The world's biggest tech show will have a digital platform to let virtual and in-person attendees connect. They'll also see new categories in Las Vegas including space and food tech.
In January 2020, the last time CES was held in person, the first headlines about COVID-19 were trickling around the world. Barely two months later, those scattered reports had become a pandemic, canceling many public events around the world and fueling speculation about whether huge trade shows would ever come back.
But now, nearly two years later, the Consumer Technology Association is set on proving those predictions wrong. After going entirely virtual in 2021, CES will return to the Las Vegas Convention Center on Jan. 5 to 8, drawing exhibitors, attendees and media from around the world.
Jean Foster, the CTA's senior vice president of marketing and communications, predicts the technology industry is ready to meet in person again. That was the feedback from two CES preview events the organization held last week in Amsterdam and Paris (it will hold another in New York next month) and from the industry in general. "We are very excited to be going back to a live event," she said. "This is an opportunity for people to get back and do business."
But while international borders are beginning to reopen and the delta variant wanes, the pandemic may continue to restrict some international visitors from entering the US. And for people who can't attend, or just don't prefer to travel, the CTA on Tuesday announced a new cloud-based digital platform for experiencing the show and conducting that all-important networking from afar.
"We recognize that this will be a different year, just as CES 2021 was," Foster said. "We want to make a strong digital component of the show where the audience can participate and engage digitally, not just to view the conference programs and the keynotes, but to really engage with the exhibitors."
First held more than half a century ago, CES had long been the premiere event of the technology industry and one of the largest trade shows in the world; in 2019, the show attracted 175,000 people and 4,400 exhibiting companies. Like other industry events, it's largely a place to make deals, form partnerships and tout your company's products. But for the media and the general public outside the convention center, it's also a window into what's next in tech. Though some fanciful products never arrive on store shelves, others revealed at flashy launch events have burrowed deep into our homes. DVDs, the first Xbox and Netflix's push to global domination all premiered at CES.
The 2022 show will be smaller than in pre-pandemic years -- Foster says 1,200 exhibitors are slated to attend, including Google, LG, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Samsung and Sony -- and there will be changes. The CTA will require anyone attending to be vaccinated against COVID-19, will follow state and local mask guidelines, and create larger public spaces to allow for social distancing.
The platform, though, is a big sign of how the pandemic has transformed the trade show experience. Developed by Web Summit, which hosts a technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, each November, the Summit Engine technology will do more than the expected things like letting users research and plan their schedule, browse a list of exhibitors, and watch keynotes and other events. For both in-person and virtual visitors, it's also meant to replicate the show floor experience.
"The software isn't just capable of running online events," said Paddy Cosgrave, Web Summit's co-founder and CEO. "It handles everything a big in-person conference needs."
As this is the first time some people may be doing face-to-face business in almost two years, Foster said the platform and its accompanying app will give showgoers more than one way to meet. If they aren't able to talk in person they can schedule video chats.
Other features will be a recommendation engine that will suggest events and exhibitors based on an attendee's stated areas of interest and the ability to watch videos of companies talking about their products. It will all be a part of CES in future years.
"We wanted to create a different digital experience, which is much more of a broadcast experience," Foster said. "Digital plays a very important part in audience engagement. But it's not a substitute, it's an enhancement."
Visitors to Las Vegas also can expect an enhancement to the convention center, including the new 600,000-square-foot West Hall. Built across Paradise Road on a former parking lot, it connects to the North Hall through a pedestrian bridge and to the rest of the complex by Elon Musk's Boring Tunnel.
The West Hall will be the new home of car technology exhibitors, which have consumed a bigger slice of the CES pie in recent years. Chevy, for one, will introduce its new Silverado electric vehicle at the show.
Replacing cars in the North Hall will be digital health exhibitors, another area that's growing at CES, particularly in a pandemic. There will be a stage and conference area focused on digital healthcare and Robert B. Ford, the president and CEO of medical device company Abbott Laboratories will give a keynote address.
As Foster said, not having a physical show in 2021 gave the CTA a chance to take a step back and think about what new elements it wanted to bring to CES. One of those areas will be space technology because as she put it, "everybody's in space these days." Among the exhibitors will be the Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is bringing its Dream Chaser Spaceplane.
Other new categories at the show will be food technology (think new systems for agriculture, smart restaurants and robots) NFTs, digital currency and transportation including last-mile companies like scooters and electric bikes.
A lot can happen in the next two months but Foster is optimistic that CES will be back in a big way.
"We're social beings," she said. "We've seen downturns in the events industry before...think about after the  market crash, think about after 9/11. Those are times when the event industry really took a big hit, but the good events came back because they've continued to grow and reinvent themselves."
CNET will have full coverage of CES 2022. Media Days will be Monday, Jan. 3, to Tuesday, Jan. 4, with the show floor open Wednesday, Jan. 5, to Saturday, Jan. 8.