CES, the world’s largest technology show, is quite something to see. Or it would be if you could actually see it in person.
Almost unimaginably prevalent in its pre-pandemic incarnations, the industry’s extravaganza spans the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, the nearby Sands Expo and bits of a dozen or more hotels up and down the strip. It was like a Disneyland for technology: Since I started covering the annual January event in 2001, I have fired a computer-aided sniper rifle, attended a Tesla coil music concert, ridden in self-driving cars, and encountered countless robots. I once took control of a central plane from Fujifilm.
This year you can actually see everything – but only from the small screen where 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 trips.
The technology industry saw many conferences go virtual during 2020 among Covid-related lockdowns, travel restrictions and a general desire to reduce virus spread. But CES is not an event based on the agenda of a single company or organization: it is a global crossroads where last year alone over 170,000 participants interacted with more than 4,500 exhibitors. It has been a media spectacle, but also much more: a forum for innovators, manufacturers and retailers to meet, by plan or chance, and find out what’s next.
For CES 2021, which starts on Monday, the organizers had to swing hard into the digital space that, perhaps ironically, is not known – and a bit of a gamble.
The main attraction will be the exhibitors’ “digital activations”. These are interactive portals for presenting content, networking with participants and conducting meetings. Companies with larger budgets have developed highly visual, interactive experiences that people can try. Some exhibitors add live components.
There will also be live anchors arranging the show itself – which does not make sense in a massive conference center – but it will also include a wide range of main themes and roundtable discussions, a mainstay of CES. After 2020, we all know how video chats can go wrong – but it will certainly be more convenient, and avoid the long queues to hear remarks in crowded Vegas theaters.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, says that it is actually easier to order tents, since people do not have to travel. Keynotes this year will have General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon; Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish will also make appearances.
There are fewer problems for the organizers as well. “If you think about the physical CES, you think about union attacks, you think about the weather that shuts down transportation,” Shapiro says. “I’m not worried about these things.”
What worries him: “What do we do if it does not work?”
The current estimate is that up to 1,900 exhibitors will participate online. It is almost twice as high as CTA’s original goal, but far shy of last year’s viewing. My own inbox confirms the reduced turnout: At this point last year, I had over 700 emails from companies notifying me of CES-related products and events; at the last check I had a little over 200.
The cost is low for exhibitors – most pay $ 1200 to display their wares. Higher levels, up to $ 85,000, have their own micro-pages and host virtual news conferences and live presentations. And there are no flying people and equipment around the world that feed them and house them for up to a week in hotels with impressive inflated prices. (CES hosts feel that: the January 2020 show would have cost around $ 169 million in direct expenses, with a potential financial impact of over $ 290 million, according to estimates from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.)
Some companies, such as Canon USA, found this a welcome opportunity to rethink the CES presence. Charles Biczak, Canon’s Director of Strategic Planning, says his team was eager to show participants more than just the printers and cameras the company is primarily known for. They developed an interactive experience that takes participants around the world – from Yellowstone to Amsterdam to Kawasaki, Japan – and even into space.
In a few activities, people can shoot virtual images. Nevertheless, they will also get a deeper look at things that will not necessarily be in front and in the middle of a trade fair, such as the company’s 3-D image processing – aka “volumetric video” system. It’s also a sort 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 the Canon USA website after the show.)
To create this entire digital CES, the show organizers partnered with Microsoft,
access to technology and video production facilities in Redmond, Wash. During 2020, Microsoft moved a number of its own major conferences online, but this is the first it is developing with an external organization.
Bob Bejan, Microsoft’s executive vice president for global events, says he beat CTA by listing the mistakes his own company made when digitizing them. “If there is one thing we have learned, it is that you can not translate. We really work in a different medium, says Mr. Bejan.
Videos and other presentations must be shorter, and attempts to recreate the exhibition hall or lobby bar in the virtual room are useless. He says they leaned into what already made sense online: strong graphics, real-time engagement, interest-based networking. “It really is this feeling of place,” says Bejan. “It’s different than going to a website with a lot of links on it.”
The $ 1,200 fee is very cheap compared to actually doing CES, says Scott Heimendinger, marketing manager at smart-kitchen hardware manufacturer Anova Culinary, which has been exhibiting in Las Vegas for the past seven years. He says that his company partially opted out of FOMO – they did not want to miss opportunities that may come as a result of participation.
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Belkin, another CES regular, went the other way. The maker of connected and home networking products decided that it did not need to buy a place on the CES website or host an official CES press conference. Nevertheless, it launches some products and participates in a virtual media showcase that usually takes place in Las Vegas during CES.
“This year, we have the opportunity to be creative in the way we talk to our customers,” said Belkin’s newly appointed CEO Steven Malony. He says his company has secure relationships with retailers and manufacturers, so he’s not worried about missing out on an opportunity that may appear at CES online. (In 2018, the company became a subsidiary of Taiwanese manufacturing giant Foxconn.
Marjorie Costello, editor and publisher of the long-running 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 tripping over things,” she says. “You just do not stumble into things in a virtual environment.” She is worried that she and others will dive in and out, focusing on specific companies or topics. “I’m worried I’m going to be too linear at work.”
“It is precisely this sense of discovery. It runs into things that you never intended to ask about, and that can trigger a seed of creativity, ”says Mark-Hans Richer, Marketing Manager at Fortune Brands Home & Security.,
whose subsidiary, Moen, is exhibiting at CES 2021. “This year it will be a very poor replacement. And it is not a reflection on the organizers. It is very difficult to replicate something that is so experiential. ”
CTA and its partners are proud of what they have pulled off in a short time, but acknowledge that it is not a substitute for the personal show. At best, it lays the foundation for a digital component to a conference they hope will be back in Vegas in 12 months from now.
“It’s not my favorite CES, but we did our best,” says Mr. Shapiro.
—Nicole Nguyen contributed to this article.
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Write to Wilson Rothman at Wilson.Rothman@wsj.com
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