CES 2021 Trend Recap

Decoding the key trends emerging out of the first virtual CES

Richard Yao
Jan 15 · 12 min read
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As the first virtual CES comes to a close, we are left to reflect on the all-digital experience and reevaluate the trends signaled by the show’s new products and announcements. Rather paradoxically, this CES felt both smaller and bigger: smaller because less than half of last year’s 4,400 exhibitors opted to join the virtual show floor, and there was no cavernous convention hall to roam; bigger because of the ever-expanding scope of consumer tech products that now impact all aspects of our economy and daily lives. Attending CES from home only accentuated the essentialness of digital technology.

To better understand the trends coming out of this unprecedented CES and what they mean for the year ahead, let’s look at the key innovation sectors on exhibit one by one, and dissect the key narratives that emerged from each sector to uncover the brand implications beneath.

Digital Health Rises To the Occasion

Digital health has been in ascendance at CES for the past several years, and this year, as we noted in our CES preview, digital health took center stage in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Categories that were previously considered niches, such as air purification, remote monitoring, and UV disinfectants, have become near-essential items grabbing mainstream attention this year.

Public health considerations burst into the foreground as the pandemic affected everyone, and businesses had to up their healthcare game and began to invest in tech that will help their customers, employees, and the general public stay healthy. Cue air monitors like Airthings Virus Risk Indicator which can detect the risk level of virus transmission in a building and provide actionable suggestions. Other startups looked into more specific health hazards, like Lifty Air which can help detect pollen and prevent allergic attacks. Meanwhile, autonomous UVC lighting robots like Ubtech’s Adibot are on patrol to disinfect and sterilize rooms in minutes, ensuring a safe workspace for the next day.

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Razor’s Project Hazle

And while devices for managing public health had a strong showing this year, it paled in comparison to pandemic-specific solutions that showed up at this CES. COVID-19 screening is set to be a huge area as the world tries to get back together in person. Scent Check with Nano Scent is standing by as “Corona Bouncer” for the English Premier League with their 30-second, non-invasive COVID check via COVID-19 scent detection. Meanwhile, smart face masks upped the ante for both fashion and functionality with a wide selection that promised everything from air quality monitoring (AirPop Active+) to voice projection (Razor’s Project Hazle) and Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calling (Maskfone). For quick home tests, Abbot showcased their BinaxNOW COVID-19, a convenient COVID test that works with a companion app to provide users with a daily health passport.

Of course, the increasing time spent at home also means an uptick in remote health solutions designed for home use. With the continuing rise of telemedicine and expanding functionality of digital health devices, health monitoring from home has become a daily habit in many consumers’ lives. A recent Deloitte report found a growing number of consumers are using technology to monitor their health, measure fitness, and order prescription-drug refills.

As a result, everything from the Tatch Sleep Tracker to the Anura app that can measure your vitals by observing blood flow in your face popped up at CES this year. In addition, medical-grade remote monitoring devices such as the BioIntelliSense BioSticker, made a splash at CES this year as it allowed for recently discharged patients or those with chronic conditions to be monitored in comfort, while still allowing their doctors access to their vitals and overall health data.

As health becomes a necessity that all brands must address, there needs to be serious consideration of how they play in the space. This CES showed us that digital health has come a long way, but it still has plenty of room to grow. That said, significant hurdles relating to data interoperability and privacy issues still remain, and will need to be addressed for the market to function beyond the pandemic.

Smart Home Goes Mainstream & Gets More Comfortable

2020 was undoubtedly a year where we reoriented our lives at home, and many people have sought digital solutions to make their homes more comfortable. According to recent survey data, 25% of Americans are more interested in smart home tech since the pandemic began, and 41% have purchased a new device; now 57% of all Americans own at least one smart home device. In short, smart home devices have entered the mainstream consumer market in the U.S.

Going into 2021, the smart home products from this CES showcased a sustained interest as it continues to gather momentum and expand beyond the living room. Specifically, we saw some standout products aimed at making our kitchens and bathrooms smarter and more comfortable. From the new LG InstaView fridge that can open its door via voice command, to the ColdSnap Ice Cream Machine that makes soft serve out of Keurig-like pods in just 90 seconds, from the CareOS Themis smart mirror that can run skin analysis and offer gamified hygiene solutions, to a smart toilet from Toto that promises to analyze your “bodily outputs” for health and nutrition recommendations, this CES proved our homes could be made smarter with digital solutions.

