I never thought I’d write these words, but I miss CES. The sore feet, the queues, the 16-hour days, the traipsing from hall to hall, the queues, the 10-hour flight to get there, the scuffles to get a desk in the press room, the queues… did I mention the queues?
Without wishing to sound crass, Covid-19 might be the best thing to happen to CES, because this year’s virtual conference makes you appreciate just how valuable the real thing is.
The CES organisers have done a reasonable job of hosting a virtual conference, but it’s been nowhere near as useful as the Las Vegas jaunt.
As a journalist, I feel like I’m short-changing the reader. I’m getting no better a look at the technology than they are. I can’t touch the products, get a feel for the laptop keyboards, hear how great (or otherwise) the headphones or this wonderful-looking iPhone hearing device is. I’m at the other end of a Zoom call. I’m relying on intuition, experience and — frankly — too much guesswork.
I feel like I’m missing good products, too. Every CES-bound journalist will know the pain of waking each morning to find 500 more press releases in your inbox. Sorting the wheat from the piles of chaff is near impossible.
When in Vegas, I take an almost masochistic pride in largely swerving the major stands and pre-booked appointments, and instead wander the halls trying to find the gems for myself. In particular, I love the Eureka Park that’s normally in the Sand’s Convention Center, where you find hundreds of students and startups from all over the planet, most arriving with prototype landfill that will never make a commercial product, but a few with something genuinely innovative and brilliant. Things such as a beer fridge that restocks itself or a chess board that moves its own pieces. Things that are not just another sodding slab of glass…
Virtual CES: what’s worked
It’s not been a total blowout. I enjoyed the Pepcom press event that was held last night. Instead of being thrust into a giant hall with journalists left to scrum it out with exhibitors, Pepcom held a virtual event instead, where you clicked on the exhibitor’s name, were given a short video of their new products and could then dive into Zoom sessions with their staff if you wanted more details.
It was certainly much easier to get through than a hall crammed full of backpack-toting bloggers, many of whom think nothing of chopping into your conversations or chokeslamming you out of the way so they can film their YouTube videos. But it’s harder for the more interesting, niche players to get noticed at an event like that. If you’re just a logo on a screen, how are you going to attract a journalist’s attention? I dived into a couple of Zooms with the smaller exhibitors and they were almost shocked to see me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were their only visitor all night. It was, well, awkward.
Perhaps what’s hardest of all for a journalist is virtual CES makes it impossible to tell which products are generating a buzz. When you can see hundreds of people crammed around a stand or a product on the showfloor, you know there’s something worth investigating there. And it’s not always Sony or HP or Chrysler or another big name that has these seminal products, but the smaller guys. The people without large battalions of PRs or huge budgets, who will get your attention anyway.
Regular CES is a brutal week-long slog, and I always come back with a virus. It couldn’t possibly have been held this year and I wouldn’t have gone if it were. But if it’s safe to go in 2022 and I can reserve my normal suite at the five-star Excalibur (plot twist: it’s at least four stars less salubrious than that), then I’ll be there. In the queue.