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“The Power’s Out, Power’s Out”: An Oral History of the CES Blackout

For one hour and 15 minutes, the world’s greatest tech minds had to sit in a dark convention hall. This is their story.

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On Wednesday at 2:10 p.m., the official Consumer Electronics Show communications staff sent out a brief message to the trade show’s attendees:

Today at approximately 11:15 AM, the Central Hall and South Hall bridge meeting rooms at the Las Vegas Convention Center lost power. Power in the South Hall was restored within minutes, and power has now been fully restored to all areas. A preliminary assessment indicates that condensation from heavy rainfall caused a flashover on one of the facility’s transformers. We are grateful to NV Energy for their swift assistance, to our customers and their clients for their patience and to the staff for ensuring the safety and security of all attendees and exhibitors.

If you are a normal human being who has never heard of CES before, this statement likely means nothing to you. But for the hundreds of thousands of attendees who had flown into Las Vegas for the tech world’s annual week of gadget-prodding, this hour-and-15-minute blackout was a historic event. Where there was once light, there was dark. The vibrant, beep-boop-bopping thingamajigs slowed to a temporary stop. And as a gaping hole formed in the tech news cycle, trade show attendees rushed to fill it with #CESBlackout content. Below is a from-the-scene retelling of the incident.

The Blackout Begins

Will Oremus, tech writer at Slate: I was on this crazy VR bobsled ride at the Samsung booth in the main hall. It’s a sort of VR theater where everyone has a Galaxy VR headset and headphones, and all the seats swivel and jerk around to inflict maximum realism. I heard a dull roar and thought it was part of the game, because the bobsled simulation didn’t stop. But then I noticed the seat wasn’t tossing me around anymore and I peeked out from my headset to see that the exhibit hall had gone dark. I looked around, and literally every other person in the demo still had their headset on watching the simulation. So I guess it really was immersive! After a minute or two, Samsung staff finally got the word around and people took off their headsets. That was about enough CES for me, and luckily my flight out was in a few hours, so I didn’t stick around to see what other chaos might ensue.

Molly McHugh, articles editor at The Ringer: I was leaving the Sands and beginning my walk to the LVCC when I saw in our Slack that the power was out. I continued on because I (a) had an interview and (b) kind of wanted to see what a CES without power was like.

Chaim Gartenberg, reporter at The Verge: [I was] in our trailer across from central hall — Thomas Ricker, our deputy editor, posted in our CES room in Slack a tweet about the blackout and asked if anyone could confirm, so I volunteered to run across the way and check things out.

Daniel Bean, tech correspondent at Circa: We were in the north hall when it went out, so we actually had power. So I had no clue until we walked outside. We were on the way to the media room to do media stuff at CES. On our way over there, we heard people muttering, “Oh, the power’s out, power’s out.” So I had no clue until we walked outside.

Katie Notopoulos, tech writer at BuzzFeed News: I heard about it on Twitter. I’m not there, I just saw it on Twitter. Please include that.

Thorin Klosowski, staff writer at Wirecutter: I was actually offsite at the Cosmopolitan. The power went out [there too], and I got to spend some quality time in a broken elevator with a PR person. I *think* this was a separate outage though.

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The Blackout Continues

Angela Chen, staff writer at The Verge: I was in Sands looking at an indoor garden. It didn’t really affect me. I just saw it on Twitter and I was like, “Good thing I’m far away,” and I went back to looking at the indoor garden.

Justin Sherman, video producer at Circa: I spent the entire power outage going up and down the Google slide. So, for me it was great.

Gartenberg: I arrived at the outside of the main entrance to central hall by LG’s booth — security had already blocked off the door.

Bean: They weren’t letting people in at first at the media entrance.

McHugh: There were massive crowds trying to push their ways in. I figured making it to my interview wasn’t going to happen. But I wanted to dip into the north hall because, to be very honest, I’d just downed 32 ounces of water and 16 ounces of coffee and I really needed to pee. I went up to no fewer than five security guards at the exits. I was not allowed to enter.

Gartenberg: I wanted to try to get some pictures, so I went in through a side door. It was pretty chaotic and there were more people than security. When I got inside, I saw a lot of dark booths. The whole thing was pretty surreal since usually everything is completely lit up. Some booths did better than others. Samsung still had full lighting. And Huawei turned on all the flashlights on its demo phones to light up the booth. Couple [of] folks just ignored the whole thing entirely and kept on demoing products, filming interviews. But mostly, [I] just saw people sitting around on their phones waiting for power to come back on.

McHugh: How long would it be until I could go in? Up to an hour, maybe longer, they said. I resignedly headed to the cab line, which was a very long line. My cab driver told me he thinks technology is ruining us and pretty soon, people won’t be able to tell virtual reality from the real world.

Bean: Eventually they let us in when there was no power. Everything was on backups. We were sitting here. The last 45 minutes [we were] just on backup power, so there was no Wi-Fi power.

Gartenberg: As the blackout went on, more and more booths just completely closed down, refused to let people in. I live-streamed a tour from the floor on Instagram.

The Blackout Ends

Bean: There was a moment of relief where I thought: Maybe it was all over and I could go home early. That would’ve been great. Not that I hold any ill will toward my employer for sending me to Las Vegas to cover CES. I like being employed.

Gartenberg: At 12:30, they announced that lights would be coming back in a half hour which was pretty accurate. At, like, 1 p.m. the big fluorescents started flickering up again, and all the TVs and signs started lighting up again. There was some mild applause. I could see it coming on in sections, so it wasn’t like this blinding flash of “all the lights suddenly bursting back on.” Then, at like 1:10, they opened the floodgates and let everyone back in.

Oremus: I’m back in California now, and damn, it feels good to be somewhere other than the LVCC.

McHugh: My interview has been rescheduled for tomorrow.