BREAKING: CES 2021 to be all-digital

After months of insisting that “the show must go on,” the Consumer Technology Association today bowed to reality and admitted that there is no safe way to conduct a massive tech show in person. They’ve decided that the show will go on, just not the way it has. At least that’s how they’re painting it. Check out their press release here.

All-digital

The show will be all-digital, they say, much like the recent San Diego Comic-Con. In fact, they say it will be better. Where SDCC merely took all their panels online, the folks at CES are saying that the whole show will be online, including keynotes, meetings, and a virtual product showcase intended to replace the sprawling show floor.

Details are sparse at this point but I have high hopes. CTA represents the largest tech giants in the world and if they took just a fraction of what they usually spent on show floor displays, they could create an incredible VR experience. Imagine being able to walk the floor and interact with real people in real time from any device. With a proper headset it could even be completely immersive. It still wouldn’t be the same as the in-person experience, but it could be better in some ways. Product demos could be improved because each person could get a great view of what was going on. The crushing crowds of the main halls will be gone, of course, along with the crushing foot pain that comes with the average 8 miles that you walk every day. (Yes, that is the actual average of what I walk at CES, and one day it was 11 miles.)

The losers: The rest of Las Vegas

CES has been the largest show in Las Vegas for decades. This year was supposed to herald the opening of a brand new hall and mega-hotel complex on the site of the old Landmark Hotel. The new West Hall was well under construction during last year’s CES and was expected to offer CES the opportunity to have all its events under one roof for the first time in modern memory.

Instead, Las Vegas will be eerily quiet in January. Perhaps not as quiet as it was during the initial lockdown, when all casinos and hotels were ordered to shut, but I can imagine it being bizarrely sparse when the show would have been in town. Once upon a time, when I started visiting Sin City, it was empty like that in the summer. Hotels were cheap and you could just walk into a lot of shows. It looks like for better or worse, that’s what you’ll see again this winter.

I do sincerely feel bad for the businesses that will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, for the regular folks who depended on the extra income, for the “gig economy” workers who were hoping to cash in on demand, and for the whole city who will most certainly reel from this loss.

The winners: Tech journalists like me

I’ll tell you folks, like many people I wasn’t relishing the idea of putting my life in jeopardy to cover the show. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic. It’s just that I couldn’t possibly imagine any level of safety protocol that would allow the show to go on without massive health concerns. At a typical CES, even the somewhat poorly-attended CES 2020, there were still enough crowds that spread would be inevitable. There was so much shared space and nowhere near enough opportunity for cleaning.

I am incredibly glad that the CTA has taken this step because I think they are capable of delivering an incredible experience virtually. Not, it won’t be the same, as I said. But I’ve been telling you for a while that the show’s seemed like a bit of zombie. In 2019 I wondered, “is this all there is?” and this year I talked about how it really was smaller.

Opportunity for change

Let’s be honest and admit that the show had gotten into a bit of a rut. The big exhibitors were really just showing the same stuff every year with a few tweaks. Oh, the wall-sized TV got bigger. The robot washing machine got… robottier. That sort of thing. The level of innovation in the main halls kept going down, and all the freaky stuff was shunted off to Sands Expo.

This is an opportunity to rethink. It will be great for the smaller companies that were eclipsed by Samsung and Toyota, too. They will have the chance to really strut their stuff. I’m looking forward to covering it.

CES will probably be back in ’22, but I think this is a great time to rethink what the show should be and how it fits into the yearly product cycle for companies big and small. This may end up being the best thing for the whole industry.

Get the best reporting here

For close to a decade, the Solid Signal Blog has brought you a side of CES that no one else has shown. No, we don’t have a million-dollar budget or a massive stage in the Central Hall. But we have a team who has walked the floor just like you and shown you the things no one else would report. And while we won’t be physically walking the halls in ’21, we’ll still be reporting the best that CES has to offer.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.