Digital CES 2021: What Went Right, What Went Wrong
With a show floor no larger than my home office, CES 2021 pulled off an uneven semi-triumph
Stay at home CES 2021 had its perks.
I attended most meetings in slippers and my favorite old sweaters.
It was much easier to focus on keynotes without having to juggle a laptop and a big camera or multiple phones.
I was on time for everything.
I attended more keynotes than ever.
I was well-fed and hydrated.
I wasn’t overwhelmed.
I was well-rested.
That was the good news. But a massive tech conference squeezed into tiny screens and experienced at a distance suffered in other, crucial ways.
The single biggest problem was product discovery. Sure, big companies stuffed my inbox full of timely releases, and companies like Samsung, LG, Panasonic, GM, and others held keynotes packed with newsworthy product releases and concept unveils.
Still, even with half the number of exhibitors (approximately 2,000 as opposed to 4,000 in 2020), it was damn near impossible to find hidden gems. And the blame for this falls mostly on CES organizer the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).
The CES portal where I watched all the panels and keynotes, virtually all of which were well-produced and snappily paced, also housed the Exhibitor Directory.
I could filter by dozens of categories, which was an effective way to find all the robotics exhibitors, but the system was abysmal for serendipitous discovery.
My favorite part of CES has always been roaming the halls and spotting the interesting and unusual technology. Sometimes it’s evident on sight (Is that a robot paying table tennis?), other times, I’ll see a cluster of people around a booth and be drawn to the buzz. I would never have found and tried the Rocking Bed (which I brought on Live with Kelly and Ryan) without this kind of discovery.
I knew that the all-digital CES 2021 couldn’t completely replicate this experience, but the site fell so far short of the mark.
First, regardless of which filter I used, I always ended up with a list of company names and virtually no descriptions or photos. As a result, I couldn’t quickly scan a list of exhibitors to decide if I wanted to learn more. It felt like the CTA was forcing me to visit every booth at a physical CES — something I would never do. I was caught between quickly dipping in and out of various categories and opening exhibitor’s virtual booths based on names (I did this more than once to uneven results) and methodically going through every exhibitor listing. It was like going through an entire physical encyclopedia just to find the description for an Okapi.
Worse yet, every single time I clicked on a company name to read more, I was presented with a permissions roadblock asking if the CTA could share my attendee information with the exhibitor. I appreciate the attention to privacy, but I am already virtually at the event and have said yes to this message a dozen times. When will you get the message?
Once through that hoop though, I found an uneven collection of product information. Some vendors offered excellent videos, press releases, and datasheets. Others, just a photo or two. All had a helpful chatbot at the bottom. Sometimes it noted that a live person was in waiting. Other times not.
I’ve dropped a handful of my discoveries throughout this story, but I guarantee you I missed so, so much.
As others pointed out on social media, this system put smaller companies at a distinct disadvantage. It also, obviously, made it hard to assess any of these products without seeing them in person, without touching them, and without trying them out. It’s the visceral part of CES that I missed the most.
Also, though no fault of the CTA’s, I deeply missed CES networking. Alone in my home office, I was laser-focused on finding cool new products to share on Twitter and here on Medium, but when that was done, I didn’t hop in an Uber and head to an evening event. Instead, I curled up on my recliner and wondered what other attendees were doing right now.
In the end, my all-digital CES 2021 experience was like an intense, three-day online course. I stared at the screen and ingested startling amounts of information, comprehending, I think, more than I might’ve if I were sitting in a crowded ballroom.
I feel enriched and a little empty. I appreciate All Digital CES 2021 but cannot wait to attend CES 2022 in person.
P.S. I did not miss gambling away $100 at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport before my flight home. So, thank you for that.