IFA is the first tech conference to host people since the coronavirus pandemic hit

While a few thousand people will be there in person, expect lots of virtual events and products addressing our new status quo.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read

A scaled-down version of IFA will take place this week in Berlin. 

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After months of canceled events, the IFA trade show in Berlin is going to try something different: entertain actual attendees in person. 

IFA will proceed from Sept. 3 to 5 with a scaled-back in-person component and other virtual events. Mainstays like Samsung are opting to forgo IFA entirely and instead host their own digital launches. The show will only let 5,000 in this year, compared with the 200,000 attendees that showed up in 2019. 

Watch this: Creating the German tech show experience at home

In the middle of a global pandemic, it'll be a crucial test for both the tech industry and the broader business world, both of which are hoping for some return to normalcy. 

"After all the event cancellations during the past months, our industry urgently needs a platform where it can showcase its innovation, so that it can recover and rebound," IFA Executive Director Jens Heithecker said in May when announcing the new format for the conference. "The recovery of our industry starts here."

The novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 25 million people around the globe, has caused companies to rethink their product launches. GSMA canceled Mobile World Congress, the world's biggest mobile show, a week before journalists were due to arrive in Barcelona in late February. Instead of phone launches over the past several months, Apple, Samsung, Huawei and OnePlus all held digital events or introduced devices via press release. 

IFA is the first big tech convention actually taking place during the outbreak. The organizers behind CES and Mobile World Congress will almost certainly be looking at how the show goes. The Consumer Technology Association, which puts on CES, has already said it will be all virtual in January, and GSMA hasn't yet detailed its plans for next year's MWC beyond saying a physical confab will take place in 2021. 

IFA typically doesn't have the major buzz found at CES and MWC. But it tends to be a big show for home appliances , PCs, European-focused electronics and the occasional phone announcements ahead of the key holiday shopping period. Last year saw the debut of the first OLED TV with Amazon Alexa built-in; the Asus ProArt StudioBook One laptop, which the company claims packs desktop-class performance into a normal-size laptop without requiring throttling to keep it cool; Samsung's first mid-range 5G phone, the Galaxy A90; and the South Korean giant's $1,400 dry cleaning closet, the Air Dresser

Watch this: Galaxy Z Fold 2: Hinge, cameras and durability revealed

While this year's IFA is sure to have new televisions and tablets , what could be lacking is something that could has been missing in the tech world this year: excitement. It's tough to translate a demo room to a video presentation, and without getting the chance to see things for themselves, the messengers of that excitement -- journalists -- could be hard pressed to get readers clamoring for new devices. 

At the same time, the pandemic and subsequent worldwide recession means consumers are less willing to spend money on pricey electronics. People have been scooping up devices that let them work or take classes at home -- like webcams and laptops -- but they've been shunning purchases like 5G smartphones . This year, the phone industry will see its biggest drop in sales in a decade, according to CCS. Even the new phones launching around IFA likely won't get people shopping again. 

With that dearth of excitement at IFA comes the question of whether big tech conferences even have a place in the post-pandemic world. 

"There is little doubt event organizers from around the world will be watching IFA closely to see what impact it can have with its hybrid approach, and they will take note of how many visitors attend," CCS Insight analyst Ben Wood said. He said he doubts many people will make the trip to Berlin; Americans, for one, are banned from entering much of Europe. And other companies besides Samsung could make the leap to holding their own events, on their own time, instead of rushing announcements. 

"In the past, it has been evident that companies have sometimes announced new products sooner than perhaps they would have liked to because they felt it was worth the risk to take advantage of the huge footfall at IFA," Wood said. "Now they can announce new products to a timeline that better suits the actual availability."

Pandemic products

Like all tech conferences, IFA isn't just a launching ground for new devices. It's also a key place for company executives to meet and strike deals with each other. That includes partnerships for retailers or carriers to offer devices and companies to work together on technology. The in-person meetings are key for smaller companies that don't have sales teams or the money to travel across the globe to strike deals. 

While face-to-face appointments can still take place at IFA, they won't be as fruitful as fewer companies and executives -- particularly any based in the US -- attend the conference only virtually. 

There's another byproduct of the pandemic likely to appear at IFA: the debut of products specifically designed to help people during the crisis.

One of the first examples of that is LG's new PuriCare wearable air purifier. The air-purifying mask, which will be displayed at IFA, will fit like many others, with loops that hook behind the ears, but LG said it'll include two high-quality HEPA filters that can remove at least 99.97% of particulates in the air down to .3 microns in size. 

LG drew on its long history of designing air purifiers for homes when designing the mask. It uses two replaceable H13 HEPA filters, contains dual three-speed fans and incorporates a patented respiratory sensor to allow wearers to breath in clean, filtered air. The sensor detects the cycle and volume of the wearer's breath to automatically adjust the fan speed to make breathing smoother. The PuriCare's battery lasts up to eight hours while the mask is operating on low or two hours on high. 

"LG PuriCare Wearable Air Purifier resolves the dilemma of homemade masks being of inconsistent quality and [disposable] masks being in short supply," the company said last week in a press release

And Honor, which is owned by Chinese tech giant Huawei , will unveil a new lineup of smartphones, tablets, notebooks and wearables at IFA that help address the current environment. 

"2020 has been a year of change, and we have evolved and expanded our capabilities in line with that change," Honor President George Zhao said in a press release. "We look forward to sharing an exciting new line-up of products that will improve the health, productivity and entertainment experiences of young people around the world."

It's likely that similar products will debut at IFA and over the coming months. 

A digital demo room

Samsung, one of the world's biggest tech companies, will be absent from IFA -- though that absence will likely only be evident to in-person attendees. The company typically takes over an entire conference hall in Berlin's Messe, an area that will now be empty. But Samsung still is holding virtual events the same week as IFA. On Tuesday, it hosted Unpacked Part 2 to give more details about its Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G and Tab S7. It had initially shown off the products on Aug. 5 at its first Unpacked event of the summer. On Tuesday, it said the Z Fold 2 would cost $2,000 in the US, only $20 more than last year's model but with a bigger front screen, improved hinge and 5G connectivity. 

The weird and wacky tech of IFA 2019

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On Wednesday, Samsung held a Life Unstoppable event to show off the products it normally would have displayed at IFA. Instead of a standard press conference, like the two Unpacked events, Samsung created a virtual tour experience for media, retail and industry partners. 

The company used Epic's Unreal Engine to gamify the experience, essentially making a sort of choose-your-own adventure demo. 

Participants navigated around a digital house that contained about two dozen different Samsung devices, ranging from its $3,500 waterproof, outdoor Terrace TV to its updated Galaxy Z2 foldable. The visit revolved around a 45-minute guided tour, but participants were able to branch off on their own to do things like look at the back ports on the TV or circle back to the kitchen to check out the appliances. 

There also was an augmented reality component that let people see what the new products, like TVs, would look like in their own homes. 

"Would we have done it if COVID wasn't around? I'm not sure," Benjamin Braun, Samsung's head of marketing for Europe, said in an interview. "That is a different way of presenting new products that no one's done before." 

While Samsung determined Life Unstoppable was the best format for IFA, he said, it may go a different route with CES and other trade shows. 

"There's no doubt that we'll continue to evolve this," Braun said. "At some point, once COVID is under control and we're back to potentially physical [events], then we need to rethink them as well. How do we merge the two?"

CNET's Katie Collins contributed to this report.