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Design Innovation Tech & Society The Pandemic

At CES 2022 Smaller Voices Made Bigger Noise

Photo Credit: Kaare Christian

I’m writing in Las Vegas, home to CES, the world’s largest technology and consumer electronics show. Inconveniently, even in a normal year, it always takes place during the first week of January. I’m something of an expert as CTA (parent of CES) acquired my company in 2019 and I still serve as a consultant to, and am a huge fan of theirs.

This year, because of the Omicron spike, CES happened in a decidedly smaller, more subdued fashion. Many of the largest exhibiting companies decided to pick up their plywood and go virtual — creating press conferences and exhibit booth experiences that could be witnessed from any screen anywhere. Some humans who would normally staff booths were replaced by avatars, AI chatbots, and QR codes.  Newly erected temporary walls hid vast swatches of empty exhibit space, and booths changed locations so quickly as exhibitor plans changed that the show’s mobile app couldn’t keep up.

Gone were throngs who lined up to grab the latest swag, the cab lines that usually snake slowly around the convention center, and the cacophony of dominant players who, let’s face it, often suck the wind out of the sails of smaller but often more innovative exhibitors.

It took, on average, 11 minutes to get from the LVCC to the Sands/Venetian, even by bus, in prime traffic hours. That is radically less than in a normal more frenetic year. Or you could hop in for the unexpectedly pokey but still exciting Tesla Hyperloop ride to move you from North Hall to the new West Hall with no lines in a matter of minutes. (It’s a sort of mash-up of Musk innovations–chauffeured Teslas drive between the halls in an underground Hyperloop-style tunnel, which eventually will extend to much more of the Vegas Strip.) But as per tradition, the busiest lines were to nab free sex toys at booths for things like  Satisfyer’s Love Triangle.

The crowds for sex toy giveaways were in stark contrast to other exhibit spaces, which uncharacteristically allowed time to nap or contemplate.

Davids Win the Battle

While Goliath companies very publicly shied away, the little Davids marched into battle, creating a sort of tech-fueled social schism. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Haier, and LG that pulled out of Vegas or off of the show floor just weeks before the event could afford to eat the costs and err on the side of caution. Smaller companies had a harder swallow. Startups that scraped together the thousands of dollars to invest in their big shot at CES could less afford to walk away. Many of them made the best of a tough situation.

And that’s where the magic of this year’s CES show happened.  The small booths, for the first time ever, got the lion’s share of the opportunity. New voices were heard, new business opportunities emerged and attention was paid. The quality of engagement at all booths was higher, because the number of humans was down.  It became a show focused on innovation and less about a bunch of suits pontificating on the future. Because attendees could walk the show floor, sans throngs, they could gobble up double the information without the usual wait time.

For the 40,000 or so who were there it was a garden of innovation. This antic-filled TikTok video created by PowerStation Studios’ Sharon Weisman, captured the CES of serendipity and surprise:

Plan B’s Pervaded

Real-time innovations often transcended the products they were promoting. Quick pivot awards go to companies like Perfect Corp., which turned its physical booth into a virtual one in a matter of a few days, thanks to QR codes. Attendees could meet with company exhibitors and experience AR makeup try-on and consultations in a journey started at the booth.

Some valiant uses of QR cards didn’t draw crowds. Here’s the vastly eerie LG booth.

Mobility, Metaverse and My Health are the Winners

The most talked about thing at CES, the metaverse, was coincidentally the most conspicuously absent. Only a handful of metaverse companies like Touchcast and Omniscape exhibited on the show floor. They were selling the promise of setting up offices or meetings in the metaverse.  Still, despite the paucity of exhibitors, the metaverse meme machine was in full swing as you looked at exhibit areas and listened in on conversations.

Big company showcases like Intel’s took attendees into a metaverse where Alex Rodriquez toured the new chip.  And Intel created a digital-first immersive experience among the Grand Canal Shoppes in the Venetian.

