As soon as I logged into the CES online portal, knew this year’s techfest was going to be … different.
The first hours of last Monday’s virtual press conferences reached literary meta levels: sheets of TV screens, seen through our screens, as we typed expeditions that people read on their screens. Later that morning, I tried to switch between two virtual events instead of being physically present in just one. TV maker TCL has shown a roll up phone concept, and I wondered if I had clicked on the wrong tab and entered the Samsung universe by mistake.
At first it was just that; the slight inconvenience of attending a multi-day virtual event, the thoughts on what we learned about online conferencing during the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, over 150,000 people gathered in Las Vegas every January to admire the gadgets and mingle with the marketers. In July 2020, the Consumer Technology Association (which runs CES) ended any type of in-person event for January 2021 and started planning an online event instead. This year’s CES would be a bridge year, a better effort to make things look ‘normal’ as we all wonder if we’ll be going back to a real normal by January 2022 (I really, really want to be together again next year.)
But as this week wore on, as I watched online conferences and marketing videos promising clear visions of the future, the value of a fully virtual CES actually became less clear. The new products, which we usually look forward to, seemed less exciting. It is difficult to determine the viability of all produced by watching a great video on it. The series of keynotes and panels on the future of tech looked less like revealing conversations and more like TED Talk footage that I could scroll through my Twitter feed. And while most of the press conferences, keynote sessions, and panels referred to the global pandemic, how could you do not– the rest of the event unfolded as if a deadly attack on the US capital didn’t just happen last week.
“Walking” into Pepcom’s virtual lounge – a product demo event for media that runs parallel to CES – involved clicking one by one on a digital quilt of company logos, away from the usual browsing of buffet stalls and pasture. at the in-person event. Equipment makers have shown everything from N95 masks with headphones to UV disinfection technology. Here’s why we came, right? The gadgets? A game company released a face shield with “Razer Chroma” RGB lighting areas on each fan, so there’s that. May be this convince people to wear one?
It’s that kind of practiced optimism that keeps us coming back to CES year after year. Some people really like CES for the escape it offers. And for journalists, this entirely virtual event had certain advantages. We could browse product catalogs online on our own schedule. Product demo videos, both pre-produced and live streamed, were right at hand. CTA plans to leave the entire website up for the next month, so people can continue watching the sessions and panels. Maybe we even got a little more sleep this year, as we spent less time crisscrossing Las Vegas in taxis and shuttles, putting up video spots on the premises, or kibitzing in hotel bars.
But the heart and soul of CES are neither the prognosticators nor the journalists who follow them. It’s the tech makers that make the show special, and a fully virtual CES wasn’t necessarily right for them. “The smaller brands are probably the ones that have suffered the most this year,” said Carolina Milanesi, analyst and founder of research firm The Heart of Tech. “Because unless you have a designated place or experience on the website, it was just a long list of names.”