CES and the Art of the Demo

Last week amidst the deluge of Consumer Electronics Show coverage, Farhad Majoo of the New York Times wrote that we’re in a era of lots of exciting new ideas that aren’t quite ready for prime time: “Welcome to Prototype World...during which everything new will more or less stink.” 

Nonetheless: those embryonic ideas still need to be shown to the public, to gain mindshare and traction in the press and marketplace.  And that’s where the art of the demo comes in.  

In the Nineties, when I was creating “new media” for Newsweek and The Washington Post, we were most definitely in Prototype World.  We developers could see just how cool everything was going to be--someday.  But thanks to primitive technology like pokey CD-ROM drives and 1200 baud modems, even our best products could be slow, unreliable, and hard to use.  Usually, all three at the same time.

And so we learned how to demo them--at trade shows like CES, on live television, in front of advertisers or potential retailers.  We knew the weaknesses of our products intimately, so we designed demonstration routines that cleverly skirted the bumpy patches.  

If the digital video stuttered during fast-moving scenes, we’d show video snippets that were fairly stationary.  If the program crashed when you went from viewing slideshows to reading text, then that particular feature wasn’t part of the demo.  

One of my best tricks was with our CD-ROM newsmagazine.  It was quite cool and far ahead of its time--but it ran on a little Sony player that took about ten seconds to start up after you clicked on the Play button.  That was an unacceptably long time in the interactive world.  

I quickly learned that it was possible to click Play, wait exactly nine seconds, and then hit the Pause button.  When it was show-time, I’d release Pause and a second later the program--theme music, splash screen, animation--was running.  But if I waited too long, the pause timed out and you sat through the ten second warmup again.

The technology was sufficiently new and sexy that we ended up on quite a few television shows.  It was invariably unnerving, sitting backstage before the segment, trying to time the Pause trick so that it would be ready to go when once we were on air.  Just in case the trick failed and I had the ten second delay, I also had some engaging patter that I could launch into, to distract the audience’s attention, just like a magician during tricks.    

In our minds, the demo wasn’t really dishonest--we were just emphasizing the best parts of the product. And sooner or later, when the technology caught up, it really would run like that.  But other demo artists weren’t so scrupulous.  

I once demonstrated an online version of Newsweek to an audience of potential advertisers, using a dial-up telephone line, just like our real customers used.  It worked, but it wasn’t exactly fast--waiting for a full color picture to appear on the screen was a bit like watching paint dry.  But I still thought it looked pretty good.

Then a competitor from another newsmagazine, one with a four letter title, got up to demonstrate the online version of his magazine.  And it was fabulously fast!  Pictures and text flew across the computer screen almost instantly!  

I immediately knew that he wasn’t using the telephone line at all; he’d downloaded his entire site onto a hard drive.  And thus that wasn’t a demo--that was cheating.  But unfortunately, in those early days, most advertising folk didn’t really understand the difference between online and hard drives in the first place.  So I lost that day.

The high point of my demo career came at a software conference, when one of our programmers introduced me to a group of friends: “Meet Michael. This guy could demo a dead dog!”

There were even demo jokes back then.  My favorite was one in which a hacker dies and meets St. Peter at the pearly gates.  St. Peter says “Today we have a special offer: you get to choose whether you want heaven or hell.”  

The hacker asks if he can take a look before he decides.   

Sure, says St. Peter, and snaps his fingers.  In a moment the hacker is in heaven.  It’s full of angels, playing harps, floating around peacefully on fluffy white clouds.   

Another finger snap and the hacker is in hell: it’s a vast room of high powered computers, with huge flat screens, and dozens of young programmers pounding away at keyboards, with unlimited Diet Cokes and pizza and Doritos.

The hacker tells St. Peter that it may sound strange, but he thinks he’d rather go to hell.  Yet another finger snap and now the hacker is standing in a pool of hot lava, with a little red demon poking him with a pitchfork.  

Wait a minute, the bewildered hacker says, what happened to all the computers?

The little demon looks puzzled, and then says: “Oh--you must have seen our demo!”

So this year’s CES--whether it was self-driving cars, smart appliances, VR headgear, or humanoid robots--involved an unusually high proportion of carefully orchestrated demos.   

And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as one knows the difference between demo and real life.