The best thing from this year's CES is a $15 foam cube

An image of the Merge Cube

I've been a CES tour guide for the last few years, watching time-lapse trends where 3D printing went from corner novelty to a huge exhibit and Smart Cities moved from notion to pervasive presence.

This year's CES was a retread of CES 2017, except that instead of Amazon Alexa integrations as far as the eye could see, this was the year that, in the quip of my friend Lori Luechtefeld of WIT Strategy, "Google basically shrink wrapped the entire city of Las Vegas, including the monorail!" So mine was a souvenir des CESes passées (remembrance of CESes past) experience-- more big TVs and connected kitchen appliances and soon-to-be short-lived electric cars.

With one exception.

Smack in the middle of South Hall (around the corner from where Kodak proudly showcased 3D scanning and printing technology that turns you into a shrinky-dink, the same technology that has been available in my local shopping mall for years) stood Merge VR, based in San Antonio and founded by chief executive Franklin Lyons.

Merge used most of its CES display to focus on the dramatic 6DoF Blaster that turns your smart phone into a virtual super soaker, but the thing that made my heart get fluttery is the Merge Cube, a.k.a. "the hologram you hold in your hand."

The Cube looks like the love child of a Rubik's Cube and the tesseract from the first Avenger's movie: it's made of charcoal grey, lightweight foam, and it has intricate faux metal engravings on it. When you look at the Cube through the camera of your smart phone it comes alive. Merge's app superimposes holograms on top of the Cube, and since you can easily twist and turn the Cube in your hand that means you can also manipulate the holograms.

The Cube is completely intuitive and compelling-- the opposite of the awkward paddles you have to use in most VR environments.

This might not sound exciting in the abstract (although if you click here you'll get a more savory sense of what I'm talking about), but up close the Cube provoked both the most excited squeals and most fascinated rapid speculation among my tourists.

With the Cube, you can hold a virtual skull or heart, turning them to get different perspectives and zoom in on what you want to see. You can twist engine parts and dental molds around to see how they fit together, and there are virtual games that combine features of Lego and Minecraft.

You can also place a virtual object and use the Cube to walk around it, so a virtual statue could either be in the palm of your hand or on your kitchen table where you can look at it from different angles.

Best of all, it's an open platform. Developers can build new and exciting experiences on top of Merge, and this last feature is what made the Cube my favorite exhibit at this year's CES. The open platform changes the Cube from a toy to a tool, from something that will quickly gather dust in closets to a vibrant ecosystem in the making akin to what Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain calls the "generative internet."

My tourists agreed: a cardiologist and med school professor thought that the virtual heart would be a wonderful anatomy tool for his students; an R&D scientist for a major cola company got a calculating look on his face when he imagined using the Cube to test new packaging virtually; a senior executive for a major Scandinavian auto dealership was excited to imagine her engineers learning about new engines more easily using the Cube.

Merge's product isn't just creative itself: it provokes creativity in others.

The biggest surprise -- which I've spoiled in this article's headline -- came when I learned the price point: the Cube costs just $15.

The LG tunnel of flexible TV screens is impressive. The Byton electric car prototype is beautiful. Alibaba's "smile to pay" technology is interesting (and a bit creepy).

The Merge Cube is important.

Marketers shouldn't let the Cube's low price point and toy-like form factor blind them to its potential: with even base-hit success the Cube will absorb a lot of attention, and attention is the oxygen that brands need to breathe.

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Brad Berens

Dr. Brad Berens is chief strategy officer at the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg and principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting in Portland, Oregon.

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