Every year during the second week of January nearly 200,000 people gather in Las Vegas for the tech industry’s most-maligned, yet well-attended event: the consumer electronics show.
The conference, officially known as CES, takes over the city, occupying numerous hotels and airplane hangar-sized halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Swarms of mostly male attendees, big plastic badges swinging from their necks, wander among the exhibition booths of some 4,500 companies that showcase everything from toilets that can talk to “flying cars” that can’t actually fly.
For years, the biggest companies in tech have held back, opting for a more muted presence at CES and announcing their newest products in separate events. Apple Inc., whose slick product “keynotes” have since been copied by almost every other hardware company, started the trend years ago. Now it’s fashionable for tech journalists to brag about avoiding CES altogether. Without big announcements, and amid a broader backlash against the tech giants, some wonder why the event still exists.
And yet, people go in droves. Executives from the big names can meet suppliers and negotiate partnerships. For individual attendees, it’s valuable for keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of bigger screens, longer battery life and internet-connected everything.
Even if Apple or Amazon.com Inc. aren’t dropping new world-changing devices, it still matters to a manufacturer from Shenzhen, China, or a Best Buy Co. merchandising manager what the latest trends in consumer tech are, regardless of how incremental they might seem. Technology has infiltrated people’s lives and gadgets, from small drones to mobile phones, that are accessible to millions of people around the world, not just the rich early-adopters of 20 years ago.
CES continues to show off the proliferation of devices for every conceivable purpose, sold at almost every price point. A legion of product reviewers, who can easily reach huge audiences through YouTube, is needed to help consumers sift through the options. For the reviewers, CES is the week they work 20-hour days shooting dozens of videos to roll out during the year.
CES has branched into industries that wouldn’t have been considered “tech” a few years ago. Walking through the exhibition halls, one could be forgiven for mistaking CES for a car show. As the auto industry leans into self-driving technology, voice-connected software and electric cars, companies like Mercedes-Benz AG and Honda Motor Co. have come to CES in force with hopes of getting more high-tech press. This year, Hyundai Motor Co. claims to have a flying car (or rather a small helicopter) it wants to show off. CES’s colonization of the auto world was partly why the Detroit Auto Show – that industry’s flagship event – moved to June from January.
Other firms trying to rebrand themselves as tech companies are pouring in, too. Delta Air Lines Inc. says it will be the first airline with a major announcement at the show, as it plans to “showcase the future of travel.”
CES has become one of the top events for the advertising world, much of which now revolves around interpreting moves made by Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. Executives from the holding companies of the big advertising agencies camp out in the upscale Aria hotel and rarely venture farther afield for fear of the infamous hour-long taxi lines. It’s almost as if they’re holding a separate conference.
The latest trend to hit CES stretches the definition of tech beyond recognition. Last year, Impossible Foods Inc.’s unveiling of the meatless “Impossible Burger 2.0” was the show’s fan favorite, winning awards from numerous tech blogs. Now that rival Beyond Meat Inc. has seen its stock shoot up 200% after a wildly popular initial public offering, Impossible Foods looks to be planning something major this year, too.
“We’ve got big news coming your way,” the food company said on its Instagram last week. “We’re back.”
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