CES Loses Sense of Majesty on the Virtual Stage



This year, CES traded the glitz and glamour of Vegas for the sobering reality of COVID-19. The Consumer Technology Association, which owns and produces the show, breathlessly declared “CES 2021 Makes History as Largest Digital Tech Industry Event,” but it was less a grand proclamation than a whimper.

If you’re not familiar with the Consumer Electronics Show, which predates the Moon Landing, you certainly know about its product launches – the VCR, the CD player, Commodore 64, the Nintendo Entertainment System, Blu-Ray, OLED TVs, HD-TV, and countless more.

Most prominent consumer technologies in the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries debuted at CES. These days, it’s no longer the opulent catalyst it once was – video games have their own show, Microsoft pulled out, and consumer (and prosumer) galas accommodate every vertical and niche so CES isn’t a unique spectacle anymore.

But it’s hard to traverse the sprawling grounds of the Las Vegas Convention Center and not be enthralled – lavish booths that look like small cities, teeming crowds that could fill two football stadiums, and all of it encased in the most gaudy platform in the world, the “Disneyland for Adults.”

Until this year.

2020 was the year of the Zoom call, the virtual meet-and-greet. So the 55th Consumer Electronics Show became yet another Covid event – pre-recorded videos, quarantined roundtables, and remote briefings. What news did trickle out met with considerably less fanfare because the “fans” were safely ensconced at home.

This year’s “exhibitors” weren’t really doing anything of the sort. Not that I blame them – throwing 150,000 folks together in close proximity would redefine “superspreader event.” But it’s more than a little depressing.

The old saw about “knowing your audience” holds especially true in a pandemic. But it’s more than snappy PR that makes cheeky references to the coronavirus. As the CTA put it, it’s “Tech Innovation Accelerated by COVID-19.”

And since many of us are stuck inside, the panacea is a buffet of smart home technologies.

Samsung emphasized futuristic AI tech – a Rooma-like auto cleaner, the JetBot 90 AI+, smart washing machines and fridges, and a robot companion, Bot Handy, that uses sensors and AI to apply the precise amount of force to grasping different objects.

Kitchen and bath specialist Kohler showcased a touchless kitchen faucet and a touchless toilet (with sensor-enabled auto-flushing), while a number of companies focused on the arena we spend 1/3 of our lives in – the Somnox robotic pillow helps users fall asleep, Cradlewise demoed an intelligent crib, and the ErgoMotion Quest smart bed uses an app to connect with smart home systems like the Nest thermostat.   

One of the few boom industries throughout the pandemic was delivery services, and GM catered to that by launching Brightdrop, which offers an “ecosystem of electric first-to-last-mile products, software and services to empower delivery and logistics companies to move goods more efficiently.”

Lify Wellness, a “one-stop holistic wellness ecosystem,” introduced something called "Stay-home Wellness" technology, which deals with stress management, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to MorpheusTEK, which is headquartered in my own backyard. The robotics supplier helped develop a series of “CovidTECH” social distancing and monitoring technologies, including an mAIrobotics AI Thermal Scanner & DreamVu Social Distancing Camera.

Every CES since its genesis in 1967 generally had an overarching theme (or two), and this year’s Covid-enabled smart home motif was on-point – from futuristic cleaning technologies to smart beds, smart toilets, smart air fresheners, and even a smart shampoo, a “Water Saver” sustainable hair care system from L'Oréal.

Here’s hoping more positive global developments drive next year’s Consumer Electronics Show.