Normally this time of year, I’d be getting ready for my annual trek to Las Vegas for CES – the massive technology trade show that typically attracts in the neighborhood of 200,000 people to spend a few days in inflated hotel rooms, eat greasy convention food and rub shoulders
on very crowded show floors. I’ve been attending CES, Comdex or both since 1981, so this is the first time in 40 years that I won’t be in Las Vegas during the late fall (when the now-defunct Comdex computer show was held) or early January for CES.
But even though I won’t be in Las Vegas, I will be “at” CES which will be held online from January 11 to 14.
As always, there will be a lot of TVs shown at this year’s conference, including LG’s new line of MiniLED TVs, which reportedly pack more LEDs into smaller spaces for extra brightness. Also expect to see a lot of AI (artificial intelligence) products in 2021 aimed at both home and business users.
Gary Shapiro, who heads up the Consumer Technology Association that sponsors CES, told VentureBeat that he expects a lot of news about 5G broadband wireless networks at the event along with plenty of 8K TVs, along with “enterprise technologies, health tech, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality, and drones,” which sounds a bit like what I saw at last year’s CES. I suspect there will be more than the usual interest in “health tech,” and it wouldn’t surprise me to see COVID-19-related products on virtual display, including some that might have dubious value.
Home entertainment products are always central to CES, but I have a feeling that the interest may be stronger this year because home is pretty much the only place most people are being entertained. Since the pandemic hit, I spend a lot more time in front of my 4K TV than I would have otherwise. I’m also glad to have a great soundbar so I can enjoy surround sound while watching first-run movies like Wonder Women 1984 on HBO and Soul on Disney+ from home rather than in a theater.
CES is also the place where you see lots of home appliances and cooking gadgets — an area of increased interest these days.
Not the first big virtual tech event
CES won’t be the first big tech event held online since the pandemic struck – nearly all conferences have been virtual for the past nine months or so. Some, like Apple product announcements, were arguably better online than in person with well-produced presentations that let you see the products without having to stand in long lines and sit in a crowded auditorium. The only thing I missed at Apple’s big iPhone announcement this fall was the ability to spend a few hands-on minutes with the new phone and chat with Apple executives, but you can’t really evaluate a phone in a few minutes – you need to test it in real-life situations – and executive interviews at these events rarely yield great insights.
Microsoft, Google, and numerous other companies also held developer conferences and product announcements online, but CES will be different because it’s so massive. In 2020, there were more than 4,400 exhibitors, according to the show’s sponsor, the Consumer Technology Association.
In some ways, I’m looking forward to the virtual CES because it will be easier to take notes (I can even record and screenshot presentations), and I’ll get to look at a lot more products in a lot less time. At the real CES, it can take an hour or more to get from one appointment to another because of the crowds, confusing layout of the exhibit halls, and the fact that exhibits are spread out among venues, which may require a bus, cab, Uber ride or a very long walk.
I won’t miss the big product announcements from Samsung, LG, Toyota, Sony and other large companies, because they’re typically in massive ballrooms or auditoriums with hundreds of people and no chance for one-on-one interviews or the ability to see the product up close or put them through their paces. For that, a virtual event is just as good, if not better.
I also won’t miss the large glitzy booths where companies spend millions to dazzle very large crowds with products that they can’t get all that close to. Even when you can get near, say, a new super-duper high-definition ridiculously large and stratospherically priced TV set, you can’t really tell what they will look like in someone’s living room. Aside from the difference in size, just about all TVs at CES look alike when viewed from the show floor. You also can’t verify the quality of audio systems because – unless you live in a cement plant or the tarmac of an airport, the background noise far exceeds anything you would ever have in your living room.
What I will miss is the large press “parties” like CES Unveiled, Showstoppers and Digital Experience where vendors show off their products on tables while press – sometimes with drinks or food in-hand – get a chance to see and touch the new products. I’ll also miss the chance to talk with fellow journalists and analysts whose perspective is always useful in helping separate the hype from the likely useful new products.
I’ll also miss one-on-one meetings where company executives let me see and touch products that will come to market later in the year. There will be plenty of these meetings at CES 2021, but current conference technology won’t enable touching.
I’ll definitely miss the wacky products like Charmin’s Rollbot – a robot that can bring you a roll of toilet paper when you need it most or Go Dogo, which provides entertainment and “mental stimulation” for dogs. A search for “Wacky CES Products” will yield several other entertaining examples.
One thing I won’t miss is getting sick. Long before COVID-19, it wasn’t uncommon to return from CES with a cold, because of being in close proximity to massive numbers of people from around the world plus the usual traumas associated with travel and sleep deprivation. Nevada Public Radio and the Las Vegas Review Journal both have articles speculating that CES 2020 could have been an early spreader for COVID-19. American Public Media even suggested that COVID “might have incubated during CES and was sprayed worldwide when attendees traveled home.” One expert speculated that it might have been associated with a relatively high number of early cases in Santa Clara County, which is home to many tech industry workers who attended CES; however, one infectious disease expert point out that “there are other possible explanations.”
Anyway, Happy New Year and please stay safe. There truly is light at the end of the tunnel, but the next few months are critical as we wait until we, our families and our friends and neighbors can be vaccinated. Here’s hoping that a year from now I’ll be writing about my upcoming trip to Las Vegas.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.