I have trolled through many a conference exhibition hall in search of stories and swag for my kids, and there are always surprises waiting. I've played military "games," watched jugglers, and even had a conversation with a robot at past events.
But I have never seen so many creative efforts at drawing eyeballs to a conference booth than at this year's RSA Conference in San Francisco.
RSAC has become so big that the exhibition now fills both of Moscone Center's main halls, and it's no wonder that both have been jam-packed every time I've ventured in. It's like a giant geeky Las Vegas.
What's particularly striking is both the ubiquitous attempts to use the "gamification" phenomenon to get attendees to wander closer, and the numerous references to popular culture. While neither of those hooks is new to the RSAC show floor, their use has expanded greatly.
Let's review some of crazy and entertaining things I found during an hour of strolling about.
The first example was a real product, just not the kind you expect to get to experience first-hand at an IT security gathering. As I walked into Moscone's south hall, I was immediately drawn to the BAE Systems booth, where a space-aged-looking helmet was just begging to be investigated.
The booth staff had me try it on, and just like that, I was viewing a 3D schematic of a landscape I was supposedly flying over. The idea is to put all the indicators and monitors that pilots rely on right in front of their faces, thus precluding them from having to look down. As you can see from the photo, it's quite the conversation starter.
No sooner had I stepped away from the BAE booth that I was drawn to an impressively detailed recreation of a hacker's lair, complete with crime scene tape and a leather recliner. The guy in the chair in this photo looked so natural that for a moment I actually wondered if he was part of the display. (He wasn't.)
There were games everywhere I looked. One booth offered a small drone as a prize if you could master a touch-screen game in which the player has to open up a firewall for good traffic while making sure bad traffic gets blocked. I tried three times, and still had no idea what I was doing. At least they gave me a stuffed bear for my trouble.
Vulnerability detection vendor Tenable Network Security even had its own customized pinball machine called Tenable Man that someone was playing every time I walked by. I'm not sure if there were prizes for high scores, but I can say that, in general, it seemed that much of the best swag could only be had by participating in a game-like challenge.
At least 3 different booths—including RSA's mammoth setup in the middle of Moscone's north hall—had virtual reality headsets on hand, not to promote a product, but simply to let attendees have some fun.
Cultural references were everywhere, starting with at least a dozen different Star Wars artifacts, including toy lightsabers being given away to a guy who was playing with a remote-controlled BB-8, the droid that stars in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Similarly, ThreatTrack's booth had a medieval theme, and was dubbed "Game of Threats." Sadly, Peter Dinklage was nowhere to be found. Missed opportunity.
For my money, the best cultural reference came from Titus, that not only was giving away Lego sets (although only if you sat through a presentation and beat out others in a competition—more gamification!), the company also had hired someone to build a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge out of Lego. He told me he'd been working on it since Monday morning. My two little boys would have been very impressed.
At some point, I turned around and noticed this case filled with discarded old networking gear. It was a small yet effective way to remind us all just how much the technologies we're trying to secure have changed.
Not that it has anything to do with the frivolousness of all I've relayed here, but it's worth noting that the FBI's non-descript booth (top attraction: a rifle in a display case) had about 37 employees packed into it. Given that pretty much every one at RSAC is backing Apple in its showdown with the FBI, it may have been an effort to establish safety in numbers.
Finally, I'd like to offer the show organizers one suggestion: Next year, cut a deal with Cirque du Soleil. Having trapeze artists flying overhead and a roving clown wandering the room would be the icing on the cake.