I have a love-hate relationship with CES. Well, to be fair, let's call it a love-kinda like relationship.
For years, every time I departed the giant tech show, I would head home vowing never to throw myself into that tumult again. But months later, when it came time to sign up for the next CES, inevitably I found myself excited at the chance to go back and experience the spectacle — only in more comfortable shoes.
I attended my first CES in 2008. For auto reporters, the big draw that year was a keynote speech by then-GM CEO Rick Wagoner. Never before had an automotive chief executive delivered a CES keynote. It was also the last CES to feature what had been a must-see, the annual address by Microsoft's Bill Gates.
CES grew increasingly auto focused, and I went on to attend CES for the next four years or so. Then, as my job responsibilities changed, I stopped going and didn't return until last year.
It was old home week. At CES 2020, the exhibits and demos were still impressive, the people still enthusiastic, the conversations still fruitful. My main health worries? Shaking germy hands and walking through smoky casinos.
Little did we know we were on the verge of a pandemic that, a year later, would force CES out of Sin City and into our living rooms and home offices.
The official word came in July. "Amid the pandemic and growing global health concerns about the spread of COVID-19, it's just not possible to safely convene tens of thousands of people in Las Vegas in early January 2021 to meet and do business in person," said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association. He nonetheless promised "a unique experience" that would help exhibitors connect with their audience.
As the now-virtual CES opens with its annual media day, my mind keeps going back to a press conference I attended at last year's show.
All the seats were taken, and the back of the room was hot, stuffy and jampacked with journalists. After jockeying for a spot in the standing room-only crowd (and repeatedly dodging a swinging camera boom) all I could think about was getting a drink of water, some clear air and a seat.
So, partway through the event, I squeezed my way out of the room and made a beeline for the hallway. It was better than passing out. I figured even if I couldn't get back in, I could always watch a replay of the press conference online.
Not all CES events are packed cheek by jowl, but it's not unheard of, and this illustrates why CES had little choice but to go virtual for 2021.
This year, catching press conferences, meetings, speeches, exhibits and demos online is the rule, not the exception.
After nearly a year of staring at Zoom screens, many CES veterans undoubtedly miss the chance to walk the halls, stop by the booths, connect with people face-to-face and attend off-campus events and parties.
Even the thought of waiting in line for the monorail doesn't seem so bad. The virtual format at least offers a taste of the show, and it allows people to attend who otherwise would not. Companies still have a showcase for their products and a forum for discussing big ideas in tech.
No doubt the crowds will return to Vegas — in 2022, we hope — and, yes, people like me will once again swear off CES … only to ask "where do I sign up?" as soon as the next one comes around.