STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news: More than 150,000 people have descended on Las Vegas - technology insiders, would-be insiders, reporters, maybe a few people who just wanted to see a casino that looks Venice. In addition to pulling a few slots, they're attending this year's Consumer Electronics Show.
The crowds are coming to Vegas, even though some of the biggest companies in the industry are skipping the event. Without Apple, Amazon, Microsoft or Google taking part, we asked NPR's Steve Henn if the show still matters.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The Consumer Electronic Show is supposed to give the world a glimpse of what's coming next in technology. But if you think about the most influential gadgets in recent years - Apple's iPhone, Amazon's Kindle, the iPad - none of them were introduced here at CES. But for many in the industry, like Sean Dardashti and Chuck Newell, this is still a must-see event.
SEAN DARDASHTI: This show is just like an amusement park, but you need to be present because...
CHUCK NEWELL: There's a lot going on. There's a lot of technology that is happening at this particular show.
JEFF JOSEPH: The show has evolved.
HENN: Jeff Joseph is the senior VP of communications with the Consumer Electronics Association, which runs this annual festival for gadget freaks. He says that what makes CES special is that it remains a place where even little companies can break through.
JOSEPH: One of my favorite stories here - I remember walking around, over a decade ago, and finding this little product in a small corner and wondering what the heck it was. Well, it was the first USB key fob. And I remember thinking, at the time, this is going to change the world; it's like the digital paper clip.
HENN: He also says as sensors and computers are built into more products, more big firms outside of the technology industry want to attend. Eight of the 10 biggest automakers are here. So is Lowe's, the home improvement store. So are health care companies. In fact, this year's show is the biggest ever. But here's the show's dirty little secret: Even though the C in CES stands for consumer, the show's really about businesses - technology businesses, talking to each other. They come here to check out each other's stuff, and look for new ideas and technologies to build into their own products. And all those big companies - like Apple and Microsoft - the ones that have pulled out of the show...
JOSEPH: The fact is, they are here at the show. They're not exhibiting, but they're here. You'll see them walking the floor.
HENN: Their executives are here, too; having meetings, looking for deals - even flying in entrepreneurs, to pick their brains. Last year, a tiny, little firm from Utah, called HzO, was one of the show's darlings. And HzO doesn't even make a product. It coats the insides of mobile phones and electronics with an incredibly thin film.
PAUL CLAYSON: That stops them from being damaged by water and all kinds of liquids.
HENN: Paul Clayson is the CEO. Last year here, thousands of reporters from all over the world saw him dunk an iPhone underwater, and then place a call.
CLAYSON: We have such a camera-friendly demo that we went viral. We've had over 10 million media views on the Internet, by the end of the show.
HENN: "Good Morning, America," "The New York Times," Fox News, "USA Today" all ran stories. Clayson says this was the only way his little company could have stepped out onto a global stage.
CLAYSON: One week after the show, I flew to Korea on business. Got up in the morning; got the English version of "The Korean Times" there, the newspaper; got it in my room and looked; and on the front page, there was HzO.
HENN: That exposure led to more business than HzO could really handle. Still, later this year, the first waterproof cellphone - using Clayson's technology - will hit the market.
CLAYSON: You know, it was really terrific for the company.
HENN: The Consumer Electronics Show can be a bit nuts. It features models, celebrities, writers, gawkers, entrepreneurs, and more than a few shysters. But if you want to see something new - say, someone turn a regular wall into a giant touchscreen - or if you want to meet a robot that will follow you around like a pet, this is still the place to come. Steve Henn, NPR News, Las Vegas.
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