone grin before, and a man in his 50s, in a suit that looks like it costed more than my car, sizing me up and down with every intention of completely judging me. There are two seats opposing them at the table, each with open bottles of Ice Mountain and a small cookie. The entire room looks like an actual board room. Wall decorations, a fine wood veneer atop the table; enough fanciness to warrant me using a coaster under my water bottle.

After a few awkward moments they stand up, and I am introduced. “Jason, meet the CTO and head of global public relations for the company.”

I had never come closer to pissing myself.

A presentation begins. I’m walked through nearly every facet of Huawei’s global domination plans, every inkling of their research into the domestic technology markets, their only uncharted territory at this point. I sit there for a few minutes before realizing that I should have questions. I should be prepared to inquire about what I’m being shown, or what I knew about the company before walking into The Truman Show.

I put on a grin. I don’t ostentatiously smile, but this was a different situation. This grin was big, it was fake, it could be read through by most people, but in the midst of my current emotional state—nervous, frightened, intimidated, tired, hungry—this fake, stupid grin on my face made me look I wanted nothing else than to eat, sleap, and dream Huawei. I was the king of Huawei. All of us, every ounce of our being, Huawei.

The presentation finishes, and I have nothing to ask. Absolutely nothing. I ask menial questions about the history of the company. What is the legacy of Huawei in Asian markets? How do you maintain a competitive edge in a market with so many knockoffs? Where are your weaknesses?

What’s the hardest part about coming to America?

The CTO got a little grin on his face. He spoke for the first time in several minutes, thickly-accented. “This,” he waves his hands around, pointing to all of his competitors shilling similar products all around him, continuing to smile, expressing a vulnerability one does not expect to hear from someone in charge of one of the largest technology enterprises in the world, “...it’s very difficult.” He laughs. I laugh.

Las Vegas uses an elaborate shuttle network to connect hotels and convention centers. It was either that, a cab ride, or a long walk through the desert (and a not-too-nice part of Las Vegas between the Stratosphere and pretty much anything else). I took the shuttle one morning to get to a press conference for Samsung wherein they announced nothing except that they recycle things occasionally (but served an amazing breakfast buffet).

I sat next to a European man, likely French or Swiss (I never asked). He was there as an exhibitor. We chatted about the show floor, what he was excited to see and hopefully buy. It was a great little chat. The kind you don’t often get in the hustle/bustle of a trade show.

We overheard a couple of reporters for a TV blog talk about 3D TVs. This was the year of 3D. Avatar had just come out. Theaters were getting converted left and right. ESPN was making strategic investments in filming each of their big properties in 3D. Later that day I would end up at the Sony booth, watching Wheel of Fortune in 3D with my jaw on the floor, astonished at why this was actually a thing.

The reporters were talking about murmurs they heard from marketing folks at Panasonic. They made it clear that they had hit an innovation inflection point. 4K wasn’t viable in 2010, and they had gotten LCDs and Plasma down to a science. The only step was to add a dimension, and create an entire new media paradigm for it. In their words, it was all they had.

At this point there wasn’t anything new. All of the announcements happened days ago. Apple wasn’t there, Google wasn’t there, if I was to report on 3D TVs and quadcopters, I was in the right place. I saw the host of America’s Most Wanted selling a security camera, next to a Chasidic Jewish man talking about a videogame controller shaped like an AR-15 assault rifle with alarming detail.

Ed Hardy was there, selling iPhone and Blackberry cases. Their hook was having bikini models walking around with multiple phones strapped to their bottoms, a system that must have required an alarming amount of structural engineering for the manufacturer.

There were dozens of media people there at any moment, snapping pictures of the models as they sauntered around with Blackberry Curves, each with different styles of tiger-related insignia surrounding them. A Blackberry fan site came by with a video camera, to record what I assume was a funny video about how the temp workers there to shill products don’t actually know what they talk about, which puts them at a journalistic standard somewhere between TMZ and a collegiate parody zine written in Microsoft Word.

The man started asking an obtuse question about the newest line of Blackberries. Something about filesystems or the difference between the Curve and the Bold or changes to the BBM protocol or something else that was and is mostly irrelevant. He pointed the microphone in the direction of the model, expecting hilarity. His cameraman stood, grinning, ready to get the viral success they always knew they deserved.

There was a moment of silence as her face grew ponderous. She took the microphone out of his hand. This wasn’t an interview anymore.

5 minutes later, this woman aped his knowledge of Blackberry, successfully compared the new versions of the Curve to the Bold, walked through what RIM would have to do in order to maintain a competitive edge with Android and iOS, and discussed every nuance requested by the initial question with the biggest, proudest grin you can imagine on a human face.

