How one CES 2021 party is moving to a virtual floating club

See if you can find the hidden desert music room.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
4 min read

This year's virtual spin on a CES party will end with an interview betwen Dua Lipa and Ryan Seacrest and a performance by Billie Eilish. 

iHeartMedia/Spatial Web

CES 2021's biggest (only?) party needed major adjustments this year, as the coronavirus derailed what would have been a usual blowout bash on the Las Vegas Strip. Instead, the venue is a virtual club floating in star-speckled space. You're transformed into a hovering circle that serves as a port-hole window to your webcam. Dua Lipa will chat with Ryan Seacrest on a digital stage flanked by titanic speakers, before Billie Eilish puts on a show -- maybe the biggest act iHeartMedia has booked for its CES party in years. 

And there's a squad of busty humanoid dancers, so Vegas' essence isn't entirely missing. 

For years, CES has drawn the tech-obsessed to gawk at fancy televisions and off-the-wall gadgets. But far from chaotic show floors in the Las Vegas Convention Center and the cavernous keynotes at The Venetian, media companies and marketers have packed an alternate-universe CES, one that has little to do with the next hot doodad. Instead, deal-making and networking were the magnets that drew hordes of media folks slightly further south down the Strip. And the power broker behind this show-within-the-show was MediaLink. 

iHeart/Spatial Web

MediaLink, a consulting company, has traditionally thrown CES' official media party, one that's become something like legend in certain circles. But this year's all-remote CES is different in every respect, including how you party.

Starting at 3:15 p.m PT on Tuesday, MediaLink is joining forces with iHeartMedia, the radio and events giant, for a digital stand-in for the usual late-night party on the Strip. Instead, they'll host a virtual event emphasizing MediaLink's bread-and-butter at CES, networking. Normally during CES, MediaLink would organize about 1,000 client meetings and interactions; this year, that number will be scaled back to several hundred. And iHeart usually puts on one of the capstone parties of CES, often with a big music headliner.

But Tuesday's party is hoping to re-create "a bit of that serendipity" of CES' typical in-person mingling, said Michael Kassan, chairman and CEO MediaLink. "Given the hunger we've had from clients to find virtual avenues for networking at CES, our goal is to recapture that feeling."

The two will host a networking event in that open-air club, floating in unidentifiable space. With more than 300 attendees expected to join the event, the experience is powered by a company called Spatial Web, which was cofounded by one of iHeart's longtime creative consultants. At 4 p.m. PT, it switches gears from networking to focus on an interview between Dua Lipa and Seacrest, then Eilish's performance. 

Bob Pittman, chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, said the event draws on lessons learned from throwing virtual music events during the pandemic, combined with an appetite to provide "remote togetherness in a time where actual in-person gathering is limited."

The event also functions as something of a coming-out party for Spatial Web, after piloting its platform with events last year for the likes of Unicef and TedX.

You should also learn from my mistakes and show up with a device manufactured more recently than a half-decade ago. My demo had the kludgy delays familiar to anyone who's tried to follow a mega-Zoom call when your phone has a couple bars -- only this demo's fits-and-starts were complicated by multiple big-screen videos, background music, aerial navigation attempts and that holographic dance squad.

Tips: Use plugged-in headphones during the event and don't be that guy using your device's speakers -- you may cause some annoying feedback. Spatial Web recommends using a laptop or desktop, ideally one from 2017 or newer, using Google Chrome as the browser. Android devices with Chrome also work, and it says iPhones and iPads using Safari work too. Close all other browsers and programs. And if the environment's toolbar joystick is too tricky to move you around, double clicking anywhere in the space will move you there, and you can pick to follow a particular person or teleport to a specific location from drop-down lists.

iHeart/Spatial Web

The creators hope a number of real-world elements will help humanize interactions there. The platform's spatial audio means the sounds of conversation crescendo as you approach the gaggle of people talking, just as it would in real life. The has multiple hidden Easter eggs, like private offices for meetings, a "desert music room," a meditation room, and photo booths and a video booth, which they hope will inject a feeling of spontaneity. 

Even if Tuesday's event encounters some technical snafus, its creators are hoping a CES audience can take it in stride. 

"We're hoping the spirit of CES and the spirit of new technology is part of what this is," Michael Beneville, the cofounder of Spatial Web who also works for iHeart, said Friday during my demo. "For the purpose of the event, it's enough to get in and walk around and chat."

But just in case, the organizers said a team of live, human concierges will be in the virtual venue too, to help new arrivals get their bearings. 

"So much technology right now is about the human touch," Beneville said. "A robot can make you a great drink, but a bartender can listen to your story." 

Either way, I can get that drink, right?...