CES's snazzy product launches couldn't mask the problems behind the scenes

CES Floor Photo
CES Floor Photo (Image credit: Consumer Technology Association)

CES 2022 was half-virtual, half in-person, and 100% messy, with many of its major announcements coming from companies that has already fled Las Vegas due to COVID concerns. With some tech conferences like MWC plunging ahead with in-person plans while others like E3 preemptively go virtual-only, tech companies and journalists alike have to reimagine how trade shows fit into our new normal.

Many tech sites and CES attendees have speculated that CES 2020 was one of the original super-spreader events for COVID-19, back when no one could reasonably understand what was happening. This year, CES 2022 took place amidst the raging Omicron variant, with everyone involved fully aware of the risks.

"CES will and must go on." Apparently.

"CES will and must go on." So said Consumer Technology Association CEO Greg Shapiro in an opinion piece for the Las Vegas Review Journal, despite most major tech companies and journalism orgs pulling out in response to Omicron. In his words, cancelling would "hurt thousands of smaller companies...counting on CES for their business," while the risk of COVID-19 spread would be "minimal."

Beyond Shapiro's noble vision of CES as "representing the best of our unique American history," money obviously played a role in the decision. KTVU reports CES 2020 brought about $300 million in revenue to Las Vegas, with average visitors spending nearly a grand according to the Review Journal. But thanks to the virtual-only CES 2021, those spend-happy tech tourists largely stayed home.

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For Las Vegas and CES, a cancelled or virtual CES 2022 was not an option. Even with initial estimates numbering 2022 attendees at just 50-75K, the organization and the city will make tens of millions it would otherwise have lost. Even if boosted and masked attendees still catch the variant and carry it back across the country, Nevada won't bear the brunt of the medical costs. Why wouldn't they insist on an in-person event?

Tech showcases aren't for us anymore

Photo of CES 2022 exhibitions

Source: Consumer Technology Association (Image credit: Source: Consumer Technology Association)

More importantly for tech fans, some smaller companies managed to go viral (sorry) with their in-person booth demos, in a way they would never have been able to with press releases buried in crowded inboxes.

People paid the most attention to the OnePlus 10 Pro, Playstation VR 2, conceptual Samsung foldables, a new Acer Chromebook destined to be among the best of the year, and other major brands' announcements.

But just as often, we saw Twitter threads on corny Metaverse tie-ins, hyperrealistic robots, and promising experimental tech that'll probably be consumer-ready in a few years, like Somalytics' paper-thin sensors for tracking 3D gestures. In-person CES does give smaller companies a chance to shine.

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Remote events take away our ability to see through the PR-speak and properly test products.

If we had been able to fly to Las Vegas as originally planned, we could have actually tested out products in person instead of taking press releases at face value, and filmed some of the coolest demos to show you. We could see for ourselves what is hyped up and what truly deserves the hype, and receive more organic and relevant answers from developers during demos than over email.

Instead, the only CES tech product we could put through its paces was the Galaxy S21 FE, which Samsung would have sent us for review regardless.

Still, a controlled, limited hands-on on a show floor isn't likely to show the true measure of a device, just as an E3 demo relies on cutscenes and pre-recorded gameplay to hide the jank underneath. Really, CES is there to get journalists and enthusiasts to buy into the potential of whatever newfangled trend vendors are pushing — which is why we saw so much about the Metaverse this year.

There's a reason CES isn't called "Consumer Electronics Show" anymore. We enjoy the marketing blitz because it gives us a glimpse at potential futures. But more and more, CES is about selling proofs of concept rather than products we'll ever see on a store shelf. Vendors hope to gain enough attention from their patented idea to get acquired by a well-known tech brand or attract some seed money, while the biggest companies trawl CES looking to acquire innovation externally.

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With the tech industry so coalesced around the largest monopolistic brands, events like CES have become harder for everyday people to enjoy. Any major announcements have probably been leaked already, whereas the smaller announcements may never show up on Amazon.

The "unprecedented times" keep sticking around

CES 2022 Floor Photo

Source: Consumer Technology Association (Image credit: Source: Consumer Technology Association)

If the Omicron variant had emerged a few months earlier, circumstances may have forced CES to close whether the organizers wanted to or not. But the sunk-cost fallacy and some metaphorical sticking-of-fingers-in-ears helped them to proceed. Other 2022 tech events won't be as lucky until conditions improve...again.

If this is the new normal, tech showcases will have less publicity to offer client vendors.

I lack the scientific expertise to predict how the ebbs and flows of COVID-19 will pan out by the time CES 2023 rolls around. But we've all heard the platitudes about "living in uncertain times" in commercials for the past two years, and this pandemic keeps stubbornly sticking around. Nowadays, whether or not a tech showcase proceeds in person is all about fortuitous timing and a collective desire to want things to return to normal.

