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Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, then best known as a wrestler for what was still called the WWF, exchanged catchphrases with Gates for a few minutes onstage in Las Vegas before they demoed the video game console’s top-of-the-line visuals. A year later, the first entry in the Xbox Halo franchise would become the fastest-selling console game released to that point. It probably would’ve done just fine without CES, but the trade show was considered a key stop on its road to commercial success.
Things changed. The focus of the consumer technology industry swung from hardware to smartphone apps and social media. Companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Google began holding their own, separate product demo days, usually a bit closer to the next holiday shopping season than January. The Vegas show became largely the province of automakers hunting for new gear lower down in their supply chain. This year, however, the biggest internet companies are pouring money into a growing range of consumer gadgets, many in competition with one another. CES is relevant again.
At the 4,000-exhibitor show kicking off on Jan. 9, Google is setting up a booth for the first time in years, and Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook, and other companies are expected to prowl the Vegas showrooms in much greater earnest than usual. The companies are racing to differentiate themselves in the emerging market for smart speakers and the shaky market for virtual-reality headsets, and to beat their rivals to store shelves with augmented-reality glasses that can overlay information or goofy characters on a wearer’s view of the real world. There won’t be much for consumers to play with, but sales reps pitching advanced chips and other components have a shot at career-making deals, and the sales made in the meeting rooms off the show floors will likely help shape the design of groundbreaking products for the next couple of years.
“Hardware, specifically component hardware, is hot at CES because that is what’s keeping VR, AR, and AI from reaching their pinnacle,” says Patrick Moorhead, president of consulting firm Moor Insights & Strategy. The competitors, he says, all need markedly better performance at low power than their current parts can provide. Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment. Apple and Amazon declined to comment, and Google declined to comment beyond saying it will have a booth.
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