Go deep breathe as I write these words: Next week, TBEN will return to our first in-person CES in three years.
Relief. It felt good to finally get that off my chest.
The last time our team flew to Las Vegas for the event was January 2020. A promising date. It wouldn’t be long before the whole world became pear-shaped. It was a big show, with 117,000 in attendance, according to CTA (Consumer Technology Association) figures. The event, which the governing body prefers not to call the Consumer Electronics Show, has become a sprawling affair over the decades.
Trying to see the whole show is a fool’s errand. In my younger, more hopeful days, I made it a point to see as many of them as I could, and made a pretty good run walking through every official hall. That has become increasingly impossible over the years as the show has spread far beyond the confines of the Las Vegas Convention Center. There is the Venetian Convention and Exhibition Center (RIP the Sands), numerous hotel suites, and several official and unofficial event spaces that circle the strip.
As with countless other live event producers, the past three years have brought something of an existential crisis to the CTA. After much dragging, the organization finally had to admit that an in-person CES 2021 was a terrible idea for all parties, and the pivot to a virtual event was understandably rocky. Last year, the show tied in with the Omicron spike, and TBEN, among others, made the decision to sit it out. Highly contagious new species, linked to holiday travel was a bridge too far.
Last year’s figures were significantly lower. The CTA tied the event to “well over 40,000” people (44,000 is the generally accepted figure), a 75% drop from 2020. It’s a remarkable drop, but I suppose given everything that happened at the time, cracking 40,000 a kind win. The CTA says it’s on track for 100,000 this year — with no other prominent COVID-19 variant, it seems likely there will be at least a significant jump from 2022.
I’m probably not alone in my suspicions that the CTA didn’t want people to get too comfortable with the 2021 virtual event. Long before COVID, there was a question about the effectiveness of in-person tech events. CES and other hardware shows have had a head start in that debate, with a focus on products that benefit from being seen in person. That said, the past two years have shown that it is indeed possible to cover the show quite well from the comfort of your living room.
However, we’ve moved beyond the conversation about “the new normal” (honestly, when was the last time you heard that phrase uttered in earnest?). The new normal happened when we weren’t looking. The new normal is that the virus doesn’t exist because we say it doesn’t exist. Did I get it three times, including once from attending a trade show in Vegas? Well. Do I recognize that attending a show that bills itself as 100,000 visitors means there’s a reasonable expectation that I could be staring at time number four in mid-January? Absolute. The CES COVID protocols are here. The TL;DR is that vaccination, testing, and masking are not mandatory, but you can if you want. That is now the standard almost everywhere.
Does it still make sense to go? I think so. I mean, I’m going. Other TC employees will also come along. We’ve reduced our presence from the past few years, and I imagine we will in the future. Given the amount of CES news released through press releases and the fact that virtually every press conference is streamed, the right approach to covering an event like this is smaller and more strategic.
This is not just a product of this new endemic virus. It is a product of a changing landscape for media in general. For all my personal issues with the event, I really miss those days of pure, unadulterated blogging, when money was still being dumped into format, before everything was behind a paywall. There’s value to be had on shows like this, but at least for TBEN it’s about having the right meetings and finding the people working on cool stuff. It’s harder than it sounds, after a few weeks of absence I’ve come back to 1,600 unread emails. We made this list and I plan to double check it before I get on the plane next week.
Even before these particular circumstances, CES has had some confidence crises. Numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, as is the nature of these things. The smartest thing the CTA has done in recent years is leaning on the auto side. What started as an embrace of high-tech in-car systems has expanded considerably. It’s almost like CES became an auto show when none of us were watching.
One of the show’s most important plays is timing. Much to the chagrin of anyone who’s been trying to enjoy some time off during the holidays, it’s been positioned as the first show of the year in an attempt to set the cadence for the remaining 11.5 months. CES technically starts on January 5, but press days are two days earlier. This year I’m flying on the 2nd, just to make sure we’ve got our bases covered. There have been years when I flew in on the 1st. Let’s just say I’m glad I stopped drinking a few years ago.
Positioning the show right at the beginning of the year puts it a few months ahead of major auto shows like those in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. The technology angle means we get a good look at many EVs and autonomous driving systems, as well as eVTOLs and micromobility. Expect big news, including keynotes from BMW and Stellantis. Chipmakers like Qualcomm and AMD also always have a lot on the automotive front at the show.
Hyundai will also have a significant presence at the show, at the intersection of automotive, mobility and robotics. In fact, judging by my overflowing inbox, it’s shaping up to be a huge year for robotics, from consumers to the presence of major industrial startups across a wide range of different categories. Robotics is always tricky at CES. Big companies like to show off flashy robots that never go anywhere (believe it or not, the most recent Sony Aibo is a relative success story there), and there will be a ton of junky robot toys. But the show is still a great place to see some legit breakthroughs up close. Keep an eye out for the next week issue of Actuator for a full rundown.
My inbox is also flooded with web3 and crypto pitches, despite the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written about the topic in my 6+ years at TBEN. To say the industry was going through a rough patch in 2022 is like saying Elon is “still figuring it out” as CEO of Twitter. The believer still believes that their solution is the solution to every problem that plagues humanity. Expect this to trickle into every aspect of the show, including, somewhat ironically, the climate.
I’d like to see sustainability become an important topic at CES. Apparently there is a section in the North Hall of the Convention Center. There were usually a few climate companies on the show, but I was certainly never overwhelmed by them. Hopefully this is the year that starts to turn around. Same for accessibility. I’ve heard of a few companies with this focus on the show, but this is something else that really needs to be front and center.
Much has been written about Amazon’s Alexa struggles lately. It’s safe to say that the smart home market hasn’t turned out the way everyone planned. However, I do expect a lot of press at CES, supported by Matter. The standard, supported by the likes of Amazon, Apple and Google, has really started to pick up steam in recent months. If all goes according to plan, this CES will be an important moment as the different categories of connected home gadgets are fully showcased.
AR/VR — yes, I say this every year. Yes, even more so than smart homes, this one has yet to shake off the way many hoped. The recent debut of Meta’s Quest Pro and HTC’s Vive tease will anchor the big VR news. AR is likely to be even more ubiquitous. Even more than virtual reality, augmented reality feels like the Wild West right now. There are a ton of hardware makers right now vying for a spot on your face. Traditionally, CES hasn’t been heavily focused on gaming, but Sony tends to make it a centerpiece of its own press conference and we’re likely to get some face time with PlayStation VR.
Wearables should get some love on the show. Oura’s success has catapulted the ring form factor. We’ve already written up Movano’s pre-show announcement. Bigger names like Google, Samsung, and Apple make most of their gadget announcements at their own events these days, but CES is a chance for some of the smaller companies to grab some attention. I expect an even greater focus on health metric monitoring from names like Withings. Connected home fitness remains an important trend to watch, fueled by that first pandemic.
As always, phones are mostly a nonstarter here. Mobile World Congress is where that magic happens. Otherwise, expect a few announcements from hardware companies like Lenovo and Sony, which don’t really have a presence in the North American market. However, this has traditionally been a big show for PCs. Dell, Asus and Lenovo all have a big presence, while AMD and Nvidia could bring big news about the chips powering these systems.
We don’t cover them all that much, but CES is also big on TVs, in every sense of the word. LG, Samsung, Sony and TCL will probably have the latest, greatest and greatest. QD-OLED and MLA OLED are the magic words – or letters, I think.
Press days are January 3 and 4, and the CES show floor will officially open on January 5. Plan accordingly.