Taking deep breath as I write these words. Next week, TechCrunch returns to our first in-person CES in three years.
Phew Good to finally get that off my chest.
The last time our team flew to Las Vegas for an event was in January 2020. Lucky date. It wouldn’t be long before the whole world went pear-shaped. It was a big show, with 117,000 in attendance, according to CTA (Consumer Technology Association) figures. The event, which its governing body prefers not to call the Consumer Electronics Show, has grown into a major event in recent decades.
Trying to see the whole show is stupid. Back in my younger, more hopeful days, I made it a point to see as much of it as I could, running pretty well as I walked through every formal hall. Over the years, that has become increasingly impossible as the show has expanded beyond the confines of the Las Vegas Convention Center. There’s the Venice Convention and Expo Center (RIP the Sands), countless hotel suites, and various formal and informal event spaces that circle the strip.
As with countless other live event producers, the last three years have presented an existential crisis of sorts for CTA. After a long delay, the organization finally had to admit that an in-person CES 2021 was a terrible idea for all parties, and the focus of a virtual event was understandably difficult. Last year, the show coincided with the omicron jump, and TechCrunch, among others, made the decision to drop that one. Highly contagious new strains combined with holiday travel were a bridge too far.
Last year’s indicators have significantly decreased. The CTA pegged “over 40,000” people at the event (44,000 is the commonly accepted figure), a 75% drop from 2020. That’s a remarkable drop, but I guess, given everything that was going on at the time, breaking 40,000 was something. a kind of victory. The CTA says it’s on track for 100,000 this year. seeing as how there is no other known COVID-19 variant, it seems likely that there will be a significant jump from at least 2022.
I’m likely not alone in my suspicions that the CTA didn’t want people to get too comfortable with the 2021 virtual event. Long before COVID, there was a long-standing question about the effectiveness of tech events. CES and other hardware shows have had an edge in that debate, focusing on products that benefit from being seen in person. That being said, the last couple of years have shown that it really is possible to cover the show pretty well from your living room.
However, we’ve moved beyond talk of a “new normal” (honestly, when was the last time you heard that phrase uttered seriously?). The new normal happened when we weren’t looking. The new normal is that the virus doesn’t exist because we say it doesn’t. Did I get it three times, including once from attending a trade show in Vegas? Well, yes: Do I realize that the act of attending a show that bills itself as attracting 100,000 attendees means there’s a reasonable expectation that I could be looking at a fourth time in mid-January? Absolutely. CES COVID protocols are here. The TL;DR is that vaccination, testing, and masking are not required, but you can if you want to. It’s the standard everywhere at the moment.
Is it still worth going? I think yes. I mean, I’m going. Other TC employees also go. We have reduced our presence from years past and I imagine that will be the case going forward. Given the amount of CES news that is released via press release and the fact that almost every press conference is broadcast, the right approach to covering such an event is smaller and more strategic.
This is not simply the result of this new, endemic virus. It’s a result of the changing landscape for media in general. For all my personal issues with the event, I really miss the days of clean, uncut blogging when there was still money pouring into the format before everything became a paywall. There’s value in shows like this, but for TechCrunch, at least, it’s about having the right meetings and finding people who are working on great things. It’s harder than it sounds, as 1,600 unread emails returned after a few weeks of hiatus. We made this list and I plan to double check it before I get on the plane next week.
Even before these particular circumstances, CES had gone through several crises of confidence. The numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, as has the nature of these things. The smartest thing the CTA has done in the past few years is lean toward the automotive side. What began as the inclusion of high-tech vehicle systems has expanded significantly. It’s like CES turned into a car show when none of us were looking.
One of the key performances of the show is timing. Much to the chagrin of anyone trying to enjoy some time during the holidays, it’s the first show of the year to try and set the pace for the remaining 11.5 months. CES technically starts on January 5th, but the press days are two days earlier. This year I’m flying out on the 2nd just to make sure we have our bases covered. It’s been years since I flew 1. Let’s just say I’m glad I stopped drinking a few years ago.
Placing the show right at the beginning of the year, it was several months ahead of major auto shows such as those held in Chicago, Atlanta and New York. The technology angle means we get a good look at multiple EVs and autonomous driving systems, as well as eVTOLs and micromobility. Expect some big news, including keynotes from BMW and Stellantis. Chipmakers like Qualcomm and AMD also always have a lot on the automotive front at the show.
Hyundai will also have a significant presence at the show, straddling the line between automotive, mobility and robotics. In fact, judging by my stuffed inbox, it’s going to be a huge year for robotics, with mainstream startups in a wide range of categories from consumer to industrial. Robotics at CES is always tricky. Big companies like to show off fancy robots that never go anywhere (believe it or not, the latest Sony Aibo is a relative success story there), and there will be a ton of crappy robotics toys. But the show is still a great place to see some legit progress up close. Stay tuned for next week’s issue of Actuator for a full analysis.
My inbox is also flooded with web3 and crypto levels, despite the fact that I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written about the topic in my 6+ years at TechCrunch. To say that the industry has undergone a rough shift in 2022 is like saying that Elon is “still figuring it out” as CEO of Twitter. The believer still believes that theirs is the solution to every problem that plagues humanity. Expect that to permeate every aspect of the show, including, somewhat ironically, the climate.
I would like to see sustainability as a major theme at CES. There is probably a section in the Convention Center’s North Hall. At the show, there were mostly a part of the climate companies, but I certainly was never overwhelmed by them. Hopefully this is the year it starts to turn around. Ditto for accessibility. I’ve heard of a few companies putting this focus on the show, but this is something else that really needs to be at the forefront.
Much has been written about Amazon’s Alexa struggles recently. It’s safe to say that the smart home market hasn’t turned out the way everyone planned. However, I expect significant press at CES to be fueled by Matter. The standard, which is supported by Amazon, Apple, and Google, among others, has really taken off over the past few months. If all goes according to plan, this CES will be a highlight as the various categories of connected home gadgets are on full display.
AR/VR — Yes, I say this every year. Yes, even more so than with smart homes, this one has yet to shake things up like many expected. The recent debut of Meta’s Quest Pro and HTC’s Vive will lead to big VR news. AR is likely to be even more ubiquitous. Even more than virtual reality, augmented reality feels like the Wild West right now. Currently, there are a ton of hardware manufacturers vying for a place on your face. Traditionally, CES isn’t very focused on gaming, but Sony tends to make it the focal point of its press conference, and we’ll likely spend some time with the PlayStation VR.
The outfit needs to get some love at the show. Oura’s success has hit the hoop form factor. We’ve already written the Movano pre-launch announcement. Bigger names like Google, Samsung, and Apple do most of their gear announcing at their events these days, but CES is a chance for smaller companies to get a little attention. I expect even more attention to be paid to health measurement monitoring from names like Withings. Connected home fitness remains a major trend to watch, fueled by that initial epidemic push.
As always, the phones here are mostly non-launchers. Mobile World Congress is where that magic happens. Otherwise, expect a slew of announcements from hardware companies like Lenovo and Sony that don’t have much of a presence in the North American market. However, this has traditionally been a big show for PCs. Dell, Asus, and Lenovo all have a big presence, while AMD and Nvidia may have big news to share about the chips powering those systems.
We don’t cover them as much, but CES is also big for TVs, in every sense of the word. LG, Samsung, Sony and TCL will likely have the latest, greatest and greatest. QD-OLED and MLA OLED are the magic words or letters I think.
Press days are January 3rd and 4th, and the CES show floor officially opens on January 5th. Plan accordingly.