Should it have happened at all?

As soon as I logged into CES’s online portal, I knew this year’s techfest was going to be…different.

The first few hours of virtual press conferences this past Monday reached literary levels of meta: sheets of TV screens, viewed through our screens, while we typed out dispatches for people to read on their screens. Later that same morning I tried to toggle between two virtual events instead of being physically present in just one. TV-maker TCL showed off a rollable 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 this; the mild inconveniences of attending a multi-day virtual event, the musings on what we’ve learned about online conferences during the coronavirus pandemic. Normally, more than 150,000 people would gather in Las Vegas every January to gawk at the gadgets and mingle with marketers. In July of 2020, the Consumer Technology Association (which runs CES) pulled the plug on any kind of in-person event for January 2021 and started planning an online event instead. This year’s CES would be a bridge year, a best effort to make things seem “normal” while we all wonder if we’ll return to a real normal by January 2022. (I’d really, really like to be together again next year.)

But as this week wore on, as I watched online keynote sessions and marketing videos promising sharp visions of the future, the value of an all-virtual CES actually became less clear. The new products, which we usually look forward to, felt less exciting. It’s hard to determine the viability of any product by watching a slick video about it. The series of keynotes and panels about the future of tech felt less like revelatory conversations and more like TED Talk off-shoots I might scroll past in my Twitter feed. And while most of the press conferences, keynote sessions, and panels referenced the global pandemic—how could you not—the rest of the event played out as though a deadly attack on the US capitol hadn’t just happened last week.

“Walking” the virtual show floor at Pepcom—a product demo event for the media that occurs alongside CES—involved clicking on a digital quilt of company logos one by one, a far cry from the usual booth-browsing and buffet-grazing that happens at the in-person event. Hardware makers showed off everything from earbud-equipped N95 masks to UV sanitizing tech. Here’s what we came for, right? The gadgets? A game company has released a protective face mask with “Razer Chroma” RGB lighting zones on each ventilator, so there’s that. Maybe this will convince people to wear one?

It’s this kind of practiced optimism that keeps us coming back to CES year after year. Some people really appreciate CES for the escapism it offers. And for journalists, there were some benefits to the all-virtual event. We could browse the online product catalogs on our own schedules. Product demonstration videos, both pre-produced and live-streamed, were right at our fingertips. The CTA plans to leave the entire website up for the next month, so people can continue to watch the sessions and panels. Maybe we even got a little more sleep this year, since we spent less time criss-crossing Las Vegas in cabs and shuttles, editing on-the-scene video spots, or kibitzing in hotel bars.

But the heart and soul of CES isn’t the smooth-talking prognosticators or the journalists who follow them. It’s the tech makers who make the show special, and an all-virtual CES wasn’t necessarily good for them. “The smaller brands were probably the ones who suffered the most this year,” says Carolina Milanesi, an analyst and founder of The Heart of Tech research firm. “Because unless you were given a designated place or experience on the website, it was just a long list of names.”

Milanesi shared an observation one of my WIRED colleagues made as well: The serendipity of discovery was gone. One of the most exciting parts of CES has been finding a weird product in some back corner of the giant expo hall and learning about something new through pure chance. At a virtual CES, that’s a virtual impossibility.

Several tech companies I emailed or spoke to in the days leading up to the event told me they just weren’t participating this year. The CTA was still charging between $1,200 and $1,500 for a gadget maker to be a “digital exhibitor”. That’s not including the additional fees to participate in tangential events like Pepcom (anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000, according to documents reviewed by WIRED). For that amount, plenty of smaller companies would be better off emailing journalists or potential business partners directly and setting up their own Zoom briefings.

Ultimately, this year’s CES felt out-of-step with current events. A session about gender and racial biases in AI included not a mention of Timnit Gebru. Another panel with executives from Twitter and Google was focused more on GDPR than the bigger, more immediate news: the spread of disinformation on social media and Twitter’s role in the violent storming of the US Capitol the week before the show.

There were exceptions that made the show feel more firmly of-the-moment. During AMD’s keynote, chief executive Lisa Su was joined by scientists who explained how extra teraflops of AMD compute power are helping them research infectious diseases like Covid-19. Tuesday’s conference sessions kicked off with a 30-minute conversation with Abbott’s executive vice president of rapid diagnostics and Microsoft’s chief medical officer about molecular testing and the supply chain logistics of distributing vaccines. In another keynote that morning, Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, addressed the problems of the day head on, talking about the recent SolarWinds hack and the far-reaching implications of this kind of cyberespionage.

That’s the thing about tech, of course: It can be both our source of peril and a solution to our problems. CES traditionally has been more about solutions, and that’s a huge part of its appeal. “We’ve seen the strain on health systems, our schools, our businesses large and small,” said Gary Shapiro, the head of the Consumer Technology Association, which produces CES every year. “But in this time of uncertainty, technology has been a stabilizer. A unifying force.”

I asked the CTA whether it had considered canceling this year’s event entirely, or putting on a seriously downscaled show. A spokesperson said it still believed CES 2021 was “an opportunity for the tech community to unite, come together, and focus on a better future.” The CTA hasn’t yet shared how many people logged on to the online CES. The organization stressed that by being virtual, it would be much more accessible to people around the globe this year.

This may very well be true. And as with any CES, there were some technologies, novelties, and oddities that I’m sure we’ll still be talking about for months to come.

But I really, really would like to be together again next year.


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