CES: Previewing the Future For 50 Years

06/23/2017 04:52 pm ET

Opening the hysterically horrible Plan 9 from Outer Space is faux futurist Criswell, who portentously intones:

"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future."

Well, Criswell isn't wrong, exactly, merely syntactically challenged. As idiotically obvious as his pronouncement is, I am reminded of it each January as I prepare for travel to CES in Las Vegas, which is now commemorating its golden anniversary.

From June 25-28, 1967, an estimated 17,500 retailers, merchandisers, distributors, engineers and other business types browsed 117 exhibits in four New York City hotels, primarily the midtown Hilton on Sixth Avenue and 53d Street and the Americana (now the Sheraton) one block west on Seventh Avenue, with overflow at the Warwick, across from the Hilton, and City Square hotels.

Compare these modest numbers to the most recent CES, now arguably the largest and most well-known trade show in the country if not the world. January's official 50th anniversary edition, attracted 175,000-plus attendees, a third from outside the U.S., who visited 4,015 booths spread across 2.6 million square foot of the Las Vegas and Sands convention centers and numerous Strip hotels. Combined with the additional exhibitor staff and media, even mighty Las Vegas staggered beneath this tech folk influx.

Then as now, CES is a place where the future is on full display. While many breakthrough products may have been introduced in separate events, CES was always the place where new gadgets or new technologies are either slid under the microscope or shoved into the spotlight, or both, depending. Over the years, CES has both reflected the times and projected potential futures.

But CES v1.0 was like the rest of mainstream society in the 1960s. Projecting the future was fun and easy. Seeing the present? Not so simple.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Several future-forward technologies made their debut at CES 1967, first and foremost the compact audio cassette.

In 1964, 8-track tape, aka Stereo 8, was introduced and was an immediate hit. For the first time, consumers could listen to music they wanted to hear in the car, rather than just DJs played on AM radio. By 1967, all major car makers offered 8-track "CARtridge" decks as a factory option.

Sensing an opportunity, two other tape formats were unveiled in 1966, MGM's PlayTape and Philips' compact cassette. PlayTape was 8-track in miniature, a two-track loop cartridge that could hold up to 24 minutes of music, intended primarily as a tape alternative to the familiar 45 RPM vinyl single, teenagers' music playback medium of choice.

CES 1967 was essentially the coming-out party for both PlayTape and compact cassette, and the challenge to 8-track initiated the first format war. More than a third of CES' exhibitors displayed audio tape gear of some type and, by the end of the year, tape players outsold record players nearly two-to-one. But compact cassette could record, birthing the High Fidelity "mixtape" culture of the 1970s and 80s and sparking both the personal listening and home recording revolutions.

That first CES also coincided with the end of the 1966-67 TV season, the first during which all prime time programming was broadcast in color. Price cuts helped color sets outselling black-and-white models nearly 4-1 that year.

Perhaps even more prophetic, a number of Japanese electronics manufacturers including Sony, Panasonic, Pioneer, Toshiba, Sharp and Hitachi were just establishing serious presence in the U.S. market and at CES, presaging the eventual dominance of Asia in the consumer tech world.

1999 A.D.

But perhaps the most forward-looking presentation at the first CES wasn't a product.

At its CES booth, Philco-Ford displayed a "House of Tomorrow Exhibit" and a half hour video called "1999 A.D." Starring DJ and game-show host Wink Martindale, the fascinating short film presents an impossibly idyllic, utopian life on the edge of the 21st century.

A combination life-action version of "The Jetsons" and Woody Allen's 1973 comedy Sleeper (minus Big Brother, robots, the Orb and the Orgasmatron), 1999 A.D. is actually rather prescient about the central role the home computer would play, a decade before anyone could actually buy a personal computer, even if the interfaces are all toggles and unlabeled buttons.

In an ad in the show daily, Philco-Ford noted that:

If you plan to sell much color TV in 1999, you'd better brush up on your holography.

3-D color TV that lets you see round corners – holographic TV – will be quite common in middle-income homes by 1999. So will color TV telephones, electronic education systems and electronic organs that let you play a full orchestra.

The home entertainment business is going to look very different just 32 years from now, and so is the appliance business. Big-selling items will be meal programmers, sonic-wave cleaners and micro-wave cookers.

Other than the holography bit, that's remarkably spot on, technology-wise.

The Turbulent 60s

While the future of home tech was clearly on display at that first and every subsequent CES, industry executives were conversely myopic about the turbulent present, and especially the growing economic power of the baby boom generation, the first of whom were just reaching copiously consuming adulthood in 1967.

Three weeks before CES, The Beatles' released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the band's ground-breaking album that would remain ensconced atop the Billboard album charts for the rest of the summer (and reached #3 on the charts this week for its 50th anniversary re-release). A week before CES, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and Janis Joplin leapt into the counter-culture consciousness at the Monterey Pop Festival, while up the coast in San Francisco, the soundtrack to the "Summer of Love" and the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene was supplied by new bands such as the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane.

None of this new music was heard at CES. Largely middle-class, middle-aged hi-fi executives considered rock n' roll children's music, and continued to play classical and jazz to showcase their wares' aural abilities.

Clues about where the consumer electronics product business was heading, however, were obvious. Sales of monochrome TV, console and radio and phonographs were all down by double-digits in June 1967, while sales of color TV, portable radios and record players and tape decks – all products favored by the young – were way up.

But at a Youth Market session at CES, Armin E. Allen, VP and GM Consumer Electronics Division of the otherwise forward-thinking Philco-Ford noted sarcastically that while youth may "defeat poverty, wipe out ignorance and overcome injustice":

"Any manufacturer or retailer who becomes enchanted by the tremendous number of people in the 15 to 24 age bracket and gives this segment of the population his undivided attention is making a mistake."

Oops.

50 Years of 'Whoa!'

Fortunately, Allen's was a minority view, if not an exception. It was evident to nearly everyone else in the consumer electronics business in 1967 and beyond who the best customers for their cool products were, and none could reach these customers without CES.

Over the next 50 years, the technology world exploded from those four basic categories – TV, radio, phonograph and tape – in 1967, to an Big Bang star-filled universe of innovation.

Every major technology product of the last half century – the pocket calculator, large projection then flat screen TV and digital HDTV, video games, cordless phones, the personal computer, laptops and tablet PCs and other "home office" products, the Walkman, the VCR, the camcorder, the CD, the DVD and Blu-ray, the digital camera, GPS, the internet, personal music players, flash memory, satellite TV and radio, the cellphone and the smartphone, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, e-book readers, smart TV, smart home, smart watches, drones, wearables, 3D printing, VR – all traveled through CES, which provided the bridge that linked innovators to retailers and, eventually, to us.

Happy birthday, CES, and see you next January in Las Vegas at CES 2018.

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