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Lasso home recycle machine

Our homes are also about to become more comfortable thanks to automation. Home robots are part of the story: the Lasso home recycle machine collects, cleans, and sorts recycling on your behalf, while the wine-pouring robot butler that Samsung showcased won the heart of many virtual attendees. Samsung’s new vacuum robot comes equipped with LiDAR sensors to help it “see” better and avoid bumping into obstacles. It also shows up in smaller things, such as automated video doorbells made by Arlo and Alarm.com, or a fully automated, connected pet door by Chamberlain, both of which make home security less of a hassle to manage.

For many, our homes are also doubling as schools and offices, which has led to a noticeable surge in smart home gadgets made for remote work and education. Besides the typical laptops and workstations, there are also things like a made-for-Zoom laptop with three webcams and a built-in ring light around its screen, as well as the Olly Day smart lamp, which promises to supplement natural sunlight and help boost productivity at home. And since we are spending more time at home, things like portable air purifiers and smart gardens that can fit on a shelf also received increased attention at CES.

Lastly, if you have $16,000 to spare, the connected bathtub from Kohler promises to bring the zen experience of “Japanese forest bathing” right into your mansion. But you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy the digital comforts. Overall, the smart home space is capitalizing on the pandemic boost and further diversifying and upgrading its offerings to meet consumer’s ever-rising demands for comfort, convenience, and even luxury experiences at home.

8K is the New 4K as TV Expands Functionality

TV continues to dominate the CES virtual show floor this year with dazzling 8K displays and curious oddities. You’ve probably seen LG’s transparent TV that rolls into the foot of a bed frame by now, but don’t get distracted from the larger trend here: with 4K TV now a mainstream staple, 8K TVs have officially taken over the old 4K narrative from five years ago — their prices are coming down, especially with TCL, one of the most popular TV manufacturers that makes great and affordable 4K models, announcing that all of its upcoming 2021 6-Series Roku TV models will feature 8K resolution. Of course, the main problem facing 8K right now is a dearth of 8K content, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Most brands are still playing catch-up to upgrade their content and brand assets to 4K today, so 8K is probably still a good five years away from breaking into the mainstream consumer market.

Besides the continued push for 4K and 8K, this year TV brands are also expanding their functionality and turning them into a new point of service integration. There are TVs for gaming as LG announced some of its 2021 models will receive native support for two cloud gaming services: GeForce Now and Google Stadia. Then there are TVs for at-home fitness, as Samsung added a new Smart Trainer feature that uses computer vision to track your workout and analyze your form to its Q7 series.

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New Sony TVs ship with Google TV OS

As with the trend we saw in smart home devices, where increased time spent at home has led to increased investment from consumers on upgrades, there are also a few CES products that aim to deliver a better home theater experience. Sony is set to bring theater-grade experience right into the living room with a Bravia Core streaming service, which will allow owners of Bravia XR TVs to stream Sony movies at “near-lossless” 4K Blu-Ray quality, and two new wireless speakers that support 360 Reality Audio, which offers 3D sound in a compact, wireless form factor. Not to mention the home-use projectors from LG, and Asus that both aim to make the home theater system more portable and user-friendly.

Taken together, the CES upgrades in the TV and home theater space should serve as a reminder to brands, especially those in the entertainment industry, to embrace new formats and creative and invest in immersive experiences to keep up with growing consumer demand.

Auto Charts Roadmap to EV & Future Mobility

Besides giant TVs and home gadgets, CES has also grown into quite an auto show over the past decade. Most carmakers came back to the virtual show floor this year to tout their upcoming models, often with an emphasis on electric vehicles, as well as showcase some future-forward mobility concepts.

As expected, EVs are back at CES, alongside California’s recent promise to stop selling gas-powered cars by 2035, and they looked better than before. This year there were a number of EV charging solutions like Splitvolt and EV navigation companies like Here, to accompany the announcement of Sono Motor’s solar charging car, Sion. However, it was GM that stole the show as they announced 30 EV models to be released in the next five years, Generation E indeed. Between a mix of Chevy’s, Hummer Pickup Trucks Cadillac luxury vehicles, and even a whole EV delivery ecosystem named Brightdrop, GM is setting themselves up for an EV future, but nothing spells the car of the future better than a flying taxi. GM debuted their first concept of a single person electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle, or eVTOL.

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GM’s single-seat drone and autonomous pod concepts

Overall, the EV race is starting to get more fierce as legacy brands double down to compete with the likes of Tesla, Rivian, and other upstarts. However, the news that loomed large over the auto show at this CES was the report that Apple is getting serious about building its long-rumored EV and has reportedly selected Hyundai as its manufacturing partner. With the Apple Car reportedly set to hit the market in 2024 and the Tesla stock at an all-time high, we may be looking at the last few years of the “Blackberry era” of EV development, before Apple propels it into the mainstream market as it did for smartphones.

