When HBO released the first teaser for the forthcoming season of Westworld it featured a new company called Incite. It left many people scratching their heads. Then again, isn’t that what Westworld is really good at?
HBO decided to pull back the curtain a little more at CES with a dinner/activation to elaborate on Incite — and it was creepy.
The private event was held at the Nomad Restaurant, a dimly-lit, wood-grained space filled with books from floor to ceiling. As you entered, a screen that said “Are You On The Right Path?” welcomed you as Incite employees gave each attendee a very personalized greeting, which was a taste of things to come throughout the evening.
A branded stage was at the front as attendees mingled before sitting down at their assigned tables that included menus catering to each guest. I was at a table with a trio of popular YouTubers, an Instagram couple that specialize in sustainability and a fashion designer. It was like a cast of a very CES-specific whodunit?
Each table had its own host — whether or not it was a “host” in the Westworld sense, would be explored later in the evening. When our host introduced herself to us, she had a culty vacant look in her eyes and was eager to please us, making sure we were comfortable. She was like an earnest flight attendant on a mild dose of uppers.
She started by introducing all of us. She knew a lot about us, but it seemed like she knew more about some than others. For me, she knew I worked at Deadline and co-hosted a podcast — it’s all information you can find with a simple Google search. However, she knew an extraordinary amount of details about the others at my table. She dove deep into the lives of the YouTubers and the Instagram couple, citing personal bullet points including specific work they have done on their social media channels, followers and even details about their children and family. It was creepy. There was the initial shock by some of my fellow diners, but when they realized that all of this information is either online for the world to see or in the survey they filled out prior to attending the event, the shock subsided. If you put two and two together, the bigger your presence online, the more she knew about you.
Our host kept on using buzzwords like “your path,” gathering “data” on us and would stop at no lengths to be polite and make sure we were taken care of. As the night went on, she peppered these phrases and continued to share information about all of us. Although with me, she didn’t have too much to say beyond the fact that I work at Deadline. Nonetheless, it was as though she was some weird mentalist.
At one point, my fellow diners were neck-deep into this game and thought our host was actually a host like the one on Westworld. The fashion designer, a huge fan of the show, thought that if she told our host to “Cease all motor functions,” she would shut down like they do on the show. She did; our host smiled and didn’t know what she was talking about. There was even one point in the evening when one of my fellow diners accused the fashion designer of being a “mole” that worked for Incite. Things got a little tense between my fellow diners, turning on each other and throwing accusations around. I, on the other hand, was enjoying this weird social experiment they were putting us through.
Still, there wasn’t a clear-cut explanation of what Incite does as a company. When the night’s keynote speaker — Barbara Quinlan, Incite’s development co-chair — took the stage, it was as if she was doing a TED talk through the lens of a charismatic cult leader. They played the teaser trailer for Westworld’s Season 3 and, from what I gathered, Incite is essentially a fictional data company that helps us pick our own path and controlling our destiny. Quinlan was trying to sell us these services as if it were a timeshare, or part of some weird Amway pyramid scheme.
At the close of the evening, Quinlan took the stage again and picked one guest and put their entire life on display on the big screen. It dove pretty deep into her life, showing the choices she made, the school she went to, how she met her husband, her career, kids — it was basically a This Is Your Life moment that freaked the lady out. Again, Quinlan reiterated choosing our own path and knowing all our options in life before we choose.
Again, Incite’s intentions were still a little murky, but we do have a better understanding about the company: Essentially, they want to control our lives and our choices based on the data we put out into the world. All the while, they freak us out while selling it to us.
All guests received a Westworld billfold as parting gifts with a card that had details about us on there — including the exact age when we die. It was the most somber, creepy and exciting way to end one of this year’s most inventive, immersive CES activations.
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