The highlights of last year’s Consumers Electronics Show included a Star Wars-like “life companion” droid from Samsung, a 25-metre wave-shaped television from LG, and an Avatar-inspired Mercedes-Benz that “merges the car and the driver into one living organism.”
The world’s largest electronics show has long been known for such outlandish products. But at next week’s entirely virtual CES, the top themes are set to take a turn for the practical as companies draw on the shared experience of coronavirus lockdowns.
Touchless or voice-based technologies are expected to play a big role at the four-day event, which begins on Monday, alongside “smart home” accessories, wellness solutions and entertainment gizmos.
The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts the event, is planning a “Covid-19 State of the Union” to educate attendees on vaccines and treatments. Another panel will focus on using artificial intelligence to improve healthcare, while a third looks at how to reimagine the future of education.
“It’s definitely going to be a different CES,” said Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen. He expects the event to be much more of a focused industry show than the consumer-oriented marketing spectacle it usually is.
“A lot of the energy is typically visceral and physical,” he said. But in a virtual environment, “you can’t show a wall-to-wall television or hundreds of screens up on the panel.”
Usually, up to 200,000 visitors spend the week criss-crossing the Las Vegas Strip to scope out potential tech breakthroughs. This year most attendees will be logging in to the chaotic event from home, while tech executives are likely to opt for less ostentatious demonstrations given the backdrop of the pandemic.
Some attendees are worried the event could be largely pointless for them. The basis for CES — a networking event where executives can get through a year’s worth of meetings in a week — has been undermined by it being virtual. As one reluctant attendee said: “Why would I schedule a Zoom meeting next week that could be scheduled anytime?”
Some start-ups, including those that would usually spend a sizeable chunk of their annual marketing budget on the one event, have reined in their plans and downsized their expectations.
“We were planning on carpet-bombing CES,” said Hemant Sikaria, a five-year Tesla veteran who founded car-software company Sibros in 2018. His team had planned their own booth, set up partnership exhibitions and saw the event as a major opportunity to meet potential clients.
“And then Covid happened — it threw all our plans into the gutter,” he said.
Mr Sikaria said he still sees value in attending, but added: “There’s no way it can be bigger than in-person.”
Others are optimistic that all the hours people have been spending at home will translate into new opportunities. Samsung’s head of research, Sebastian Seung, said in a press release that CES 2021 “may be the most exciting yet.”
Samsung has reimagined a “better normal” and plans to showcase “AI-infused technologies” for the home that could act like “an extra pair of hands.”
Mr Seung said that last year, “we talked about a world where our living spaces would become workout studios and meeting spaces, and kitchens would become hyper-personalised to your unique needs. Little did we know then that those experiences would become so important, so quickly.”
Among the executives hoping to take advantage of newfound consumer preferences is Bill Strang, head of corporate strategy at Toto, a century-old toilet company that invented the electronic bidet 40 years ago.
After what he calls “the toilet-paper panic of 2020”, sales of Toto’s flagship Washlet bidet “skyrocketed” until it ran out of inventory, he said. With supplies back up, he’s hoping to find a captive audience of people willing to invest in bathroom tech as they spend more time at home, though he worries the virtual nature of the event robs Toto of the opportunity to demonstrate its tactile properties.
“There’s such a level of engagement that happens when you bring people together,” he said. “I worry that [this event], being virtual, you don’t get that. But that’s partly on us to tell the story right.”
For automotive companies, CES has in past years been an enormous proving ground to demonstrate their resilience against the encroachment of tech giants like Apple and Alphabet.
Last year, Toyota announced it would build an entire smart city near Mount Fuji designed for the internet of things. But Covid-19 hit the auto industry hard, denting demand, disrupting global supply chains and causing carmakers to rethink their priorities.
“Definitely I’m not expecting something so spectacular this year,” said Axel Schmidt, global auto lead at Accenture. “I would expect to hear more about car software — the new brain, or the ultimate mobile device, whatever the expression will be.”
One year after having film director James Cameron on stage, Mercedes plans to focus its keynote on its latest “infotainment” screen, promising it will be “the next chapter in interaction between vehicle and user.”
Mr Schmidt sees such announcements as a sign the industry is “coming more to reality — more to pragmatic, smaller-step solutions — instead of producing big dreams.”