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Marking 50 Years of CES, and the revolution still rolls on

How will the giant tech trade show CES celebrate its landmark 50th anniversary in Las Vegas this week?

For sure, with an entertaining exhibit of "disruptive" products past, plus historic insights shared by the likes of Consumer Technology Association president/CEO (and kickoff speaker) Gary Shapiro.

But most eyes will be fixed on the future, searching for the next big things in tech to excite the world, drive the economy, and maybe change things forever. Products turning today's science fiction fantasies into tomorrow's science fact. And that's a core reason that show-goers keep venturing back, year after year, even as the job of scouring CES (and scoring a hotel room) becomes ever harder.

When industry vet Robert Heiblim attended the very first 1967 show - as a 16-year-old part-time employee of the Sam Goody records/electronics chain – "they packed most of it into the ballroom of the New York Hilton. And products were limited to televisions – still more black-and-white than color then - plus record players, radios, and other hi-fi gear, offered in different combinations and cabinet finishes. There were 117 exhibitors, almost all domestic. Total attendance 17,000."

Today, the week-spanning, town-seizing, and globally minded CES is so huge and diverse that it is no longer officially referred to as a consumer electronic show, just as "CES." And the industry group that produces the event changed its name last year from the Consumer Electronics Association to the Consumer Technology Association "to emphasize the diversity and focus on innovation which collectively inspires us," Shapiro said recently.

For the golden anniversary gathering, more than 3,500 exhibitors (and 150,000 guests) will occupy 2.5 million square feet of Las Vegas convention center, hotel, and tent space for displays. "The most ever," said show runner (and CTA senior VP) Karen Chupka.

About 20,000 new products will debut. To make some sense of it all, Chupka has organized exhibitors into 24 different themed zones, covering virtually every aspect of our now fully teched-up lives from infancy to infirmity and this year adding a "smart bed" zone with products improving that third of our day we spend in slumber.

Just on its own, the 100,000-square-foot area devoted to cars (and parts/accessories) is larger than the entire first CES. And with almost all of the major auto manufacturers on hand (Nissan and Honda are new to the party this CES), lots more will be revealed about their smart(er) car strategies than buffs get at the Detroit, L.A., New York, and Philadelphia car shows. "We ask car exhibitors to share their concepts for the near future, not what they're already selling," Shapiro said.

The CEO and this writer first started going to CES in January 1981 – he as a young CEA lawyer, me as a fledgling technology columnist. (Maybe 200 consumer and trade press people were in attendance. Today the international media brigade exceeds 5,000.)

Lucky for us, 1981 was a transformative, "watershed year" for consumer tech, Heiblim recalls, sparked by the introduction of the compact audio disc. "That was the beginning of digital technology taking over everything, making possible stable, accurate, high-resolution communications and remote control of all sorts of products on any kind of network. The origins for today's internet of things revolution."

Heiblim was on the front lines as top U.S. executive for Denon, a pioneer in CD players and software. And he still serves as chairman of the Audio Division at the Consumer Technology Association. "Of course, years later, digital technology also brought about the CD's downfall, by enabling downloads, file sharing, and on-demand streaming music services," which Heiblim now predicts will "inevitably" grow through higher-resolution digital music formats, content, and gear being touted at this week's CES.

Shapiro also predicts a big show for robotics, voice control, health tech, and drones – those remote-controlled mini flying machines, "which are already saving lives, taking medicine into war-torn, disaster-struck, or otherwise isolated areas. ...  A lot of this is stuff I used to read about as science fiction fantasies. And in another 20 years, all the problems we have today will similarly be solved by technology."

Truthfully, change is the only constant in the consumer tech world. A recent front-page New York Times report (by Farhad Manjoo) worried that we've hit "the great gadgetapocalypse" because a couple of recent hits – GoPro action cams and Fitbit health trackers - have lost sales momentum. "But a company needs to constantly innovate, reinvest its profits, think beyond that first hit product," said Heiblim. "Because sooner or later, the breakthroughs get knocked off and improved on. And everybody who wanted one has bought one."

Heiblim is busiest these days running BlueSalve Professional Consulting and Interim Management, connecting bright inventors with "guys who can actually bring the product to market and get it on shelves – the funders, the factories, the sales reps." With just 10 retail and online monoliths now responsible for 80 percent of sales "where there used to be thousands of indie sellers, it's both easier and harder for a new product to break through." As for the deluge of new things raining down at this year's CES, "only a small percentage will actually get to market," he suggested. "Some are just mock-ups intended to scare away the competition."

Also underscoring the "in today, out tomorrow" theme is the collection of past CES product breakthroughs that show historian Stewart Wolpin has been tracking down for the 50th anniversary commemorative exhibit. Most are virtually forgotten today, from the Learjet eight-track tape player to the Magnavox Odyssey video game, the Pace CB-166 CB radio, the clunky Motorola DynaTAC 8000X cellular phone, Butler in a Box home automation system, Psion Organizer, NuvoMedia Rocket e book, and the Diamond Rio PMP300 digital music player. "The history of CE is rife with come-and-go product trends," Wolpin said. "That Times guy is a good writer, but hasn't been around that long. It's like he landed in the middle of the Sahara and decided the whole world is a desert."