Besides the continued push for EVs, automakers also stepped up on designing the in-car experience to make it more fun and user-centric. This year, Mercedes-Benz wowed attendees with their MBUX Hyperscreen — a stunning 56-inch display that stretches clear across the entire dashboard​. The MBUX system is built to be extremely intuitive, as it uses Artificial Intelligence to learn the habits and preferences of the driver and passengers​. During its keynote, GM also highlighted the “Watts to Freedom” performance mode for the upcoming Hummer EV that will go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds flat. To make it a more holistic experience, GM also added haptic feedback on the steering wheel, strong bass sound effects, and specialty in-car lighting, like an amusement park ride ready to take off. As our vehicles get smarter, the in-car experience for both drivers and passengers will become more of a focal point for differentiation.

Furthermore, we also have some indications as to how auto brands are responding to the ongoing shifts in mobility and purchase journeys. For example, FCA worked with Google to leverage its cloud-streaming technology to deliver a photo-realistic augmented reality model of the Jeep Wrangler 4xe to viewers’ phones. Attendees can access the experience by using their phones to scan a QR code in FCA’s virtual showroom, which allows them to interact with a virtual assistant.

For years we’ve seen a movement away from physical dealerships, with disruptions from startups like Carvana and Shift, and legacy car manufacturers are investing heavily, especially after this year of decreased physical experiences. Technologies like AR and 3D dealerships are bringing the physical experience online. Ultimately, It’s not just car buying itself, but adjacent services that are being built around differentiating car ownership like on-demand maintenance and EV infrastructure. At this CES, most automakers showed they have a clear roadmap to the future of mobility, but the question remains, will Apple (or someone else) beat them to it?

Next-Gen Connectivity Has Arrived to Support Smart Homes and Cities

5G was supposed to be a big topic at this CES, considering that the next-gen wireless network is finally widely available in the U.S. and millions of consumers have 5G-ready new iPhones. Since its launch in late October, iPhone 12 has already become the best-selling 5G phone in the world. Now that 5G has arrived, where is the hype heading? Unfortunately, this CES failed to provide a clear answer.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg kicked off CES 2021 on Monday evening with a keynote address that set the tone on 5G conversations this year. While there was no mention of expanding 5G service to compete in the home broadband market, as we had hoped for, Verizon reiterated some of its existing 5G partnerships across industries, including bringing to 5G Ultra Wideband to 28 NFL stadiums by the end of 2021, helping the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian to deliver immersive learning experiences with 3D AR models, and collaborating with UPS and Skyward to test last-mile drone delivery powered by 5G connectivity.

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Verizon CEO delivers virtual keynote

All of these initiatives underscore just how foundational 5G is as an infrastructure upgrade that will enable new digital capabilities across industries. Although 5G’s transformative impact on mobile likely won’t become evident for most people just yet, as network rollout and consumer adoption continue, it is time for brands to start thinking about what changes this next-gen mobile and IoT connectivity will bring to your customer experience.

Despite the lack of clear direction and new use cases for 5G, it is still being heavily deployed by IoT manufacturers to power the future of smart cities. A city is only as smart as the connectivity capability allows, and 5G is what will provide the kind of network capacity needed to bring the huge amounts of connected devices and sensors online to power the smart city of the future. For companies like Fibocom Wireless, which produces 5G Narrowband IoT modules that can power smart street lights, or Funzin Co, a South Korean company developing a 5G-powered smart city management platform, the deployment of 5G is essential to the development of smart infrastructure and build more sustainable, resilient cities of tomorrow.

While 5G continues to roll out and transform our cities, another connectivity revolution is coming to the home. At this CES, the surge of WiFi 6e routers not only reflects the aforementioned demand for smart home devices, as the new WiFi standard can spread bandwidth across a large number of devices more efficiently, but also addresses the uptick in 4K TV ownership and the need for better network capacity to ensure the quality of streaming. According to research by Cisco, the average American consumer had 8.4 connected devices in 2018, which will rise to 13.6 in 2023. As the number of digital devices we own continues to climb, and with more people work from home, a stronger home network is becoming an absolute necessity for many.

Overall, this unusual CES turned out to be business as usual for most sectors, with the exception of digital health and pandemic tech, of course. The trends that have been developing in sectors such as home entertainment, mobility, smart home, and smart cities continued apace and tried to keep up with the accelerated transformation in consumer tech adoption and behavioral shift. Virtual or not, CES is still CES, with all of its grandstanding keynotes, amusingly out-there gizmos, and attention-grabbing vaporware. After the tumultuous year we all went through, it is almost comforting to know that, even if we can’t come together offline, CES will continue to kick off each year with some clear signs for the consumer tech market.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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