Google, Apple, Samsung, and other popular brands can keep using their own livestreams for product launches because they know people will tune in. But other companies have to put their employees' health on the line to make an impression at tech events, with diminishing returns because the journalists, retailers, or venture capitalists they're pitching to may not even show up. In that scenario, why not just blast out a press release and hope for the best?

I've brought up E3 a couple of times because it's an example of a former heavyweight in its respective industry that has lost a lot of its clout. Now the major gaming brands also have found more ways to deliver major news directly to consumers, like Nintendo Directs; and smaller indie devs have had to find other ways to market their games like sending games to YouTubers.

I'm not saying CES, MWC, and the other tech events hurt by the pandemic are dead or dying; in many ways, people stuck at home in depressing conditions will gravitate towards "tech of the future" because we'd rather live in the future than the present. And behind the scenes, Forbes claims, events like CES still generate deals between vendors and retailers for up to hundreds of billions of dollars per year — though it's unclear how much of that money usually goes to the heavy hitters like Samsung.

But I do wonder if these "unprecedented times" will bring on a new normal for tech, where smaller companies also use new direct-to-consumer/investor marketing schemes instead of relying on tech events that may or may not happen to make a splash.

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, VR/AR and fitness

Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.

  • I was glad to see the trade show go on. It was encouraging to see life proceeding even in these crazy times. I do not mean to say that people should live dangerously. We should all protect ourselves the best we possibly can. However, without a hard lockdown of all 50 states I don't think we are going to slow this one down much and another lockdown should be avoided at all costs. A large number of people in my family recently got Omicron. All have recovered and most had milder symptoms. Maybe the best way forward is to let it blow through as quickly as possible. By all means get boosted, wear a mask, social distance, use sanitizer but maybe we should all try to worry less and look for joy a little harder.
  • I'm so glad I live in Florida and for the most part moved away from the virtual crap. As society, we have to face this by returning to normal. The biggest mistake that we've ever made is not letting it run it's natural course.
  • Cool, cool. I assume you're volunteering to work in the ICU, then, right?
  • We have effective vaccines and now a pill to help reduce the severity. It's time to go back to normal. If I get sick I am staying home to get better then returning to work. Just like I would do with the flu.
  • Except for the part where even though Omicron is less severe it’s extreme transmissability means the hospitals are either overwhelmed or about to be. People are having to cancel other treatments because of this. We can’t break the healthcare system. It is also not fair to the healthcare workers.
  • We should really dig deep into why people are going to the hospital. People shouldn't be going because they have or think they have covid. They should only go if its life threatening. Stay home and recover. Also unfortunately it really doesn't take much to overwhelm a hospital(i work in one). So hospitals being overwhelm doesn't surprise me. Omnicron is spreading ridiculously right now but its going to burn itself out. Make sure you are vaccinated and have a healthy lifestyle.
  • Still falling for the Covid BS. Keep getting your jabs
  • Ok, then supreme wise one. Help the rest of us that aren’t so enlightened and explain exactly what is BS about Covid. You obviously know things that the rest of us have missed.
  • Its pretty simple and straightforward.
    One: jabs dont work generally speaking. they might offer some type of limited protection against severe illness for someone in an "at risk" group but otherwise they dont do squat. Its proven even if it hurts peoples "feelings"
    Two: COVID is like the flu, again, and unless you are in an "at risk" group all the hysteria over it is unwarranted.
    Three: There is severe collusion with our government and big pharma which is why there is a huge fear campaign around COVID and the near forced vaccinations and boosters on everyone.
  • I've always been interested in CES reading and searching our all the articles but this year... Nah, not interested. If this constant hiding from Covid continues CES and the like will die off very soon.
  • Honestly, I find it hard to believe that the ROI on big presences at the trade shows is really worth it for most companies. It's incredibly hard to break through all the noise when everything is just jam-packed into such a short time. The tech press can only write up so many stories that it is almost something of a lottery ticket. With respect to COVID, it is essentially only a matter of time before we can see a more normal time. For events like this, I fail to see the reason to rush. We need to prioritize that which is really important. CES20 was undoubtedly an early spreading event, and I fail to see why we should be focusing on these type of events when we should be prioritizing ensuring children are back in schools. Events like these contribute to the community spread which makes it so hard to offer them any consistency. In the last month, nearly 30% of my sister's teacher colleagues at her school have contracted COVID. It is really, really hard to run a school that way. By simply proceeding as if nothing is different, we are putting our own (rather petty) needs in front of the greater good. Kinda sad actually.