CES 2013: Shhh, don’t tell, but Las Vegas likes secrets, even at a trade show

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

LAS VEGAS—In a leather banquette in a sparkling Las Vegas club, a knockout blonde discreetly kicked the Louis Vuitton bag at her feet.

“It’s in there,” she whispered to me, conspiratorially. I followed this dame’s fishnet-clad legs down to her shoe’s pointed toe. Beautiful bag. “I call it the football,” she said. “I’m not going to bring it out yet.”

Leslie Bradshaw’s honey-colored Cali perfection brings to mind a young Cheryl Tiegs, but tonight she’s gone for broke in showgirl makeup, smoky eyes and red lipstick. I love her on sight.

'Til this moment on Wednesday night I knew only of Leslie, the co-founder and chief operating officer of JESS3, a brilliant and profitable data-visualization firm. I knew her from Twitter and tech blogs and magazines, where she’s forever featured as a top everything—woman, entrepreneur, kid genius—under 30. (She’s now 30.)

And now Leslie Bradshaw was hiding something. A new drug? A lap-dance voucher? We are in Vegas, after all.

But we’re here for the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual jamboree for the debut of new gadgets. Anyone with something to flog is flogging with gusto. Leslie is a cooler customer, raised on the idea of discretion when it comes to startups and venture capital. She’s not being a demented Qualcomm freak and overhyping stuff in a loony-bin, tone-deaf, tradeshow way. It’s all about stealth with her. A little film noir. The “football” in Leslie’s logo-spangled bag is the prototype for her latest venture.

At CES, the bellisima Leslie is not the only entrepreneur with something up her sleeveless sleeve. At the Las Vegas Convention Center, amid the neurotoxic audiovisuals of this vast trade show, I ran into two others—Sonaar Luthra, a TED global fellow, and Sarah Szalavitz, the ingenious philosopher queen of 7 Robot and the MIT Media Lab—who were keeping their most recent initiatives under wraps.

If you don’t pay up for a kissing booth or a speaking part at CES, as Qualcomm (disastrously) did this year, you mostly just stroll the floors testing stuff, exchanging gossip and being surprisingly generous about what looks cool. At nightfall you find friends and meet their friends. Cards are exchanged. Disorientation and dehydration are collectively experienced. Soft rock played loudly is heard; the clamor of slot machines and spastic LED light schemes are brooked. Oxygenated nicotine air is breathed.

It’s not bad for a day or two, but it’s extremely, extremely difficult to do business. You can’t be heard. You can’t find the right person to pitch, in a city where “adjacent” hotels can be a mile and a half apart. And there are no flat, vacant surfaces for showing off prototypes.

And that’s what Leslie Bradshaw meant. Though she doesn’t drink, or not much, she’s an expert cocktailer. She has a gift for making people feel comfortable, while also privately wowed. She could tell at a glance that the cocktail tables in front of us, jammed with cans of Red Bull and glasses of seltzer-lime on them, were not suitable for a full-dress presentation of her protoype. Which, I discovered later, is not a prototype at all—but a tablet cued up to demo the super-secret app she’s been working on, which launches on January 15.

I’ll say one thing I know about her elusive app: It transforms things into other things. Text into audio; audio into television. Text into television.

Sorry, folks. I can’t say more. Just as I can’t say more about Sonaar Luthra’s or Sarah Szalavitz’s projects, either. Though they might have something to do with Luthra’s inspiring Water Canary company, or Szalavitz’s seductive disbelief in “impossibility.”

But I promise that all three of these stealthy ideas are just as intriguing as the idea of stealth itself, right here at a circuslike trade show.

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