The Consumer Electronics Show is Going All Digital in 2021

August 04, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

The Las Vegas Convention Center has hosted the event’s 178,000 attendees for the past five years. Now, in the wake of COVID-19 and the telecommuting revolution, CES is moving its proceedings to the airwaves.

For companies and event planners alike, virtual event platforms have become indispensable tools. Organizers are attempting to simulate gatherings held at convention halls, lobbies, and meeting rooms. Some hosts have taken other approaches. Apple’s June Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) greeted viewers with a more intimate tone—foregoing the crowds in favor of a one-on-one presentation style.

This is CES’s first all-digital event, and organizers are planning on sharing immersive experiences with remote attendees. 


What Will a Digital CES Event Look Like?

To understand how things have changed, we must take a look at how a traditional CES event unfolds.

CES, which held its first event in 1967, typically hosts tens of thousands of visitors—all rubbing elbows while taking in the latest consumer-facing innovations. Companies showcase their technology in dedicated spaces. Manufacturers hold demonstrations, and the stage plays host to in-depth presentations before large audiences. 


Visitors mingle with presenters at CES

CES usually invites thousands of visitors each year. Image used courtesy of The Sun and CTA

This all occurs over three to four days. CES’ organizing body, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), views the show—and rightfully so—as an experience. To reflect this, tickets cost anywhere from $300 to $1,700, according to the Sun's report on CES 2019. CES’ biggest challenge will be recreating that experience, irrespective of any digital paywalls that may exist.

How do they plan on doing this? The CES digital format will open many doors for remote visitors, according to president and CEO Gary Shapiro: 


“Technology helps us all work, learn, and connect during the pandemic—and that innovation will also help us reimagine CES 2021 and bring together the tech community in a meaningful way. By shifting to an all-digital platform for 2021, we can deliver a unique experience that helps our exhibitors connect with existing and new audiences.”


Safety First

Naturally, the driving motivation behind the digital pivot is safety.

As of August 2nd, CES' host state, Nevada, saw its infection rate rise to 10.34%—capping off a consecutive, 25-day period of mounting cases. Organizers don’t know how the landscape will change come January.

CES draws an international collection of patrons and companies alike. A gathering of that breadth and magnitude takes extensive planning; playing it safe and planning early will ensure the best possible experience come the start of next year. Brands won’t face a difficult choice between participating or pulling out, as many have throughout this pandemic.


The At-Home Experience of CES 2021

Details have been somewhat scarce, though it’s rumored that events will be highly personalized for each home viewer. What we do know is that remote events lower many barriers to live events—like time, travel, and cost. A simple internet connection allows virtual attendees to partake from any corner of the globe.

CES is also a major business opportunity for many. CTA’s promotional video highlights video conferencing, which may be a key collaborative pipeline during the event. Presenters must account for this by tailoring their messaging to broader audiences. These companies will also be geographically distributed.

It’s entirely possible that we might have a vast library of pre-recorded content laid out before us. We may also expect scheduled, live demonstrations streaming at a steady clip.

What’s important is preserving the flexibility normally afforded to CES visitors. Can people “roam around” at home by viewing links, videos, and concurrent digital presentations at their discretion? Only time will tell. 


Attendees congregate while examining new products at CES

Attendees congregate while examining new products at CES. Image used courtesy of KCRW and CTA


Plans will gradually become clearer as we near CES’ scheduled dates—from January 6th through the 9th. 


How are Other Technology Expos Proceeding?

While CES is taking the conservative route—especially due to its global reach—it’ll be interesting to see how other shows conduct their planning through early next year. Sensors Expo 2020 has been postponed until November 16th and is still slated to be a live, in-person event. The electrical-component trade fair, electronica, is still scheduled for November 10th through the 13th

Hundreds of electrical engineering expos are being held through early next year. It remains to be seen how showrunners will react to public health developments in the interim. Some of these events only occur every two to three years—making outright cancellation a dubious proposition. Organizers may undoubtedly feel pressured to stay the course. 

Overall, general sentiments surrounding CES 2021 remain optimistic. The conference is an opportunity to introduce the general public to tomorrow’s electronics. CTA claims that all online attendees will have a front-row seat. The show’s 54th iteration will be a testbed for new digital formats, which may kickstart an industry-wide movement with its success.