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Forbidden CES: Hidden Humans of the Back Booths

"No one knows what's happening behind these gray walls."

Nellie Bowles

After sneaking backstage before the official opening of International CES yesterday, I was trying to escape the Las Vegas convention center when I ran into a robot salesperson.

A robot that acts as a salesperson to sell robots. It mostly didn’t work. It kept asking, in a sing-songy little-girl voice, if I wanted to watch a video. I kept saying yes, but no video came.

 The back booths at CES
The back booths at CES
Nellie Bowles

Maybe this is where I would die. With this robot. Before CES even officially started. I sat on rolled-up carpet in the convention-center hallway and stared for a few minutes, already incapacitated by the size and hype and all the guidebooks.

It was Monday, and I had arrived early at CES, Santa’s insane workshop, hoping to explore the scene before anything was open to the public. Security guards initially turned me away from the convention center, so I found my way in through a shipping dock.

My goal: I wanted to go behind the Xbox and Oculus pagodas to find the back booths, those weird kiosks selling oddities and aux cables. I wore my new CES press backpack, a black nylon thing decorated with a hard-drive company logo.

When I emerged from the loading dock, I asked someone where I could find the weird back-booth people.

Ben Becker, who was standing next to a gray cubicle and near a jar of Red Vines, looked at me and said he was “one of those people,” and if I didn’t want the weird things, I could just go over to the Samsung booth in front, because I was in the back of South Hall, hidden behind and between the gray walls.

The gray walls.

 The gray walls
The gray walls
Nellie Bowles

“Physically, you may be on the fringe here. You couldn’t get further out — that’s the wall, those are the loading docks,” Becker said, pointing behind him to where I’d come from. “But you’re actually in the epicenter of the industry and power. This is where the business happens.”

Becker works for Levin Consulting, a global firm that helps small inventors find larger retailers. Also near the Red Vines was Michael Nitti, founder of Spyder Digital Research, based in Toronto, and one such small-scale inventor.

“Great breakthroughs happen in garages with everyday people, and that’s who’s represented back here,” said Nitti, who funded his invention (the Power Shadow, an extremely thin iPhone charging case) by mortgaging his house.

A former professional musician, he had started out by casually making digital-storage units for rock bands like Rush and the Rolling Stones, which led to full-time product design.

“It’s a hairy ride. You’re in music, and you’re worried it’s unsteady and unstable, and then you get into tech and it’s … it’s tech,” Nitti said. “Not always stable, either.”

I scoped out some of the items on offer from Levin Consulting: The Wellograph ($349), a sapphire-crystal wellness watch — “The only thing that can scratch the surface would be a diamond,” one of the Levin guys told me. Cord de-tanglers ($9.99). A Weather Flow wind meter ($34.95) that plugs into your iPhone and shows you the wind’s speed and direction. A product called Freedom 4 Kids ($249) — a non-removable wrist band that sets off an alarm, texts, and a GPS signal if a kid moves a certain distance away from a home base.

Nellie Bowles

“No one knows what’s happening behind these gray walls,” Becker said. “It’s not as flashy as a Samsung display where they’re showing off. We’re just here doing business.”

“But people sometimes come back here. One year I was staring at the gray walls for three days, and then saw Snooki. She just walked past,” he said.

He said I should check out some of the direct-from-the-factory booths nearby. Once he saw a booth demonstrating 1950s-era vibrating exercise lap bands.

“Someone still makes those, and they’re at CES,” he said.

A few yards away, I found the direct-from-China factory booths: Huge expanses of tables filled with little white label wires, phone cases and protective covering, selfie sticks, sunglasses with GoPro mounts, and mini speakers. As I was spinning between yet another shop almost exclusively selling off-brand iPhone charging cables, deep in the bowels of the back booths, I spotted something odd: The New York Times’s CES display, smack in the middle.

Wait, you guys are here?

“Yep,” said a woman who sat on a swivel chair and kept texting.

Nearby, Kevin McCann of Edison Professional (“the guys with the all-in-one DJ box at Costco,” he said) was building a large white truss upon which to drape promotional materials. He explained how sales work for the back-booth folks. Some clients come through the floor, but most meet him up at Edison’s suite in the Wynn hotel.

 Drone selfies
Drone selfies
Nellie Bowles

McCann, who lives in LA but grew up on an Ohio farm “between a bean field and a corn field,” was also setting up a truss at the suite, where they entertain clients like “Walmart Mexico and Costco, Costco Canada, Costco Japan. Basically Costco anywhere.”

“Customers love it. They’ve maybe never been to a suite at the Wynn, and then they’ve definitely never seen a booth inside the suite,” he said.

Last year, he stayed up until 4:30 one morning, and slept in the suite’s massage room.

After about two hours in the back booths, I found my way toward the door and the big-name pavilions — Xbox and Oculus. I paused for a moment and sat again, this time right on the concrete floor. Twitter informed me that some reporters were at a brand conference with Shaq and Shingy, and I felt a pang of regret — why am I not with Shaq and Shingy? What do you think they’re talking about?

I had only eaten Red Vines, was a little dizzy, and CES hadn’t even started.

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