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CES needs to be in person, as soon as it's safe

The biggest losers at the massive tech industry trade show are the small companies you'll never hear about.

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Attendees pass through a hallway at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Wednesday, Day 1 of CES 2022. 

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This story is part of CES, where CNET covers the latest news on the most incredible tech coming soon.

Dave Morgan has been attending CES for 25 years and has seen all sorts of gizmos and gadgets along the way. If you squint at photos from past shows, you might find him gawking at the curved TVs. Or he might be in the background as someone's controlling a computer through a headband sensing their thoughts.

But Wednesday, at the opening morning of 2022's show, the longtime ad industry executive and investor saw something quite out of the ordinary while getting some early exercise. The sea of up to 180,000 attendees who typically flood into Las Vegas for one of the world's largest trade shows was mostly gone.

"Early morning run on pretty empty Vegas strip," he tweeted out, before adding he's "actually looking forward to exploring the #ces floor without the crowds."

Morgan's experience of a quieter CES in Vegas is one that many people missed out on. But it wasn't just that. The sharply reduced crowds -- estimated to be less than half of the 150,000 who attended CES two years ago -- meant an even bigger obstacle for the small companies that for years have relied on buzz from the show to serendipitously turn them into breakout stars with surprise products that grab the industry's attention.

"When you're a smaller company, CES could be your biggest marketing spend," said Moor Insights and Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead, who attended this year's CES in person. "It can be a make or break event for you."

The CES challenge illustrates another way the COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend the way we work and live. Not only has the pandemic led to 9.5 million confirmed cases and 5.4 million people killed around the globe, it's also left many people wondering what a post-COVID world will be like, much less how we'll hold large-scale events like CES. 

Read more: The 5 big CES 2022 takeaways everyone's talking about

The pandemic's uncertainty has hit everyone, whether they're working in education, finance or real estate. In the tech world, it means that small companies for which CES could be the ultimate launching pad may struggle a bit more to take off. 

In the past, companies like the VR headset startup Oculus offered demos at CES 2014, building buzz mere months before Facebook bought the company for more than $2 billion. There's also Impossible Foods, the plant-based food company that landed an agreement with fast food giant Burger King after a CES meeting.

"It's hard to do that in a digital setting," said Jean Foster, head of marketing at the Consumer Tech Association, which puts on CES. 

After last year's experiment with an all-digital show, she said surveys of attendees and media alike agreed that holding the event in person would be better. And so this year, the CTA decided to press forward with an in-person event, with the caveat that attendees must have proof of COVID vaccination and international travelers must provide a negative COVID test taken within one day prior to taking their flight. The CTA even handed out free COVID testing kits when people arrived.

As health experts have repeatedly noted, none of us has ever lived through a pandemic of this scale. That means companies are learning how to function in this environment without a clear game plan, backed by decades of business school studies and success stories.

"It's a different model set up for people," Foster said.

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CES brought cool gadgets, even if there weren't the typical lines of crowds.

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Blending the virtual and real worlds

For more than a decade, CES attendees have debated the show's relevance. Is it up or is it down? Is it as exciting as it once was or is it just an empty spectacle?

The pandemic gave us some answers. Over the past couple years, tech giants like Samsung, Sony and Facebook have largely figured out how to hold all-virtual events that attract their own buzz. Apple has announced two years worth of iPhones through these events. Microsoft, meanwhile, used online presentations to unveil both its Windows 11 software and its latest Xbox game console.

But CES organizers needed to recalibrate for the more than 2,300 companies coming together over one of the tech industry's busiest weeks of the year. 

One thing the CTA changed was how long presentations ran. The organization noticed that people viewers tended to drop off about 20 minutes into presentations that were given for the all-online CES of 2021. So, this year's press conference slots were shortened to about a half hour each. 

The CTA also reduced the number of live streams offered through its site so visitors wouldn't feel overwhelmed. And to help attendees communicate with exhibitors and chat and set up meetings, the CTA also leaned more heavily on social features built into its website and app.

"The importance for us is, just be flexible," Foster added.

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Jong Hee Han, vice chairman and CEO of Samsung Electronics, led his company's CES 2022 keynote speech.

Samsung

Finding the future

Tim Bajarin thought he'd be attending CES this year. But then, around Thanksgiving, COVID-19's omicron variant began its rapid spread around the world

A month later, Bajarin and his doctor together decided that his preexisting health conditions presented too much of a risk, despite his being fully vaccinated. Other major companies including Google, Panasonic, Amazon and media organizations scaled back plans to attend the event in person around the same time, citing health concerns.

"One of the reasons I'd originally been planning to go was we were going to have face-to-face meetings with a lot of companies that we had not been able to meet with over the last two years," said Bajarin, a longtime industry analyst now with Creative Strategies. This would have been his 47th winter CES show. "Literally, it's about trying to discover what's next."

Though CES began a half century ago as a way for product makers to speak with buyers like TV and radio stores, it's evolved into a broad consumer electronics showcase. It's also been the place Bajarin has caught on to new trends, like when companies began coming up with concepts for noise-canceling earbuds a little less than a decade ago, when over-ear Bose headphones were the must-have at the time.

"Now you have noise canceling everywhere," he noted. 

Morgan, who tweeted out the photo of the mostly empty Vegas strip, said he traveled to the show from New York because he values meeting people in person. After his morning run, he shared stories of technologies he saw over the years while running his own startups or working as an EVP at AOL. 

Now the founder and head of TV ad tech company Simulmedia, he wants to see tech that could change his job up close, particularly the constantly evolving smart TV software. And with him and his family back home vaccinated and boosted, it's worth the risks.

"I've been coming here for most of the last 20 years," he said. "I love wandering into those areas with the tiny booths on one side with these different companies making stuff like connected forks and wondering how that's going to work."