I almost walked right by it. But then I realized the object the young man was holding up, apparently thrilling the small crowd gathered around his tiny CES 2020 booth, was a potato.
The vegetable in question looked like an ordinary, chunky Idaho spud, although protruding out of one side was some kind of antenna, a black plastic appendage bent upward. Close to the potato’s surface, the exterior of the antenna became a thin, blade-like electrode that pierced the skin, clearly doing… something.
The man was regaling the crowd with his incredible smart product, which he said was finally unlocking the awesome decision-making power of the potato. The antenna, which he called the NeuraSpud, tapped into the potato’s “artificial intelligence.” Once you connected your smartphone over Bluetooth to the device and launched the accompanying app, you could ask the potato anything — with your voice, no less — and it would spout an answer on the screen, the digital-vegetable equivalent of a Magic Eight Ball.
If the smart potato sounds like a big, stupid stunt, that’s because it is. The man behind the idea, Nicholas Baldeck from France, told me he brought his admittedly ridiculous “invention” to CES to make a point about the torrent of smart gadgets at the show, many of which don’t really solve problems at all.
“This product has way more chance of success than 60% of the startups here,” Baldeck says. “I am skeptical of this idea of ‘connected everything.’ Now it looks like innovation is about putting a chip into any object. I’m not sure the word ‘smart’ makes more sense before the word toothbrush than the word potato.”
Baldeck went to a lot of trouble to make his point. His booth cost $1,000, and he spent about $4,000 in travel, equipment and marketing. Plus the electrode-driven antenna he brought really works, he says — though “works” in this context is somewhat fungible, since what the electrode is “reading” from the juices inside the potato to create the answers is probably just random junk. He also had to buy a bunch of potatoes.
Still, the fundamental silliness of Baldeck’s product brings up the uncomfortable question of how he got into CES in the first place, since fake products and pure stunts don’t align with the goals of the show. It probably helped that Baldeck has a real company, BDZ Labs, which does weather forecasting for paragliders. His booth is the smallest one available, and it’s in Eureka Park, which, despite the name, is physically and spiritually on a lower tier than the large, big-name displays from bigger brands, occupying the basement of the Sands Expo. Many CES attendees never make it there.
Representatives for the Consumer Technology Association declined to comment for this article, and Baldeck says they didn’t talk to him either. The CTA does have criteria for Eureka Park exhibitors, saying the tech on display “must be applicable to the consumer technology space” and that it must be “innovative with the potential to make a profound impact on the market.” However, the CTA gets thousands of applications to exhibit at CES, which makes giving individual attention difficult. Clearly.
Nonetheless, Baldeck’s point has resonance. Smart homes and smart devices are certainly not a fad, but it’s also become clear that simply taking any “analog” product and giving it a chip isn’t revolutionary or even useful. For every smart breast pump on the market, there are hundreds of one-off smart gadgets that didn’t take off because the complexity of having another app on your phone and another thing to recharge wasn’t worth the incremental benefit.
So what’s next for “Potato?” Baldeck’s stunt wasn’t well planned, but he quickly realized he needed to give his idea a life outside of CES and threw together an Indiegogo campaign for his Potato that’s already garnered $1,429. What if he actually gets funded?
“If we get $100,000, we will go to Potato blockchain.”