This week, Las Vegas hosts the Consumer Electronics Show, an annual mega-convention where technology companies large and small present their best ideas and products for the upcoming year.
Hundreds of thousands of people will attend, thousands of companies will present, and at the end, tech pundits and analysts will choose the show’s winners.
Some will say that this year’s winner is the high-resolution 4K television. Some will say it’s the Internet-connected automobile. Some will anoint crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
All those people will be wrong. The winner of CES will be France.
What, you might ask, have the French accomplished that has made them the enfants magnifiques of CES? Let’s start with a French product that is, for better or for worse, the talk of this year’s convention. It is, as Mashable’s Samantha Murphy Kelly reports, a “smart belt” that “automatically adjusts itself throughout the day, depending on how much you’ve eaten and how much exercise you’ve done to compensate.” It can also nudge you when it senses you’ve been inactive for too long and make fitness suggestions through a companion app.
The product is called Belty, which strikes me as the perfect name for an electronic belt. An American company would have gone with something pretentious — Cynch, or NTCH, or Waist.ly. “Belty” is simpler, funnier, and more memorable. It is the mot juste.
Better than its name, though, is the idea, which has clearly struck a nerve among the (mostly) slothly tech press. CNET called it a “showstealer,” and the e-belt has won both praise and scorn.
I’m on the praise side. If it works, Belty could eliminate the need for an ugly wrist-worn fitness tracker and serve as your belt no matter how fat or skinny you get through the years. It provides health data from an article of clothing you’d wear anyway, and it provides comfort after a hearty meal in a stealthy, socially acceptable manner. It also, you know, holds up your pants. What’s not to like?
You might not think of France as an international technological powerhouse. Compared with the United States, China, Korea, and Japan, it is not.
But in recent years at CES, French startups have dependably introduced products that have been the talk of the show. These gadgets are united by a certain … well, I don’t know how to say it. What I do know is that French entrepreneurs (“entrepreneur” is a French word, you know) have reimagined the home computer, home gardening, and weight loss. Their products reliably blend ingenuity, cleverness, design smarts, and a vision of the future.
In short, as my colleague Alyssa Bereznak observed on Twitter, “Guys, the French are killing it at CES.” (Proper punctuation and capitalization appended.)
Belty is reminiscent of another product of France, which was the talk of CES in 2013: The HAPIfork, the so-called “smart fork” that measures how quickly you are eating and buzzes if you’re gobbling down your food too quickly. Like Belty, the HAPIfork took an everyday product and integrated electronics and health measurements in a fun and innovative way.
Some questioned the need for a fork that tells you to slow down when you’re eating. Having seen myself at a buffet, I do not.
The combination of whimsy, stellar design, and forward-looking utility that is becoming the hallmark of French tech companies is not limited to the health category.
Consider the Keecker, from last year’s CES, an egg-shaped computer/projector on wheels that, at its best, can replace your entire entertainment system. Or look at the myriad inventive gadgets from Parrot: Best known as a maker of high-quality hobbyist drones, this year the French company also unveiled a clever Bluetooth-enabled flowerpot that can tell you when it’s time to water your plants.
I’m also intrigued by the Kubb computer: Debuting this year, it’s a gorgeous, environmentally friendly cube that promises to replace your desktop. Starting at $100, it has ports where you can plug in your monitor, your keyboard, and your speakers, and it looks great on your desk.
None of this, I admit, is world-changing, $800 billion-startup-valuation material. But these products are igniting the kind of conversation and debate that multinational corporations with multimillion-dollar ad budgets would die for.
Part of the reason these products are so buzzy relies on another French specialty: absurdity.
A Bluetooth flowerpot? A self-relaxing belt? An egg computer? What are they putting in the snails over there?
But, then, there are a lot of absurd ideas for gadgets out there, and none of them have resonated so widely, nor received such a passionate response at the world’s largest electronics show, as the ones that have arrived from Charles de Gaulle Airport in the past few years. And as my colleague Rafe Needleman points out, with costs and sizes of Wi-Fi chips and processors steadily decreasing, the future is going to look a lot more like the Internet-connected fork and belt — not less.
So forget the endless rows of high-definition televisions, Android tablets, and shiny automobiles that can access Facebook. If you want a glimpse at the future, pay attention to the absurd yet magical gizmos coming out of France. Here in Las Vegas, at least, its technology minds are simply belting the competition.