Tech Trek: Las Vegas

I have about 15 hours in Vegas, not as a stopover on a long flight, but as a destination after a quick flight. The brevity, as well as the trip itself, can be blamed on CES. The Consumer Electronics Show is the largest technology expo in America, bringing more than 100,000 nerds, geeks, and suits to the Vegas strip every January. (This year, the convention boasted 150,000 attendees, a new record.)

The tech on display is immense, covering several football fields worth of, well, everything: video games, medical supplies, self-cooling servers, TVs, cameras... There is a whole large section dedicated to cars, and it isn’t packed with little toy cars, either.

My first CES was in nineteen-ninety something, back when the video game section was a tiny booth, and the show was just backroom tech and business-to-business products. But technology has expanded its role in our lives, and the expo has followed suit. The sheer size and number of attendees creates a stressful, mind-blowing experience, but it’s worth going at least once.

This year was different for me, though. First, the conference gods decided to separate CES from the Adult Entertainment Expo. How could they do this to me? I wrote the book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, for crying out loud! Second, the hotel situation was extra ridiculous (150,000 people is a lot, even for the Vegas Strip), so I didn’t have a place to stay. “I know!” I thought, “I’ll just land super early, run across those metaphorical football fields, and hop on a plane at sundown, when I will promptly sleep.”

And it all began with waking up at 4 a.m. on CES Tuesday.

Lost in Vegas

The free app TravelNerd gives detailed maps of more than 50 airports.

I cut it close for my morning flight to maximize sleep, but that’s not normal for me. In fact, if you travel like I do, you spend as much time in airports as other people do sleeping. I hate the risk of missing planes, so I arrive a couple of hours early and end up sitting in the terminal (I don’t even want to talk about the time before iPods and Kindles). Layovers always feel like purgatory, no matter how glamorous the airport. And, when a flight’s been delayed to an undefined time, you might as well consider Terminal F to be your new home. What I’m saying is that coming, going, or waiting, an airport almost always sucks.

This is where the free app TravelNerd comes in handy. It provides virtually everything you need to function within an airport. Need a map? You’ve got it. Want to know if there’s any Chinese food in your area? Use the restaurant list. Looking for a taxi? Follow the directions in TravelNerd. They also throw flight status in there, but you really should be using Tripit or, for no cost, your airline’s app with push notifications, or the automated flight status text messaging service available on its website.

After an uneventful flight into Vegas, I needed TravelNerd for one simple task: Find me coffee. LAS is pretty easy to navigate, particularly if you come to Vegas regularly, but you’re usually only looking for either your gate or your taxi. It’s rougher to know which of the five terminals has, say, a restaurant you’re craving, or a specific gift shop. It’s even more difficult when you’re operating on a few hours of sleep.

TravelNerd had me going in a matter of seconds. I opened up the app, and it immediately recognized my location, highlighting Las Vegas among its 50-plus airports. I tapped restaurants, then terminal, and found Coffee Bean and Tea Company.

There are almost too many travel apps out there—even for me—so I can’t say that I’ll keep TravelNerd permanently on my phone, but I will definitely have it on proverbial speed dial to download and use it as I need it.

Day full of tech 

TechHive brought its own high-tech trailer to CES.

The CES show floor opens at 10 a.m. and, before you know it, people make a mad dash to see the coolest stuff as quickly as possible. Opening day is always the craziest as journalists are eager to find and write about the best tech products as soon as possible, while manufacturers grab people left and right to show the latest tech breakthrough they’ve had under wraps since the previous year. It's crowded, noisy, and more than a little intense.  Imagine a several-mile-wide pinball machine with flashing lights, blaring machines, and constant white noise–and you're the pinball. 

This year’s show didn’t blow my socks off, but our TechHive team managed to find interesting stuff such as giant fighting robots, portable Super Nintendo machines, and automated back massagers.

Outside of CES, though, Vegas is still Vegas. I've come here countless times for work, or for bachelor parties and other shenanigans. The strip and its surrounding area hasn’t changed much over the years: Las Vegas Boulevard still has its drunken partiers, Fremont Street maintains its layer of desperation, and the rest of Vegas is, well, still a suburban desert.

However, one exciting development is Zappos’ Tony Hsieh’s new tech-focused development area. After growing the e-commerce shoe store into a billion dollar business, Hsieh decided to invest millions into an office park with restaurants, apartments, and offices all geared towards startups. I actually finished his inspiring (if fluffy) book Developing Happiness right before my trip, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to visit his place off the strip.

The Hard Rock Hotel has great surround-sound systems built into its rooms—just pop in a portable music player.

I also knew I wouldn’t get time to sleep in Vegas tonight, but if I did, I’d go to the tech-friendly Hard Rock Hotel. Try to ignore the mostly-cheesy rock memorabilia and forced “coolness” throughout the property. Instead, focus on the great wireless service available throughout, as well as the incredible built-in music system in its affordable HRH Suites (they run around $100 off-season). The setup is simple: Look for the small music system in the wall, plug in your  portable music device, and press play.  Surround-sound speakers are piped throughout the room, including the bathroom. There's nothing like taking a three-jet shower with Ghostface Killah echoing around the wet marble tiles.

For this trip, though, there would be no warm jets or plush towels. It was already 6 p.m., the show floor was closing, and it would be several hours before I hit any kind of sack. My march for the coolest new tech was done. It was time to head back to the airport.

And, finally, silence

Able Planet Linx Audio headphones have solid sound, and its noise-cancelling capabilities are strong enough to block screaming babies.

I welcomed being stationary for more than a few minutes on my flight home, but I became a little less excited when I sat across from a constantly-coughing guy and an unhappy, crying baby. Excellent.

But it ended up being the perfect time to try Able Planet’s new Linx Audio Travelers’ Choice NC190BMM noise-cancelling headphones. Snug on top of your ears, they flip into a grenade-like shape for easy portability.

The noise cancelling was pretty darn good, running off a single AA battery set in the right earpiece. When it comes to music, though, I preferred having the noise cancelation off and using its lush stereo sound—the music with the noise cancelling on sounded okay, but definitely not as rich.

I kept the noise blocking on for this trip, however, and, as I closed my eyes, my concluding Tuesday felt more like a quick dream than an actual day in Vegas. I didn’t have one drink, didn’t catch a show, and I spent about $5 on a slot machine right before leaving. As my plane took off, I knew my CES companions were just getting the night started.

I thought about the cab ride earlier that night. It was still Tuesday, the sun had finally gone down, and the airport was virtually deserted. It was so quiet that I asked the taxi driver if something was wrong. “No, this is normal,” he replied. “No one leaves Vegas at night.”

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