Pandemic captures the tech industry at CES 2021

 Pandemic captures the tech industry at CES 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic staged a takeover of the world’s largest electronics trade show this week, forcing the event online and dominating the line-up of new gadgets on display.

The 2021 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), which traditionally draws tens of thousands of buyers to Las Vegas to see and touch the latest televisions, smartphones and gizmos, still had a few cutting-edge concepts on display.

There was a smartphone whose screen rolled bigger or smaller, a transparent television and a driverless 240mph race car. But the dominant theme at this year’s event was tech to keep people healthy, well and comfortable as the pandemic grinds on.

There were disinfecting robots, myriad tools to help with handwashing, and augmented reality applications to entertain and recreate pre-Covid social lives.

Razer, which makes gaming computers, unveiled “the most intelligent mask ever created” with built-in neon lights, a microphone to amplify muffled speech and a wireless charger that cleanses it with UV light between uses.

Razer mask © Razer

Mohit Kumar, chief executive of UltraHuman, a wellness app, pointed to the array of health-tech on display, and highlighted a blood glucose monitor from the Japanese start-up Quantum Operation that sits on a wrist and does not require needles.

“If we start logging data from these sources, it can give us massive insight — or a way to crunch this data and present this to the consumer in the most usable fashion,” Mr Kumar said.

Steve Koenig, VP of research at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which organises CES, said the US market for connected health monitoring devices grew 73 per cent last year to $632m, and is projected to grow another 34 per cent this year.

TCL ‘rollable’ scrolling display © TCL

New laptops, headphones and computer displays were in abundance at the show, although it was hard to judge, for example, which 75-inch 8K screen looked best through the medium of a dim computer monitor.

Some products managed to impress despite the distance. The WowCube, a gaming device resembling a digital Rubik’s Cube that was first introduced in 2018, said it will begin taking orders next quarter. The $249 cube, comprised of 24 screens, can be used to play puzzles and other games, or display apps and widgets.

Cheryl Guerin, a marketing executive at Mastercard, suggested consumers are itching to spend money on these sort of novelties.

When Covid-19 first hit, she said, consumers reacted by spending more on small indulgences. But now, with savings rates hitting historic highs, we are seeing “the rise of revenge spending”, she said. “There is pent-up demand for splurge spend now, to bring a bit of joy and happiness into people’s lives.”

GM was one company that used the platform to declare an inflection point for electric cars, offering specifics on its upcoming line-up of vehicles in a five-year $27bn plan to take on the likes of Tesla.

GM’s concept of a Cadillac electric ‘shuttle and an autonomous vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone’ © GM/Reuters

Other big companies underwhelmed. Some used their limited keynote time for little more than advertisements, while others took advantage of the virtual nature of the event to reveal digital renderings of concept products.

LG and Chinese electronics brand TCL, for example, showed what a “rollable” screen might look like, in a step-up from the folding phones that created a buzz at CES in 2019. But it was unclear whether the rollable displays, currently just digital renderings, will become a reality this decade.

“It feels like the electronics providers are focused on this next screen innovation, but we are many years away from mass-market adoption,” said Paolo Pescatore, an analyst at PP Foresight.

Meanwhile, the organisers of the Indy Autonomous Challenge, a 20-lap race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, showed off a driverless race car they called “the fastest autonomous vehicle ever developed”.

The race is scheduled for October, with the hope that it would lead to real-world safety improvements. “If we can go 240 miles an hour and keep cars from colliding, then surely we can make highway traffic safer,” said Mark Miles, chief executive of Penske Entertainment, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Dallara race car for the Indy Autonomous Challenge © Indy Autonomous Challenge

The CTA tried its best to recreate the buzz of CES online, creating a LinkedIn-style website for the 200,000 attendees to network with each other and hiring influencers such as Justine Ezarik, better known as YouTube star iJustine, as a host.

But the dizzying experience of stumbling upon hundreds of start-ups in a Las Vegas convention centre proved impossible to replicate with the clicks of a mouse. “From an event perspective I just did not think they were able to get anywhere close to the live event,” said Carolina Milanesi, analyst at Creative Strategies.

Still, more than 1,800 exhibitors showed up with pre-filmed presentations, live Q&A sessions and virtual booths. Many were keen to show that anything electronic is just waiting for a “smart” upgrade.

Bridget Karlin, global managing director of CTA and vice-president of IBM, cited projections that AI will add “almost $16tn to the global economy by 2030 — and it’s being fuelled by our access to vast amounts of data, advancements in software and more powerful compute.”

Elon Musk responded to the claim with: “Much more than this & increasingly rapidly.”

Long-term, the underwhelming nature of the virtual event might be a boon as it highlighted the importance of the real thing, suggested Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.

“We may endlessly debate the future of the working office but CES 2021 suggests that the immediate future of such conferences will pick up exactly where they left off — as large, physical events,” he said. “As much as the tech industry complains about the January timing, this year has shone a light on why we begrudgingly pack our suitcases early in the new year”.

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