Excitement and optimism swept through my mind as I once again found myself driving down a cold empty motorway in the direction of Gatwick Airport, ready to meet the rest of the Future Worlds team.
For the third year running we were taking a delegation of University of Southampton startups and spinouts to showcase their technologies on the global stage that is the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas. This year the enormous event was tipped to be bigger than ever, with talk of 200,000 delegates registered to attend, and an exhibition space which would sprawl far beyond its previous boundaries.
Touching down at McCarran International Airport after a pleasantly uneventful flight, we collected up our bags which were bulging with Future Worlds flyers and an impressive array of demos and sailed through customs to the arrivals hall. As in previous years, CES had a badge collection stand right there in the airport so we handed over our barcoded registration slips in exchange for our entry passes.
Sophie had gone to great lengths to format and preview the text that would be shown on these badges, information which had been entirely ignored to her frustration. As too had the photo headshots she had uploaded which was apparently a new security feature. In fact, the only pass that had a headshot on it was Sophie’s, but rather than her likeness staring back it was the bearded face of our familiar Spanish startup founder, Marcos Simón!
And so off we travelled to our apartments at Polo Towers in beautiful sunshine and with high expectations for the week ahead. Our Future Worlds stand would be promoting 34 startups and spinouts from the University of Southampton and offering live demos from three. The first was the latest immersive 3D audio soundbar from Soton Audio Labs, which many of you will remember from last year. The second was a new startup from the Future Worlds incubator called Aura Vision Labs that uses computer vision and deep learning to track and estimate the demographics of people captured on CCTV cameras. And the third was Handy Kanji, an app that helps users learn how to write the intricate Japanese Kanji forms.
After a welcome sleep, the core Future Worlds team found ourselves once more sorting out thousands of flyers, business cards and stand parts ready to take to the show floor. The acres of black fabric that would adorn the skeleton of our stand predictably needed ironing so Jon, Tyler and myselfsystematically ironed the fabric over three ironing boards inch by inch.
The hotel irons were more adept at imitating the Bellagio fountains than producing steam, as Tyler found out to his dismay, but after an hour and a half all the fabric was ready to go and we set out on the familiar walk to the show.
We walked into Eureka Park and before long we were at the University of Southampton Future Worlds stand creating the usual list of snags and missing items. This year, in an effort to increase profits, the organisers had made carpet an optional expense and we had chosen a plush black cushioned flooring, knowing the painful toil the show could take on our feet. However, the carpet had only been fitted to half of our double stand and on top of this the middle rail separating the stands had not been removed.
Fortunately, however, a familiar face swung by on her speedy electric truck to register the issues. I recognised Virginia from 2017 where she had been extremely helpful so we had a good catch up before she promised she would solve all the problems as soon as she could. Eventually the carpet fitters turned up and proposed they used a patchwork of offcuts to fill in the missing flooring. I’ve never seen Sophie so angry – in fact, most of the team stood well out of the way and proudly looked on as she laid down the law to the unfortunate contractors. They quickly scurried off to find a new full width roll. And quite right she was too – we had paid $600 to have the 16×10 foot area fully carpeted and so there was no way we would settle for a shoddy job!
Meanwhile, Jon had been chatting to some of the other stand owners. This year the UK government had arranged a pavilion of British startups just around the corner and we talked to the coordinater about how that had come about. If this becomes a regular feature then it could be a great next step for startups and spinouts graduating from the Future Worlds incubator. And I have to say that I am surprised, albeit proud, that we are for the third year running the only UK university to exhibit at CES, given its incredible media presence and opportunity for helping new technologies get to market.
We had found out to our frustration earlier in the year that the show organisers had dramatically changed the style and form of the booths for 2018. This was frustrating as we had a great setup for the old style and were not entirely sure how to apply this to the new stands, which had a wooden slotted backboard and partial roof. The answer, I decided, was curtain poles. So Jon and I headed off in an Uber to the shops armed with my University credit card and a small shopping list.
First stop was Best Buy where we needed to procure two huge TVs for the stand demos. They offer a great CES service where you can buy a TV then return it for a 15% restocking charge which saves thousands on the extortionate official screen hiring fees at the show. It didn’t take long to find a couple of Sony 4k 55” flatscreens at $700 each and the University finance department had successfully lifted various limits on my card allowing the purchases to sail through.
And then we found ourselves in the home furnishing section of Target, trying to establish the pros and cons of various curtain pole options for hanging the Future Worlds backdrops. Armed with three likely options we raced back to the Best Buy car park to jump back in an Uber and head to Eureka Park where Dan and Travis met us to help carry the big screens to our stand. The curtain poles worked perfectly when combined with ziptie loops over the stand frame and before long we had completed the backdrop.
Marcos and Filippo worked hard to get their soundbar demo up and running and by late afternoon the familiar tones of a 3D audio dinosaur were booming around the convention space. Daniel had set up a camera and was using his tracking algorithm to tag anyone who entered the stand, live on screen, and Travis had loaded up the demo iPads with his Handy Kanji app.
A quick tidy and just before we were thrown out at 7pm the stand was complete. We headed back tired and laden with empty boxes and suitcases to Marcos and Filippo’s apartment, which they had kindly offered as a storage area for the week. Whilst there, I enjoyed a demo of their other much larger soundbar prototype which was simply astounding.
So a very tiring, but equally satisfying, first day for us at CES 2018 with the Future Worlds team and startup founders working hard to ensure we make the University of Southampton proud by representing our incredible technologies and innovations to the world.
Check back again tomorrow to read more about the Future Worlds team’s week at the Consumer Electronics Show, or click here to discover the University’s tech prototypes being unveiled at this year’s event. Find the team at Stands 52315-52317 in the University Innovations section of Eureka Park from 9-12 January.