Technology Fans Swarm Las Vegas, CES; Steve Ballmer and Robbie Bach to Keynote

LAS VEGAS – Jan. 6, 2010 – Some 110,000 gadget-lovers are descending on this city for the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) – the world’s largest consumer electronics trade show.

Production Supervisor Terry Higgs tests the interactive lighting at the Microsoft CES booth. “We take weeks and essentially construct a building from scratch. Three days after the show ends, it’s nothing but bare concrete.”

The four-day show officially kicks off tonight, when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Robbie Bach, president of the company’s Entertainment & Devices Division, take the stage at the Las Vegas Hilton to deliver their keynote address. Last year, Ballmer assumed the role from Bill Gates, who had traditionally opened the show.

Last year’s show was beset with gloom as the U.S. economy seemed to be in free-fall. Attendees this year can take heart that the just-finished holiday shopping season saw surprisingly strong numbers.

Revenue from U.S. electronics sales between November 1 and December 24 rose 5.9 percent over the same period in 2008, estimates MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse, which tracks all forms of payment. CES-bound manufacturers hope consumers extend their holiday shopping season into the new year and buy some of the toys on display at the show, including TVs with 3-D displays, wafer-thin laptops, and a new generation of e-book readers.

But before the show begins, an incredible amount of work is underway to make sure the booths that will showcase all that technology are ready for attendees to arrive. As of Tuesday afternoon, thousands of workers were still swarming over the show’s estimated 2,500 exhibits. Like many others, Microsoft’s booth looked like it was far from ready for prime time.

“Twenty-four hours before a skyscraper opens, you still have guys painting the walls and pounding nails,” said Terry Higgs, production supervisor of Microsoft’s CES booth. “Then, 12 hours before the opening, the boxes go away, stuff disappears, and you’re in a brand-new building.”

At the last minute, the booth will be ready, predicted Higgs. “I feel confident,” he said. “We’re in really good shape.”

As Higgs spoke, all around him determined crews were drilling, hammering, and laying carpet. Forklifts whizzed by. Some 75 crew members were at work on the Microsoft booth, which will be a focal point for the media, partners, and interested consumers. With all that attention, nothing is left to chance, Higgs said.

Higgs has been in Vegas since Dec. 21, overseeing work on Microsoft’s 16,000 square feet of space from the moment when crews started laying cables and carpet.

Nearby, Paul John Liszweski, audiovisual and broadcast lead for the Microsoft team, put the finishing touches on what has been a five-month marathon to get the booth ready to showcase the company’s product groups including Microsoft Office, Windows and Surface. “I try to make their dreams come true in this little world,” he said.

Beth Honebrink, experiential technical manager, shows off a bass guitar from Beatles: Rock Band Limited Edition Premium Bundle that will be on display at Microsoft’s CES booth.

Once each group decided on a vision for its booth space, it fell to Liszweski to figure out how to wire it for sight and sound. A couple thousand feet of fiber optics cable later, the booth was nearly ready.

Along the way, Liszweski discovered he has another crucial duty once CES starts: DJ, spinning tunes in the media lounge.

What type of music will he play?

“Not techno lounge, not Sarah McLachlan,” he said. “It’s got to be chill – stuff I’d want playing while I had a cocktail with some friends. Maybe I’ll open with Snow Patrol.”

Colleague Beth Honebrink, an experiential technical manager, walked by carrying the bass guitar from “Beatles: Rock Band Limited Edition Premium Bundle.” If Liszweski was considering adding the Fab Four to his playlist, he doesn’t mention it.

Later, after the show ends, the crew will spend another few days stripping away the glitz and glamor. “It’s amazing to think about,” Higgs said. “We take weeks and essentially construct a building from scratch. Three days after the show ends, it’s nothing but bare concrete.”

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