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Yup, CES Is Happening. Here’s What to Expect

Ever since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, fresh irony has been injected into the “What to Expect” genre of journalism. What to expect from a massive trade show? Who knows! Who knows if it will even happen! But this one is happening—at least for now. This is the big one: CES, the giant annual consumer electronics fest in Las Vegas, Nevada. And it’s happening both IRL and online.

We don’t know yet exactly how many tech makers, marketers, and analysts are still feeling bold enough to attend in person, where proof of vaccination will be required. The last time CES was held in person, in January 2020, an estimated 170,000 people attended. Last year, in 2021, we experienced CES entirely through our screens. That wasn’t much fun, but then again, neither is dodging microscopic virus particles in a crowded casino.

When WIRED spoke to the Consumer Technology Association in mid-December, the trade organization that puts on the show, the CTA declined to share how many people have registered for the event this year. And since then, a number of large tech companies have backed out of attending the show, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Lenovo, Intel, T-Mobile, AT&T, Peloton, Meta, TikTok, and Pinterest. More than 150 companies have marked their attendance as “digital only.” And just two days ago, the CTA shortened the event by a day—from four days to three—due to pandemic concerns.

“What we’ve been seeing with trade shows in general is that they have about 30 to 50 percent attendance from prior years,” says Jean Foster, senior vice president of marketing for the CTA. “If we end up in that 50 percent range, we’ll be doing pretty well.”

What we do know is that all of the onstage keynote presentations will be livestreamed for remote attendees. A few emerging categories of tech will be highlighted this year, like NFTs. The automotive portion of the show has grown even more significant from years prior, and keynote speakers include GM chief executive Mary Barra and US secretary of transportation Pete Buttigieg. Digital health will still be top of mind, everyday household products will be infused with AI, laptop makers will do their best to make things interesting and, in case you haven’t had enough screens the past two years, there will be giant, brilliant screens. Some of which we may have to view through our own screens: WIRED has also decided to cover the event remotely. 

New Frontiers

One of the new categories at the show this year is space tech. Foster says the current “space race” was what nudged the CTA to introduce the category.

“The fact that there’s been a lot of private investment and attention on companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX means there are enough companies now that are interested and would actually come and exhibit,” Foster says. These exhibitors range from Sierra Space, a subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation that’s been building space planes to carry cargo to the ISS, to Zero-G, which charters private zero-gravity flights.

Another area that’s being carved out at the show: Agriculture and farming. Giants like John Deere have been there in the past, but this year the lineup will include food companies that manufacture plant-based meat alternatives.

And if CES 2022 is any indication, we’ll be diving deeper into the metaverse this year, buying up NFTs with cryptocurrencies. Foster says she expects several crypto companies and NFT platforms to have some kind of presence at the show (including one celebrity-backed NFT company), though much of the conversation around these still-emerging technologies will happen during the marketing and advertising-focused sessions of the program. At this point, most of the major augmented and virtual reality players showcase new products at their own events, but this year’s bizarre CES has at least one upside: Maybe this hybrid event will prove that we really do need a better, more immersive option than endless Zoom meetings. 

Screen Savor

Otherwise, the world of screens will get larger, brighter, and have even better contrast in 2022, WIRED associate reviews editor Parker Hall tells me. That’s due in part to innovations in both traditional LED and organic LED (OLED) technology. Likewise, Mini LED and other rarified zone-based backlighting systems will trickle down to more affordable television models in 2022. And since more people are watching new-release movies at home these days, TV makers like Sony, Samsung, LG, Vizio, TCL, and Hisense are going bigger—think screen sizes of 75 inches and beyond, says Hall. He still doesn’t think 8K-resolution TVs will go mainstream this year, even though they’ve been showcased at the last few CES events. The sets are still too expensive, and 8K content still isn’t widely available.

PC enthusiasts might also be disappointed this year, WIRED senior product writer and reviewer Scott Gilbertson predicts, despite demand for PCs having soared during the pandemic. The most significant news will likely be Intel’s next-generation low-power chips making their way into more portable devices, which could have a positive impact on battery life. But between global supply issues and the relative maturity of the PC market, the big question is whether manufacturers can make enough PCs, not whether those computers fold into four parts, have invisible keyboards, or come with a free pair of clunky smart glasses. Still, the magic of CES rests partly on the fact that you can always rely on some PC company showing off something truly weird. That company is usually Lenovo.

Chippin’ In

Speaking of processors, chipmakers are feeling the heat from Apple and Google as the tech bigs pack more power into their custom-designed chips. So, while 2021 was all about getting 5G capability into every smartphone price bracket, WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu believes that the pendulum will swing back toward machine learning and AI in mobile chips in 2022.

Qualcomm, for example, recently revealed some intriguing new AI functions as part of its next-gen chipset (including an always-on camera feature). During CES this week, expect to hear chipmakers tout a whole range of ML and AI features, like applying natural language processing to better understand the tone of messages you receive on your phone and prioritizing those that sound important; or the ability to monitor vocal sounds, which could in theory identify asthma, the onset of depression, and other health issues.

Just like in recent years, digital health, activity trackers, and sex tech will be a part of the CES conversation. Robert B. Ford, the chair and chief executive of Abbott Laboratories—which makes, among many other things, over-the-counter rapid Covid-19 tests—is one of the keynote speakers.

WIRED’s senior associate reviews editor Adrienne So reports that digital health company Withings recently received clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration for its biometric-tracking ScanWatch, which clears the wearable for medical applications and could help set the bar higher for what these kinds of devices can do. Commoditized sensors haven’t evolved much in recent years, but form factors have. (Adrienne says there will be some particularly … unusual designs in wearables at CES this year.) More wearable makers are pushing software that lets you share data with primary care doctors. And WIRED product writer Jess Grey says sex tech will be all about customization this year—app-enabled toys that offer programmable vibration patterns, multiple internal motors, and a variety of body-safe materials.

As for the smart home, So says we can expect virtual briefings on the usual assortment of chip-equipped devices—think smart speakers, botvacs, pet feeders, water usage monitors, fancy toilets, fancier bidets, and Bluetooth-enabled toothbrushes. However, the launch of Matter—a new smart home standard that’s supported by Apple, Google, Amazon, and Samsung and is expected to launch sometime in 2022—could at least make these devices a little more interoperable. 

Until that happens, though, much of the smart home tech will be the same “new” tech we saw during virtual briefings at CES 2021. We probably saw some of it in person back in January 2020 too, along with that Charmin robot that delivered toilet paper when you ran out, the AO face mask built with fans and filters to purify the air around you, the Yoganotch “personal assistant” kit that guided you through at-home yoga classes … come to think of it, maybe CES can be ahead of the curve.

Julian Chokkattu, Scott Gilbertson, Jess Grey, Parker Hall, and Adrienne So contributed to this report.

Update, January 3, 2022: This story has been updated to include new information about the companies that plan to attend (and not attend) CES.

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