Less well known is Cannon’s involvement as a tech investor and entrepreneur. And that has landed him a high-profile gig next month as the “Entertainment Ambassador” for the Consumer Electronics Show, the mammoth technology convention that absolutely consumes Las Vegas a week or so into each new year. By this time in a month, the 2015 version will be wrapping up after four days of craziness, with tens of thousands of attendees looking at seemingly just as many gadgets, gizmos and devices from every corner of the planet.
Karen Chupka, the Consumer Electronics Association vice president who runs CES, says the show is increasingly about entertainment, because of the partnerships and deals that happen between content providers and the emerging distribution platforms that frequently debut at the show. Those partnerships manifest in all kinds of ways, from a Netflix button on a Roku remote control to the ways that Hollywood writes about tech in its movies and TV shows. For Cannon, swimming in all the cutting-edge offerings has become one of the highlights of his year.
“Being such a fan of all the new gadgets and the ideas and new innovative products, CES has been one of my favorite events of the year,” he said. “It’s a place to see new and cool stuff and talk about this and talk about that. It’s the first place I got to try Google Glass. I remember going to the Samsung booth and seeing the high-tech refrigerators that you can email from.”
Chupka said among the notable technologies this year are both the Oculus Rift (now owned by Facebook) and Sony’s Virtual X (aka, Project Morpheus), both virtual-reality headsets that essentially drop a user into the middle of a completely immersive 3D space. The technologies can be overwhelming for new initiates trying to orient themselves in an eye-tricking new space. And Hollywood is still puzzling over how best to tell a narrative story within a world where the audience can go anywhere. But it’s an example of technology that will attract new kinds of stories and storytellers, and make new kinds of audience experiences possible.
Cannon said he’s been going to CES for about seven years. The past five years, he’s had business reasons to be there, beginning with “NCredible” brand (a play on his initials) headphones that he created with electronics giant Monster, and which sold through big retailers such as Wal-mart. The branded headphones effectively took a page from Beats Electronics, which Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine founded and sold to Apple for $3 billion this summer.
More recently, Cannon created an Android-based, $149 tablet – also branded NCredible – that’s sold exclusively on QVC. Importantly, the device came with a similarly named app that marks Cannon’s effort to find and spotlight up-and-coming talent. It’s somewhat similar to apps from companies such as WhoSay (which aggregates about 1,800 celebrities and shares ad revenues from traffic there) or Victorious, which creates branded apps for individual celebrities to bring together their online presences on various social-media platforms, again for a share of ad revenues.
Each, in different ways, is aggregating online audiences who are following notable talent. But in this case, Cannon said, he’s trying to do something that’s closer to his experience with America’s Got Talent: uncover new creatives and give them an online venue to reach bigger audiences.
“The (Sean Combs) and the Oprahs want their own TV networks,” Cannon said. “I’d rather create a network that this generation is paying attention to. It’s a platform where people give me demo tapes, entrepreneurial proposals. I want to create my own Huffington Post for young Millennials who want to be in the entertainment space. It’s a way to really connect with the entertainment industry.”
The tablet also shares content from pals’ ventures, like All Def Digital, the YouTube network founded last year by hip hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, Cannon said. Though he wasn’t ready to provide further details, expect the app and its underlying community to extend their reach beyond the NCredible tablet soon, after several months of “soft launch” experimentation there.
So why go to CES? Cannon said Hollywood is more dependent than ever on technology, but really, while it creates entertainment, the industry has always been about technologies to deliver that entertainment to audiences, in new and profitable ways.
“You can’t have entertainment without technology,” he said. “Even the way we’re consuming technology is changing. If you look at the Millennial generation, we used to gather around a TV. Now the TV is just one of the screens and maybe not the main screen that this generation gets their content from. You can’t ignore it. Even though entertainment wants to be the big dinosaur in the room, it has to conform.”
CES has been trying to build bridges with the entertainment industry for several years now, hiring UTA to make introductions in Hollywood and provide a bit of street credibility in the entertainment capital. This year, CES is adding a number of new events and other programming to appeal to creative types who aren’t quite as focused on new hardware gizmos, Chupka said.
One big change will be the C Space executive conference, to be based at the Aria Hotel. C Space will focus on digital marketing and content creation, and include panels, meeting spaces and exhibits among other offerings. Deadline corporate cousin Variety is sponsoring an Entertainment Matters conference, while Medialink is sponsoring Brand Matters, a conference focused on brand marketing. An area called Eureka Park will spotlight 300 startups with cutting-edge technologies for everything from health and fitness to helping autistic children.
“We’re creating educational opportunities for digital marketing for brands, for anybody,” Chupka said. “We started seeing more of the major brands coming (to the show). They wanted to see how the technology would affect their brands.”
And given how many major brands, from beer and energy-drink makers to hotel chains, are creating their own media units, the conference offerings are a natural extension, Chupka said. Google and Yahoo executives will be among those making presentations. Other areas getting a lot of attention this year will be sports/fitness-related technologies, robotics, 3D printing and smart-home services and hardware.
As ambassadors often do, Cannon will find himself at many of those events and much else during its four-day run. His schedule includes an opening-night reception at C Space, a Q&A with the CEA’s head of research on the show floor, and a Twitter-based Q&A at the show’s social-media center, using his own Twitter handle (@NickCannon, which has 4.9 million followers). There’ll be an interview with long-time technology site CNET, and he’ll also be at the the CES Leaders in Technology dinner.
And all that represents probably one-tenth the running around that many show-goers face in trying to see every corner of the mammoth show, which consumes every corner of the seemingly endless Las Vegas Convention Center as well as several nearby hotels. Watching that process is its own form of entertainment.