CES And The New Austerity

Daniel Sieberg, CBS News science and technology correspondent
CBS science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg is attending his seventh CES show in Las Vegas. He reflects on how to cover an over-the-top gadget bonanza in a day when many are struggling to buy a toaster.

It's time again for tech Mecca but the annual pilgrimage to the desert to witness all things digital is positioned within an economy wallowing in woe. However, that doesn't mean the spirit of celebrating innovation will be unplugged. After all, for more than 40 years the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) has brought together companies, products, and the people who drool over them. But without a doubt it'll have a decidedly different tone this year. Or at least it ought to. While this past shopping season we saw a steady increase in sales of such items as video games, other electronics toys (according to CNET, part of our parent company CBS) haven't fared as well and may have dropped by as much as 26 percent from 2007. That means while people might have consumer electronics on their wish list right now they aren't putting up the cash.

So how does one report on a trade show full of surreal spectacle and glamorous gadgetry in the midst of a sober and stagnant financial picture? Answer: With respect, awareness, and sincerity. There are an increasing number of people in the country who are barely able to consider the purchase of a new toaster let alone a 10-megapixel camera. It's about making every dollar count not enjoying countless dollars. But that doesn't mean our fascination with design and discovery is dead. After all, it's at the heart of our invention engine.

I've been attending CES since 2003 so this will be my seventh event. Sure, there'll be slightly less floor space (down from 1.8 million square feet to 1.7 million) and fewer attendees (down to about 130,000 from closer to 142,000). A sign of the times, everyone says. We nod. There are also reportedly still hotel rooms available during the show, which is relatively unheard of. Another nod. And CES is an expensive party, I mean, showcase for most smaller firms (and some bigger ones) and finding that return on investment can be elusive. That means some deals will take place in quiet meeting rooms rather than at the nearly impenetrable Las Vegas Convention Center. An intimate setting will be the preferred choice for certain business people. But they will still come.

As journalists covering the tech beat, it's another story. We're asked to be in the thick of things. Pick out the trends and the must-haves. My inbox is overflowing with e-mails from various and sundry companies pitching their wares from 3-D webcams to wireless HDMI cables. It's an often overwhelming position to be in. But at CES 2009 just like in years past, it will be our/my job to keep everything in perspective while finding those nuggets of technological inspiration. It's a job I relish but it's not a shopping spree. You see, I, along with countless other consumers, must purchase high-tech devices. No freebies. As a result my living room hardly looks like the "Star Trek" bridge (the new one not the William Shatner one); I simply can't afford everything I'd like to have. But that doesn't mean I can't dream or be wowed by the latest model. One day, one day. And being at CES gives me an inside track that I humbly accept.

The questionable future of CES will always oscillate along with the waves of the economy. Our job is to ride along and not drown in the process. Perspective, perspective, perspective. That's not to say CES will always survive -- it may not. (You could argue if it can hold together this time then it may have weathered the worst. Although many companies may have committed to CES prior to the fiscal fallout.) Ultimately, as a scheduled gathering in an increasingly unscheduled world, it may become irrelevant. But for the moment, we're planning to bring you the most relevant and insightful stuff we can find. A cavalcade of coolness. This year CBS is also partnered with CNET, which is the gold standard when it comes to tech reviews and news. In turn that will give us even more access and connections within the industry.

So as you consume our coverage of CES 2009 on the CBS Early Show, CBSNews.com, CBS Radio, CNET and elsewhere Jan. 7-10 just be aware that we're aware -- of how lucky we are to play with these shiny toys and then return to reality. It's there waiting for us all. We hope you like what you see as we escape for just a bit. In the meantime, stay connected.