At the BMW pavilion, attendees could not only take a video of a color-changing car that uses special paint, but also create unique digital art in their vehicles. At the Hyundai MOBIS exhibit, attendees had the opportunity to step into M. Vision Town, the company’s metaverse space, and let their avatar “test drive” each concept vehicle’s capabilities. And Samsung used CES to showcase a Second-Life type metaverse home complete with Samsung products. One journalist from Tech Radar quipped that future CES’s would be better if held in the metaverse.

Accessories for the nascent metaverse were found, too. Owo showed a haptic vest to let you enter the metaverse with full feeling. And a Japanese company, Shiftall, announced three new products to augment your metaverse experience. In a world not dominated by Mark Zuckerberg or Microsoft, metaverse companies like Tekle Holographics, with its immersive 3D holographic technology, took center stage.

Pandemic-era Innovation Was Abundant

They say you “sell stuff” in good times, but that innovation flourishes of necessity in troubled times. Walking through Eureka Park, with its solar-powered self-watering garden, toothbrushes that detect bad breath, “smello-vision” retail, robotic retrievers, and smart mobility (yes, bikes, scooters, and tiny EV cars) I kept flashing on the idea that every inventor in the world seemed to be stuck in lockdown coming up with new stuff. And it was a global effort. Entire delegations for Korea, France, Japan, Israel, and Italy had large shared booths and even Case Western Reserve had an entire aisle showcasing tomorrow’s winners. 

This Israeli startup pavilion showcased a smelly retail use for perfume.

Health and Safety Were Top of Mind

Sourdough jokes asides, we spent the last two years figuring out how to do things on our own, in our own homes.  That has made almost all of us tech-savvy in a hurry.  We learned at home, worked at home, and cared for ourselves and our families at home.  New products emerged that suit this new lifestyle, like the Vivoo strip that tests your urine at home to evaluate your overall wellness, or the Sengled lightbulb that can track falls and monitor sleep. Your brain was not neglected. We saw do-it-at-home products like iSyncWave, which showcased a first wireless, EEG  what is intended to help treat depression with LED light therapy.  The theme was abundantly clear:Take proactive control of your health in the comfort of your own home.  Withings made its popular scale even smarter by adding a sensor-laden pull-up bar to it. It can also now measure your body mass index (BMI), where your fat is dispersed, and even which arm might be less muscular. It’s called Body Scan by Withings. Toto showed off (virtually) its lab-in-a-toilet Wellness concept. The toilet’s sensors track many aspects of physical and mental status based on your bodily eliminations. Long predicted, now here, if you want it.

Closely aligned with the health and safety companies was the do-it-yourself crowd. L’Oreal is letting you dye your own hair with a magic wand and some online consultation. And there were hundreds of smart toothbrushes– some even detected bad breath.

Mobility and Transportation

Next-gen digitally-enabled mobility was everywhere.  John Deere showed a giant tractor that uses AI and computer imaging to identify weeds and invasive species. SONY rolled out its concept electric car, The Vision (though I couldn’t help thinking I’d rather watch movies and play games in it than drive it). Indigo showcased a new small EV built with gig-working delivery folks in mind. And e-scooters and e-bikes were everywhere.  Outside of the new West Hall were over 50 e-bikes and scooters you could try out as part of the e-Mobility experience.

The e-mobility experience let you test drive the new electric vehicles.

The companies I spoke with, many in confidence, were terrifically excited that they achieved instant “talk of the town status” because of the nature of this year’s CES.  With no lines and few big exhibitors, if you showed up, you got noticed. And that was something really special.

We won’t immediately know whether CES 2022 was a superspreader event. Even if someone did get the virus during CES, it could have easily (and probably) been at a club, hotel, plane, or casino. The venue itself seemed as safe as you could get in this unpredictable world. CES handed out self-testing kits to all attendees and requested they use them before going to the show floor, and required vaccination for entry. PCR antigen tests were made available free to all international travellers, and masking was required on the show floor.

CES 2022 was a very different sort of show, but the big beneficiaries were the small voices, and that may have a big influence in how trade shows, especially this one, are designed in the future.

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