CES 2021, scheduled for run from January 11 to January 14, will be the show's all digital event. The Consumer Technology Association, the organization responsible for CES, is in a mad dash to secure keynote speakers, schedule big announcements from major brands, and organize it all in a "virtual venue."
This year's show will be unlike any CES before it, and may have lasting consequences. Here's what to expect.
CES Begins Now
Before digging into specifics, know this. CES is already here.
The show officially starts on January 11, and runs to January 14, but companies are already meeting with industry analysts and journalists to discuss their announcements. Some announcements will go live between New Year's Day and the first day of CES. Other announcements are embargoed under a non-disclosure agreement but will leak anyway, leading to a steady stream of new information leading up to the show's first official day.
In short, keep your eyes peeled. Literally thousands of products will be revealed in the run-up to CES, and many won't even be mentioned at the show's official digital events.
A Focus on Health Tech
The pandemic that forced CES to go all-digital for 2021 has caused a rush towards health tech, a category that was already trending upwards in prior years. You can expect to see every company reference the pandemic, and many will have at least one product that wouldn't have appeared any other year.
Tech companies will offer a variety of masks that either promise to improve the effectiveness of a standard mask, or combine the mask with other popular tech. Maskfone, from Motorola, combines a facemask with audio. The xHale mask promises high-tech filtering that's suitable for athletes. LG, meanwhile, will tout the effectiveness of its personal, face-mounted air purifier.
Not all innovation will be focused on masks, however, or even target consumers. Philips has a Patient Monitoring Ready Kit designed to help hospitals quickly expand ICU capacity during a surge in COVID-19 cases. You can also expect to see medical-grade wearables, like the BioButton, which promise a more efficient way to monitor patients.
While you'll see plenty of real health tech innovation, be warned. Companies often show unproven health tech at CES, and the claims made aren't always backed by science. You're sure to see many UV-light sanitizers, for example. While UV-light can sanitize, it only works well under specific conditions that some companies won't bother to acknowledge.
Awkward Digital Conferences
CES attracted 182,000 attendees, and that huge number doesn't include companies hosting off-site events not officially tied to the show. The show's identity is built around in-person attendance. Going all-digital won't be easy.
Most problems will be be no surprise, as corporations have hosted private all-digital events through 2020. They usually suffer a stuffy, stilted presentation, not to mention the video and audio quality issues that can occur when multiple presenters are on the same video conference. While most events have side-stepped serious technical issues over the course of 2020, the sheer size of CES nearly guarantees that at least one major company will see its conference interrupted by a glitch.
It's the small attendees, not the large corporations, that will be hurt most by the all-digital shift. Samsung can tackle the challenge with millions of dollars, professional coaching of executives, and celebrity appearances. Small companies don't have those advantages. CES normally gives tiny, unknown upstarts a chance to be discovered by journalists, analysts, and industry insiders wandering the show's many halls. That's not going to happen this year.
Lots and Lots of Televisions
The gravity of CES has shifted towards the home theater industry over the past two decades. Although always a strong presence at the show, its become more important as large slices of the consumer tech industry, like smartphones, gaming, and home computers, have moved to their own targeted events.
CES 2021 will see fierce competition in the television space, and not just from the usual suspects. Big names like Samsung, Sony, and LG are now challenged by Vizio, TCL, and Hisense, which deliver excellent TVs at lower prices. The ongoing battle between the new and old-guard brands always leads to big, flashy announcements at CES.
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All major TV brands are shifting away from traditional LED televisions and towards newer, better technology. OLED televisions from LG, Sony, and Vizio lead the change, but they're not alone. TCL and Samsung are exploring mini-LED technology, which use thousands of tiny LED backlights to improve contrast and brightness.
Gaming will also take center stage, thanks to the release of Microsoft's Xbox Series X and Sony's PlayStation 5. Their popularity means TV brands will spend more time talking up gaming-focused features in hopes gamers will pick up a new TV alongside a new console.
Tons of Laptops, Too
CES is also an important show for companies that make PC hardware. Asus, Acer, Dell, Lenovo, and HP come to the show packing their latest-and-greatest. AMD, Intel, and Nvidia also traditionally make hardware announcements during CES.
New laptops are often the focus. This is particularly true for Asus, Acer, and Lenovo, companies headquartered in China or Taiwan that use CES as an opportunity to show North American consumers what they'll offer over the coming year. Expect to see a lot of gaming laptops, most packing displays that refresh at 144Hz, or faster.
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Lenovo will pitch its latest ThinkPad and ThinkCentre hardware, which this year will focus more heavily on home offices and remote work. Dell and HP, which have strong enterprise brands, will come in strong with new professional-grade hardware. These systems will be impressive, but they also won't be cheap.
While laptops are likely to remain the center of attention, expect the PC hardware industry to cast a very, very wide net. The pandemic caused a surge in demand for monitors, webcams, keyboards, and other devices people need to work from home. That demand hasn't let up, and CES 2021 will give big brands a chance to detail products for the work-from-home lifestyle.
And Plenty of Home Tech
The smart home category was already hot going into CES 2021. Once an also-ran lumped into other categories, home tech received large, dedicated space at recent shows. The pandemic has turned the acceleration of smart home tech into a rocket ship.
Unlike most categories, where a certain type of product tends to dominate, smart home has no obvious center of gravity. Health products like air purifiers or home air quality detectors are sure to be popular at CES 2021, but they're far from alone. Cuisinart will be showing a new food processor that also cooks for you. Loftie has a smart clock that promises to make your morning alarm a bit more gentle. And Xandar will show off smart home radar that can detect and track residents.
Also expect announcements from large companies, like Samsung and LG, which often use CES to show off their latest smart appliances. This category has struggled to achieve mainstream acceptance, but that hasn't stopped the big brands from trying. LG will show off a refrigerator that can detect users with voice recognition, and continues to push its InstaView technology, a window that lets owners browse their fridge before opening it.
Car Tech Drives Into the Sunset
The automotive industry, increasingly forced to embrace high-tech electric powertrains and in-car infotainment, became a popular fixture at CES in recent years. Major brands like BMW, Ford, and Mercedes were known for debuting high-tech concepts and whisking away attendees in self-driving electric cars. The show's North hall was almost entirely devoted to automotive tech at CES 2020.
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CES 2021 is likely to put a damper on the enthusiasm. That's not because automotive technology is less important. The pandemic has only made private transportation look more attractive. Instead, the issue is the in-person nature of the auto industry's biggest demos. BMW often made itself visible just by lining up a fleet of exotic demo cars outside the conference hall's entrance. A virtual conference makes that impossible.