Hiawatha Bray

CES 2014 offers feast of consumer electronics

Hiawatha Bray was enamored with the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.
Dimonika bray
Hiawatha Bray was enamored with the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles.

LAS VEGAS — If only I’d been this popular in seventh grade.

Hang some press credentials around your neck and stroll through the International CES, the consumer electronics show held every year in Las Vegas, and suddenly you’ve got about 150,000 new friends.

Everybody’s dying to have a chat, to show you something, or to shove something into your hand — a USB drive full of press releases, a new video game controller, or perhaps the steering wheel of a brand-new BMW.


The German carmaker shipped about 80 of its new i3 all-electric cars to Vegas, and dozens of show attendees were lined up for a test drive. But when the BMW marketing people saw my press badge, they yanked me out of the line for special treatment — basically about 20 minutes of preflight sales pitches. But soon enough I was out on the road, alone and unchaperoned. There was nothing to stop me going all Thelma and Louise, except for the Las Vegas police, and the car’s limited battery life.

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For someone in my line of work, the International CES is the ultimate toyland, a once-a-year Christmas grab bag of all the crazy new things cooked up by the technology industry. Yeah, some of it’s silly and useless. But in many ways we’re the test dummies who determine whether you consumers will actually find this stuff useful and, in a few short months, be interested in buying some of it, too.

Michael Nelson/EPA
The Globe’s Hiawatha Bray test drove the BMW i3. He says the electric car will pose a challenge for Tesla.

Besides, electric cars aren’t weird anymore. And you know a BMW should be a sweet ride. I really had listened to the briefing, so I knew the i3 is good for only about 100 miles per charge. An upgraded model will include a BMW motorcycle engine to charge up the battery and deliver extended range. The interior is made of recycled pop bottles and unvarnished wood, but don’t let that fool you; it was rather elegant.

And such exciting things happen when you touch the “gas” pedal. Zero to 60 in under 7 seconds, I was told, but it felt a lot faster. I had Pink Floyd cranking on the stereo and was just about to fiddle with the sunroof when I reached the finish line. I could have happily kept going for hours, but it would have cost me $41,000. The excellent American electric car, the Tesla, is in for some serious competition.

There are plenty of gas-burners on display here, too, from BMW, Audi, Ford, the usual cast of characters, but also a wild new entrant from the land of “Duck Dynasty.” Elio Motors showed off a prototype of its three-wheeled, two-seat roadster powered by a three-cylinder engine. The company vows that this flimsy-looking ride will earn a federal five-star crash safety rating, and they plan to start manufacturing it later this year at an abandoned General Motors plant in Shreveport, La. I’d have welcomed a test drive, but it wasn’t to be.


Instead, I got my second-best test drive of the week without moving an inch. To show off the power of its fastest processor chips, Intel Corp. set up a bank of PCs running an outer-space combat game. But instead of staring at a TV screen, I went into battle with a set of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles. These remarkable eyepieces were strapped to my head like the face-hugger in an “Alien” movie. After slapping on some high-quality headphones and grabbing a game controller, I was in for a superbly immersive experience. With Oculus Rift you see only the game you’re playing, and your perspective shifts as you turn your head, just as in real life. There’s no word yet on how soon these remarkable devices will go on sale, or how much they’ll cost. But creator Oculus VR Inc. better build a very large factory.

I smudged my glasses while putting on the goggles, and had to wipe them with a napkin. I was almost glad that Brandon Myers, president of Ocala, Fla.-based OpticWash, wasn’t around to chuckle and say “I told you so.”

I’d made light of OpticWash a day earlier. Why would anybody use a vending machine to wash his eyeglasses? But Myers has set up about 20 of the machines in Florida shopping malls, and is also getting orders from US military bases. For a dollar, OpticWash seals your glasses inside a clear plastic chamber, where they’re sprayed with warm water, blown dry, and exposed to germ-killing ultraviolet light. No doubt about it; OpticWash works, and it just might find a market niche among people too lazy to wield a Kleenex.

The digital voice recorder is a favorite for journalists too lazy to wield a pen. But I never use mine without first asking permission from a source. The creators of a new gadget called Kapture don’t share my sensitivities about privacy. Kapture resembles a wristwatch, but it’s actually a digital recorder, one that never stops running. It only records the previous 60 seconds of nearby sounds, like your boss speaking or a friend telling a joke. Suppose you hear someone say something profound, funny, or shocking. Just tap Kapture and it transmits the previous 60 seconds of audio to your smartphone, where you can listen again, or publish it online for the world.

Just one little problem — recording someone without his or her permission is illegal in about a dozen states, including Massachusetts. Ah well, it’s a big country. And even in places where it’s forbidden, who’s going to know?


Besides, why fuss over Kapture, when our entire lives will soon be recorded by a host of everyday objects? Nearly every man-made thing will soon include a computer chip, some memory, and a radio. The aisles of CES are lined with countless examples — smart door locks, tennis rackets, toothbrushes, and more. All these devices will pay attention to what we say and do, keep a record of it, and share the information with — who, exactly?

‘In many ways we’re the test dummies who determine whether consumers will find stuff useful.’

It’s all well worth fretting over, but I find it nearly impossible to worry when people are being so nice to me.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at