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John Deere makes me feel like I'm home on the farm during virtual CES 2021

The company designs a VR demo to walk reporters through the experience of planting crops -- all the way down to the seed level.

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Imagine driving this massive tractor and planter. With John Deere's CES 2021 VR demo, I got to do just that. 

John Deere
This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

One minute I'm standing behind a giant green tractor, looking at the planter hitched to the back. The next, I'm in a pit in the ground, watching that tractor drive quickly over me. Luckily, I'm not really in a hole, about to get flattened by a tractor. I'm actually on my couch at home, with an Oculus Quest 2 headset strapped to my head as I get a VR farming demo from John Deere. Welcome to the new, virtual CES 2021

John Deere, which first started exhibiting at CES three years ago, decided the best way to educate reporters about the technology in its machines was through virtual reality. The storied farm equipment maker sent VR headsets to journalists, as reported last month by CNET, with the goal of digitally transporting them to a farm to see the company's products at work during planting season. Offering something visual for media is key for translating just how big Deere's products are -- and for educating people who aren't familiar with agriculture.  

"The tractor is really just this communication and tech hub," Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at John Deere, says as he guides me through my demo. 

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During the craziness of CES (and everything else going on in the world), Deere's VR demo gives me a nice little trip home. The humming noise from the tractor throughout the entire demo evokes the sound of my childhood, riding along with my farmer father as he does chores or harvests a field. Even the virtual scenery, with its wide open fields and occasional grain bins and sheds, looks like I'm at home in Iowa -- albeit a flatter part of the state than where I grew up (no, the entire Midwest isn't all flat). 

In one part of the VR demo, I even get to drive the tractor in a sort of simulator in the virtual world, a showing I'm pretty sure would have made my dad take away my keys. Luckily, John Deere also has automatic steering in its machines. Self-driving cars aren't yet available to normal consumers, but farmers have been using self-driving tractors for years. Farm equipment also contains 4G LTE connectivity and GPS to map the fields, keeping track of every single seed. 

The whole demo is about the precision required to plant those seeds in the ground. That big pit I'm in is showing how key it is to make sure every seed is planted exactly right -- by giving me a view no one can see in real life. And that tractor rolling over me shows how fast 10 mph, the rate some tractors now drive in a field, actually is. While the tractor and planter weigh "upwards of 40,000 pounds," they cause little disruption to the soil when planting crops. Deere VR users get to see that.

With Deere's high-tech planters, "you have the ability to make thousands of adjustments per second of how the seed moves through the row unit all the way to the ground," Sanchez says. If you suddenly change speed, that's communicated to the planter to adjust the process appropriately. "Those electric motors can make those real-time adjustments to make sure that they continue to place the seeds evenly spaced and therefore giving them the best chance of emerging," he says. 

John Deere over the past month distributed Facebook's $299 Oculus Quest 2 goggles, which operate without a wired connection to a computer. Designing the VR experience, sending the devices to users and other associated costs were less than exhibiting at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Jon Ebert, manager of John Deere's public and industry relations team for North America, said last month. Deere's budget for CES in 2021 is about 75% of its normal CES expense.

In the demo, users don't play games or go on any sort of choose-your-own-adventure with Deere's systems. Instead, the demonstration features guided hotspots inside the software that users navigate to to learn about Deere technologies. 

"2020 has thrown curveballs … for everyone, and this has been an opportunity for us to take a look at how we can do things more unique," Ebert said in an interview in December. "We want to take you from where you're at and feel like you're someplace totally different."

Rethinking CES

CES is one of the biggest tech shows of the year and draws thousands of people from around the globe to Las Vegas to see the newest innovations in tech. Last year's event attracted 170,000 attendees and 4,400 exhibitors across more than 2.9 million square feet of exhibit space in 11 official venues. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced CES to scale back and go all virtual this year. The conference taking place this week is nothing like the gatherings held in earlier years. 

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John Deere wants to make its virtual farming demo more immersive through virtual reality. 

John Deere

CES 2021 is the latest example of a hurdle that Deere and others in the tech industry face when it comes to events: Making people feel like they're experiencing products in person. Interviews and briefings can be handled by video conferences, but demo rooms simply don't translate to Zoom. For big conferences like CES, the convention center floor is a key part of the show. Attendees can walk from booth to booth, seeing the latest in tech and finding hidden gems among the hundreds of exhibitors. Without the serendipity that freedom-to-roam affords, smaller companies will find it hard to get noticed. And even big companies may discover it's difficult to demonstrate what products are like if they can't be seen in person. 

Virtual reality is one way to fill the gap. 

Deere's tech push

John Deere is relatively new to CES. The farming equipment company exhibited for the first time in 2019, an effort to introduce itself to a new crop of potential customers and media. While the company is best known for its big green tractors, it has also built operations in artificial intelligence and even purchased 5G airwaves to install next-generational cellular technology in its Iowa and Illinois factories. 

Deere's technology push is all about precision agriculture. Farmers want to find out -- nearly down to the individual plant -- what's happening with their crops during the planting process, the application of fertilizer and harvest. They want to know if a certain seed performs better than others or why a part of the field ended up with poor yields. Precision agriculture uses mapping satellites and other technology to let farmers know what's going on in the soil, letting them be more efficient with gas, fertilizer and seeds.

In the Midwest and other crop-growing regions of the US, self-driving tractors are commonplace. (The farmer still sits behind the wheel.) Sensors can detect what the machine's doing, what the crop conditions are and everything in between. Farmers can monitor the progress of planting and harvesting from their iPads, and tractors serve as their own mobile hotspots. It's a specialized reflection of our own increasingly connected world, except farmers have used many of those technologies, like auto-steering and GPS mapping, since the '90s.

"The great thing about ag is that there are so many opportunities to improve yield with better perception, whether that's with better hardware, better software or both," Willy Pell, director of new technology at John Deere's Blue River Technology, says during my VR demo. 

Deere wants people beyond farmers to know about those advances in agricultural technology. But there wasn't the announcement of a new tractor or AI system at CES. The presentation is more about education than newly released products. 

At its first CES, the company focused on harvest. It displayed a combine, which collects corn and other crops from the field. Last year, it featured a sprayer, which applies chemicals to fields. 

This year's focus is planting. Next year, when the world likely looks more normal and CES is once again an in-person event, John Deere will be back in Las Vegas. And it will have plenty to show.