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Imagining the future of CES

Commentary: How can I imagine a world where we can't see ahead more than a few hours? This year's virtual show already felt like science fiction.


My door to my CES booth. My own home.

Scott Stein/CNET
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.

It's 3 p.m. where I am. Across two time zones, we're all gathering at once to talk about neural-input technology as I set up my video lights at home. The radiator's hissing. The kids are outside playing. Soon it'll be dinner, and then taking out recycling. Before that, I'm briefing with a company online about phone holograms.

This is now. This is what was called "CES 2021." A year ago I was in Las Vegas, looking at weird tech like smart contact lenses, having dinners in fancy restaurants in the desert. Now I've been home for 10 months; no stores, no colleagues, no travel. A year lived virtually. And now, another virtual event, just like so many other virtual events, flashing before my eyes.

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At some point, maybe, we'll make it out of this mess. It's hard for me to feel like there's an end. At this point, the time on the ship that I call my home has been very long. It feels infinite. I feel my blood pressure rising when I watch a cool, detached Samsung press conference where a man being served by a robot is trying to tell me that maybe he understands what I've been going through. Really, do I understand what anyone's been going through?

Two-thousand-twenty was a year that eclipsed science fiction and absurdism. Now 2021, and CES, come along, trying to catch up. And at this point, I can safely say that no one feels ready to predict the future comfortably. These are uncertain times. And I don't expect tech companies to offer clear answers.

I tried to imagine the distant future of CES a few years ago. I dreamed of a virtual world that's maybe not far off in spirit from what my last 10 months have been like, minus the telepresence robots.

This year has promised, from what I see, lots of mask and sterilization equipment. Touch-free interfaces. Hopes of better-connecting medical wearables and more useful computers. Experimental makeup? Smart glasses in smaller sizes? Ways of possibly controlling computers with signals from my brain.

I'd call 2020 a testbed for living virtually. From here on in, the experiment unfolds over years, even decades. A hybrid of real and virtual. I can lean back in a fever dream over a glass of Scotch and imagine the future CES is dreaming for us.


Greetings from my flying car. Oh wait, that's GM's concept from 2021.


The view from 2121 

I'm floating, touchless. Holograms envelop me. Nothing reaches my fingertips directly. Information surrounds me. 

Sensors all around me, in me, through me. These are my interfaces. 

My devices? They grow as needed. They charge up and update and assemble themselves. They're the things I climb into. They're my cars, my climbers, my surveillance, my teleportation. I hop around as needed. Without moving.

Once in a while, I move. Walk. Work out. See a real place. But I can multitask. I'm currently fixing something in the basement and demoing several products for a stream as I'm overseeing my meal cooking.

A hundred years ago -- in 2021 -- it started to become clear that our AR headsets, our cars, our home cameras, our robot vacuum cleaners and sterilizers, were all starting to work the same way. Scan a space, navigate and interpret the world with AI. In a way, all the same. They can train each other. And they did.

It doesn't really matter if it's a toy car or a real one, or a friend or a house or a lawnmower. I could be anywhere and interact with anything. Or, I guess, those things can also reach out to me. I try to manage my notifications from all my peripheral things, but it can get way overwhelming.

If there was a social explosion a hundred years ago, one that split the world apart and reorganized the structure of society, well... now it's more like a global, throbbing collective. Clearer rules of engagement and plenty of laws and walls.


The view from home. The only place where the present has been happening.

Scott Stein/CNET

Back to 2021, 5:09 p.m.

I could go on and on like this. Imagining the distant future. The reality is, the world as we know it has already turned inside out. The months after this may be a lot more normal. Or, a lot more strange. I've started assuming strange as the norm now. Expect more weird. And in that sense, even the oddest CES pitches sort of bounced off me this year. The biggest, most dreamy weirdo ideas of the future no longer seem all that weird or shocking. Robot poop, poop-analyzing toilets, hologram phones, rollable screens, flying cars, etcetera, etcetera, on to infinity.

If I look around me, at my closed-off world, my fear of the unknown (and illness), I think most people including myself want something helpful right now. Something that works reliably. Consistently, even. Stuff that can be efficient and predictable. Or, things that bring us together better at a distance. My semi-failed, but still partly successful virtual 2020 reminds me of all that didn't work, and all that dreams are flailing at.

CES 2020 ended up having no real relationship to the rest of the year that happened after that. CES 2021 may very well be the same, especially with so many tech companies just having their own events, even literally one day later (bold move, Samsung). By February, this CES may feel like a distant memory. As distant as my memories of being in a crowded place full of other human beings.

But this one year, gathering virtually in an uncanny fusion of home and Vegas, I did feel an endlessly futuristic creep. Like that dream of what's to come having already stepped over the threshold, into my life. I think that's happened to a lot of us in very different ways. And it's a feeling that even I, as someone who likes to live one foot in the future, has become too much to handle.

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