The CES (Consumer Electronics Show), the world’s largest technology fair, has always been an eye-catcher. Or it would be if you could still see it in person.
Almost inconceivably large, in its pre-pandemic incarnations, this extravagant industry event spanned the entire Las Vegas Convention Center, the neighboring Sands Expo, and portions of a dozen other hotels along the Strip that are known for host casinos.
It was like Disneyland of technology; Since reporting on the annual event in January 2001, I’ve fired a computer-controlled sniper rifle, attended a music concert whose instruments were Tesla coils, hitched a ride in self-guided vehicles, and introduced countless robots. And once I took control of a Fujifilms airship in mid-flight.
This year the viewer can still see all of this – but only on the small screen through which we see practically everything else today. Vegas and CES are decoupling for the first time in decades. No more airship trips.
The tech industry has seen many technologies go virtual in 2020 amid the bans, travel restrictions, and widespread desire to reduce contagion from the virus caused by Covid-19. However, CES is not an event based on the agenda of any single company or organization: it’s a global intersection where more than 170,000 visitors interacted with more than 4.5,000 exhibitors over the past year. The event has always been a media show, but it’s also been much more than that: a forum where innovators, manufacturers, and retailers met purposefully or randomly to determine what would come next.
For CES 2021, which starts this Monday (11), organizers had to choose a digital space that, ironically, is not that familiar to them and is a risky bet.
The main attraction will be the exhibitors’ “digital activations”. These are interactive portals for presenting content, contacting visitors and holding meetings. Companies with higher budgets have developed highly visual and interactive experiences to attract people. And some exhibitors are adding live components.
There will also be anchors presenting the fair itself – something that doesn’t make sense in a huge convention center – and numerous lectures and round tables, one of the strengths of the CES, will continue to be held. After 2020, we’ve all discovered the issues that can arise with video conferencing, but they certainly add convenience and allow you to avoid the long lines to hear lectures in the crowded Las Vegas auditoriums.
Gary Shapiro, executive director of the Consumer Technology Association, which runs CES, says it has now become easier to attract keynote speakers because people don’t have to travel. Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, and Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, are among the keynote speakers for this year’s edition. Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish will perform.
There are also fewer difficulties for the organizers. “When you think of physical CES, you have to think about possible strikes and protests, the climate and its impact on traffic,” Shapiro said. “These are things that I don’t care about now.” And what are you worried about? “What to do if it doesn’t work?”
The current estimate assumes that more than 1,900 exhibitors will take part online. While this is almost double the organizers’ original goal, it is still well below the number of exhibitors from last year.
My inbox confirms this decrease in the number of people involved. At this point last year, I had received over 700 emails from companies informing me about their plans for CES and related products and events. The last time I checked, I had received just over 200 messages this year.
The cost for exhibitors is low – most pay USD 1,200 (approx. R $ 6,400) to showcase their products. The upper levels with prices of up to $ 85,000 (R $ 456,000) receive small websites and can conduct group interviews and live presentations about the event circles. And there is no need to move people and material from around the world to Las Vegas to be housed and fed in hotels, the daily rates of which increase impressively during the period.
The CES host city is feeling the pressure: The 2020 exhibition had direct expenses of around USD 169 million (R $ 907 million) and the associated secondary economic impact of around USD 290 million (R $ 1.5 billion) according to estimates the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Some companies like Canon see this as a welcome opportunity to rethink their presence at CES. Charles Biczak, director of strategic planning, said his team is keen to show visitors more than the printers and cameras the company is primarily known for. They developed an interactive experience that takes visitors on a journey around the world from Yellowstone to Amsterdam and Kawasaki in Japan – and even into space.
Of course, some activities allow people to take digital photos. But you’ll also be able to take a closer look at things that might not necessarily attract as much attention at a physical show, such as the company’s 3D imaging systems – known as “volumetric video”. There’s also some type of spy game designed to demonstrate some gesture-based technology the company plans to bring to market later this year. (These experiences will be available on the Canon website after the event.)
To create all of these digital CESs, the organizers have partnered with Microsoft and given access to their technology and the company’s video production facilities in Redmond, Washington. In 2020, Microsoft broadcast several of its important conferences to online systems. However, this is the first event the company is developing with an outside organization.
Bob Bejan, vice president of world events at Microsoft, said he gave the Consumer Technology Association a presentation based on the mistakes his company made when it tried to follow the rules of live presentations when it did with the Hosting digital events began. “If we learn one thing in the process, it is not possible to translate. You work in a different medium, ”says Bejan.
Videos and other presentations need to be shorter, and trying to recreate the atmosphere of the exhibition hall or hotel bars in the virtual space is useless. Microsoft decided to focus on what already made sense online: a strong visual component, real-time engagement and “networking” based on common interests. Bejan says, “There really is a sense of place. It’s different from going to a webpage with lots of links. “
The registration fee of $ 1,200 (approx. R $ 6,400) is “very cheap compared to attending CES Physical,” said Scott Heimendinger, vice president of marketing at Anova Culinary, which manufactures intelligent kitchen appliances and is attending the event in Las Vegas in the last seven issues. He said his company decided to participate partially for fear of missing out on an opportunity that participation might present.
Belkin, another regular CES participant, chose the opposite route. The connectivity and smart home maker decided it didn’t need to buy a seat from the CES website or hold an official CES press conference. Even so, some products will be launched and participated in a virtual show for the media, replacing a similar event that previously took place in Las Vegas.
“This year we have had the opportunity to be creative with customers,” said Steven Malony, who has just assumed the position of Belkin CEO. He says his company has secure relationships with retailers and manufacturers, so he isn’t worried about opportunities in a virtual CES (the company was acquired by Taiwan’s giant industrial group Foxconn in 2018).
Marjorie Costello, editor of CE Online News, a longstanding industry bulletin, first attended CES in 1981, when it was still known as the Consumer Electronics Show. “We have to be flexible, the world has changed, but I’m very used to getting around convention and finding things at random,” she says. “In a virtual environment, there is no way to trip over things.” She is concerned that attendees are only sporadically paying attention to the event and focusing on specific companies or topics. “I am concerned about the possibility of being too linear in my attention.”
“There is a sense of discovery, of finding things that one would never ask and that can germinate creativity,” says Mark-Hans Richer, vice president of marketing at Fortune Brands Home & Security, its subsidiary Moen, attends the CES 2021. “This year we will have a bad replacement. And I’m not saying that as a criticism of the organizers. It is difficult to reproduce something so tangible. “
The Consumer Technology Association and its partners take pride in what they achieved in the short term, but recognize that it is no substitute for the physical event. At best, they have laid the groundwork for a digital component of the conference that they hope will return to Las Vegas within 12 months.
“It’s not my favorite CES, but we did our best,” says Shapiro.