Electronics Show Highlights Startups Over Industry Giants

More than 156,000 people descended on Las Vegas this past week to gawk at acres and acres of the latest shiny gadgets. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR's Steve Henn, who has been road-testing new gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Consumer Electronics Show took place this past week, in Las Vegas. More than 156,000 salespeople, electronics buyers, electronics enthusiasts, and a number of reporters descended on the city to gawk at acres and acres - at the latest shiny gadgets. NPR's Steve Henn was there to gawk, too. Thanks for joining us, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Oh, my pleasure.

SIMON: Now, I understand - for the first time in a decade, Microsoft didn't have a booth. Now, Apple - famously - doesn't attend this show; neither do Amazon or Google. Can you really have a consumer electronics show without those companies, after all, who pioneered so many products?

HENN: Yeah, I think you can. Obviously, there was a lot of talk before the show, about the fact that they wouldn't be there. But I think for most people, when we got there, they weren't really missed, you know. And actually, hundreds of executives from those firms were in Las Vegas; checking out the technologies that other little companies were building, and thinking about how they could incorporate them into their next gadget. Here's Jason Mendleson. He's a venture capitalist, based in Boulder, who I ran into on the show floor.

JASON MENDLESON: I've absolutely been amazed at - couple things. One, startups are here, finally. Five years ago, there were none. Now, there are companies here that are the next big companies, that folks like me - venture capitalists - can come see, meet.

HENN: So the most interesting stuff at CES - at least, for me - is almost never a new product that's being released by some big giant. You know, sometimes when a big firm gives you a peek inside what they're working on, in a lab, that can be fascinating. But I've always really loved finding the quirky, little firms that are doing new, interesting stuff. And I think the folks who organize CES have finally realized that those innovative, little firms are actually one of the big reasons people come.

SIMON: You have a favorite?

HENN: One that I saw - right before I left - was pretty great. It was called Lapka. And lapka is, apparently, the Russian word for rabbit food. And traditionally, I guess, you'd carry a little bit of this around in your pocket, for protection. Their product is a set of beautifully crafted environmental sensors. They're actually made from wood and an ivory-colored plastic. And they kind of reminded me of a high-tech set of worry beads. But the string on the beads is a plug you can connect to your iPhone. So one of the sensors is a tiny probe you can poke into food - like an apple - and it will measure the nitrates, and tell you whether or not that apple is organic.

(LAUGHTER)

HENN: Another sensor measures electromagnetic fields. There's one for radiation; one for temperature and humidity. So if you have a baby, there's a setting to tell you the ideal temperature for your child to take a nap.

SIMON: Steve, I guarantee you, that's not what parents do.

HENN: I'm thinking that their market is for the overprotected first parent. Your second child, not so much.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Steve Henn, NPR's tech correspondent. Thanks so much.

HENN: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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