She gave the man back his microphone. His lower lip trembled, unsure of what to do. He gave a sign off to his cameraman and they both walked away slowly, like two puppies that just got yelled at for playing in the trash. The model, unfazed, turned around to the next batch of reporters, answering questions and posing for pictures with absolutely no indication of effort, no signs that she had just laid the smackdown on two arrogant reporters that deserved every ounce of shame.

As a 20 year old there wasn’t much to do in Vegas. I stayed in the Stratosphere, so I could go up to the top and look out at the strip, meander in and around the casinos, looking but not touching. I saw David Spade do standup, a surprising and interesting experience, showing me why that man had the goods to be on SNL and to be a comedy darling throughout the 90s.

I spent my last night walking through as many hotels as I could. The Hangover had just came out so I refused to walk into Caesar’s Palace. The sight of drunkards pretending to be Zach Galifianakis would drive me to a point of instant insanity, and that wouldn’t be a good way to end the trip.

I crossed a bridge leading to the Wynn. Four young men walked by, confident, each step another step closer to a night of excess and fraternization. They flag me down as we pass, asking me to take a picture. They want the Wynn sign to sit above them as they puff their lips and turn their heads in just such a way as to let their gelled up, spiky hair glow under the street lights, signaling to the rest of the world that they are ready for the night to consume them. This picture will sit on their Facebook as a taunt for everyone else, their friends and family that for whatever reason are not there, not in the moment, not experiencing the same night, the same blurriness, energy, and motion.

I took the picture. I held the camera straight for them. I composed it in such a way that the Wynn logo looked like a signature, as if Las Vegas was inscribing onto their evening. Tonight, you four, you brothers, you men of honor and dignity, your evening is going to be one that you will never forget. The lights will wash you of your sins, all the while introducing you to new ones. The liquor will cleanse, the dancing will engage and excite, you will make new friends, lose others, but above all else you are going to truly feel as though you are alive. Your experiences are going to define you, mold you, create new versions of you, whisper sweet nothings into your ear, exhume your fears, taunt you, call you out, bring you pain, pleasure, anger, happiness, light, darkness, dancing, the room, and the world.

You are going to Wynn.

Later I ended up at the Encore hotel, the only place with a restaurant that sold dessert for a reasonable price. I sat there, eating Tiramasu, alone, in the darkened cocktail bar. All of the sudden, who saunters in but Ben Stein, a women at least 30 years his senior on his arm.

He got to the bar and ordered something for him and his lady friend. I didn’t have the guts to go up and ask him for an autograph or some other meaningless pariphenalia. I could have told him how much Ferris Bueller means to me, and how every time I watch it I cry a little bit. But this wasn’t the time, nor the place. He was being a normal person tonight, experiencing Las Vegas and uncovering its mysteries. I knew not whether this was his girlfriend or whether he met the woman earlier that evening. He might not want the world knowing that this is his romantic situation. I left him be.

The bartender didn’t.

He was an excellent bartender, throwing together concoctions left and right, each more elaborate than the next. He was French. His accent made this obvious, though his build, his hairstyle that looked similar to the lead singer of Phoenix—also a Frenchman—confirmed my long-distance stereotype.

So Ben Stein ordered a drink. He made it. They close out the tab. He signs the receipt. Now, the bartender could have kept his mouth shut. He could have said “thank you” and let Ben Stein go out on his way. There could have been no awkwardness, no reason for Ben Stein to regret his decision, no palpable sense of UGH that I could feel from 20 feet away.

“I can’t read the signature..my eyes...my eyes they’re so itchy!”


He left the bar.

The bartender said nothing and looked at his feet.

I could not stop laughing.

I left the restaurant, walking out of the hotel. Stores line a hallway—Lamborghini, Dior, John Varvatos. No one is buying anything. No one is shopping. The employees stand at the doorways, twiddling their thumbs, texting, watching.

A suave-looking man approaches with a girl on each arm. His shirt is slightly unbuttoned. The girls are in party attire. They look drunk. He looks at me as if he recognizes me. It was the man from the shuttle, 2 days after a quick conversation, recognizing me immediately and remembering my name without the assistance of a badge.

I end up walking past the nightclub in the Encore. The line stretches 50 people deep. I see some familiar faces in the crowd. The men whose picture I took, the four musketeers on their evening adventure, on a quest for debauchery and liveliness, stuck in line, caught in a stasis, not allowed to have any fun. Their faces were calm, dejected, and yet still hopeful. They didn’t recognize me, which was likely for the best.

The evening ended soon after, not wanting to risk anything, not having nor wanting a fake ID nor an evening of blurred senses and misguided decisions. I had written all of my blog posts and uploaded all of my videos. The internet had my work. I decided to go back to my hotel and watch the lights of the strip sit at the base of the mountaintops and the desert, the people below all moving and wandering between experiences, seeing new and old faces, all the while not knowing where or when their night was going to end.