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CES 2021: What we are missing by not being there in person

Updated: Jan 6



Good riddance to 2020, a year that brought far too many people tragedy and financial hardship.


The sad truth is that the turn of the calendar is more symbolic than a passage that brings an immediate end to the misery, or that returns us to anything close to a pre-pandemic sense of normalcy. But color me an optimist, so I place as much hope in COVID-19 vaccines as anyone, and a belief that better times are just ahead.


It’s just going to require a bit more patience. And whatever the new/old normal eventually becomes, I suspect we'll also still be doing a lot more Zooming even when COVID truly is history.


Such is my mindset in early January, the time of year when I’m normally getting set to board a cross-country flight to Las Vegas for the annual CES tech shindig. As with so many other tech events of these past many months, the trade event that used to be known as the Consumer Electronics Show, will be staged as a virtual-only affair during its official run from January 11 to 14.


It isn’t lost on me that CES 2020 was the last major tech fest I attended in person, or that the 170,000 or so global attendees may have helped to unwittingly spread the coronavirus.

The difficult task for exhibitors this time around is to accomplish remotely what these companies would normally aim to do in the confines of the Las Vegas Convention Center, or in the nearby hotel ballrooms and suites on the Vegas Strip.


For sure all the usual suspects—big name companies such as Samsung, LG, Sony and Lenovo--will be virtually taking the wraps off new TVs, soundbars, household appliances and computers. Expect as well to hear the latest on the industry trends that have frankly dominated these proceedings through several CES shows now. That means more on artificial intelligence, robots, drones, smart cities, digital health, augmented reality and 5G.


Meanwhile, as has also long been the CES norm, top tech executives will deliver keynote remarks showcasing the roles their respective companies intend to play in many of the aforementioned areas, only they’ll be speaking of course remotely. The lineup features Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Best Buy CEO Corie Barry, AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su, Microsoft president Brad Smith, and Walmart CEO Doug McMillon.


In the past, I’ve gotten to moderate CES panels myself. Not this time.


On a personal level, I certainly won’t miss the long plane rides, long taxi lines, and not-so-long periods of sleep. But I will miss CES.


Eyeballing a picture of a wall-sized 8K television I won’t be able to afford anyway, isn’t the same as marveling at the thing from a few feet away, perhaps (wink-wink) with a cocktail in hand. I’ll miss gazing at, touching, and feeling other products I might normally write about from the show floor, shoot video of, or decide to review later. Often this is the fun or wacky stuff that will never see the light of the day. Or something that by its very nature attracts a crowd, like the resurgence of sex toys at last year’s CES.


I’ll also miss the closed-door meetings I’d typically have with executives and company sources. You build relationships at shows like CES, learn what’s on smart people’s minds, and often get treated to a sneak peek at products that are not yet ready for public consumption

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Through all the Vegas glitz, CES for me is about the serendipity of it all, and catching up with industry friends and colleagues at media gatherings such as Digital Experience and Showstoppers, at dinners and late-night parties, or while simply patrolling the congested show floor.


A recent joint study of tech journalists from Muck Rack and Panasonic found that 84% of journalists attend shows and events for, well, “coverage,” which shouldn’t come as a big surprise. But 77% cited networking for future sources, something that simply can’t be replicated from afar.


If I were magically able to fast-forward to early January 2022, I would hope to be posting about a return to Las Vegas for an in-person CES. In the meantime, though, let me thank you for reading, and wish all of you a safe, healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.