CES 2021: The world’s largest tech show trades Las Vegas for cyberspace6 min read . Updated: 11 Jan 2021, 12:06 PM IST
- This week’s show will be held online—and exhibitors and attendees aren’t quite sure what to expect
CES, the world’s largest tech show, is quite something to behold. Or it would be if you could actually behold it in person.
Almost inconceivably sprawling in its pre-pandemic incarnations, the industry extravaganza spanned the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, the nearby Sands Expo and chunks of a dozen or more hotels up and down the Strip. It was like a Disneyland for tech: Since I started covering the annual January event in 2001, I’ve fired a computer-assisted sniper rifle, attended a Tesla-coil music concert, hitched a ride in self-driving vehicles and met countless robots. I once took the controls of a Fujifilm blimp midflight.
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This year, you actually can see it all—but only from the little screen through which you see pretty much everything else these days. Vegas and CES will be without each other for the first time in decades. No more blimp rides.
The tech industry saw many conferences go virtual during 2020 amid Covid-related lockdowns, travel restrictions and a general desire to reduce viral spread. But CES isn’t an event based on the agenda of a single company or organization: It’s a global crossroads where, just last year, over 170,000 attendees interacted with more than 4,500 exhibitors. It’s been a media spectacle, but also much more: a forum for innovators, manufacturers and retailers to meet, by plan or by happenstance, and figure out what comes next.
For CES 2021, which starts Monday, its organizers had to pivot hard into digital space that, perhaps ironically, is unfamiliar—and a bit of a gamble.
The main attraction will be the exhibitors’ “digital activations." These are interactive portals for presenting content, networking with attendees and conducting meetings. Companies with bigger budgets have developed highly visual, interactive experiences for people to try. Some exhibitors are adding live components.
There will also be live anchors hosting the show itself—something that wouldn’t make sense at a massive convention center—but it will also feature a wide variety of keynotes and roundtable talks, a mainstay of CES. After 2020, we all know how video chats can go awry—but it will certainly be more convenient, avoiding the long lines to hear remarks in overcrowded Vegas theaters.
Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, says it’s actually easier to book marquee speakers, since people don’t have to travel. Keynotes this year will feature General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon; Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish will also make appearances.
There are fewer hassles for the organizers, too. “If you think about the physical CES, you think about union strikes, you think about weather that shuts down transportation," says Mr. Shapiro. “Those things I’m not worried about."
What does worry him: “What do we do if it doesn’t work?"
The current estimate is that upward of 1,900 exhibitors will participate online. That’s almost twice the CTA’s initial target, but far shy of last year’s showing. My own inbox confirms the reduced turnout: By this time last year, I had over 700 emails from companies pitching me on CES-related products and events; at last check, I had just over 200.
The cost is low for exhibitors—most are paying $1,200 to display their wares. Higher tiers, up to $85,000, have their own microsites, and host virtual news conferences and live presentations. And there’s no flying people and gear around the world, feeding them and housing them for up to a week in hotels with impressively inflated rates. (CES’s host city is feeling that: The January 2020 show would have accounted for around $169 million in direct spending, with a potential economic impact of over $290 million, according to estimates by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.)
Some companies, such as Canon U.S.A., found this a welcome opportunity to rethink their CES presence. Charles Biczak, Canon’s director of strategic planning, says his team was eager to show attendees more than just the printers and cameras for which the company is mainly known. They developed an interactive experience that takes attendees around the world—from Yellowstone to Amsterdam to Kawasaki, Japan—and even up into space.
In a few activities, people can shoot virtual photos, sure. Yet they’ll also get a deeper look at things that wouldn’t necessarily be front and center at a trade show, such as the company’s 3-D imaging—aka “volumetric video"—system. There’s also a kind of spy game designed to demonstrate a gesture-based technology the company expects to launch later this year. (These experiences will be available to try on Canon U.S.A.’s website after the show.)
To create this whole digital CES, the show organizers partnered with Microsoft, accessing its technology as well as its video production facilities in Redmond, Wash. During 2020, Microsoft shifted a number of its own major conferences online, but this is the first it’s developing with an outside organization.
Bob Bejan, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for global events, says he pitched CTA by enumerating the mistakes his own company made trying to stick to the live-presentation playbook when going digital. “If there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that you cannot translate. We’re really working in a different medium," Mr. Bejan says.
Videos and other presentations have to be shorter, and attempts to re-create the expo hall or the lobby bar in virtual space are futile. He says they leaned into what already made sense online: strong visuals, real-time engagement, interest-based networking. “There really is this sense of place," Mr. Bejan says. “It’s different than going to a webpage with a bunch of links on it."
The $1,200 fee “is very cheap compared to doing actual CES," says Scott Heimendinger, chief marketing officer at the smart-kitchen hardware maker Anova Culinary, which has exhibited in Las Vegas for the past seven years. He says his company signed up in part out of FOMO—they didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities that might come as a result of participation.
Belkin, another CES regular, went the other direction. The maker of connected and home networking products decided it didn’t need to buy a spot on the CES website or host an official CES press conference. Nevertheless, it is launching some products and participating in a virtual media-only showcase that usually takes place in Las Vegas during CES.
“This year, we have the opportunity to be creative about the way we talk to our customers," says Belkin’s newly anointed CEO Steven Malony. He says his company has secure relationships with retailers and manufacturers, so he isn’t worried about missing an opportunity that might surface at the online-only CES. (In 2018, the company became a subsidiary of the Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn.)
Marjorie Costello, editor and publisher of the long-running industry newsletter CE Online News, first attended CES in 1981, when it was still the Consumer Electronics Show. “We have to be flexible, the world has changed, but I’m so used to walking around a show floor and stumbling into things," she says. “You just don’t stumble into things in a virtual environment." She’s worried that she and others will dip in and out, focused on specific companies or topics. “I’m concerned I’m going to be too linear in my pursuit."
“There’s just this sense of discovery. It’s running into things that you never thought to ask about and that might spark a seed of creativity," says Mark-Hans Richer, chief marketing officer of Fortune Brands Home & Security, whose subsidiary, Moen, is exhibiting at CES 2021. “This year will be a very poor substitution. And that’s not a reflection on the organizers. It’s very difficult to replicate something that’s so experiential."
The CTA and its partners are proud of what they’ve pulled off in a short span, but acknowledge that it’s not a replacement for the in-person show. At best, it lays the foundation for a digital component to a conference they hope will be back in Vegas 12 months from now.
“It’s not my favorite CES, but we did our best," says Mr. Shapiro.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.