CES 2022 faces a critical reckoning

(Image credit: Lance Ulanoff)

CES 2022 will go on, but without virtually all the tech media who over nearly six decades have helped build it into the consumer electronics powerhouse it is today.

This is nobody’s fault. Covid variant Omicron is not a corporeal presence and the CTA, a non-profit organization that runs CES, could not have predicted the Omicron's virulence (though we all saw more variants coming).

In the days and weeks leading up to the Las Vegas Convention, the CTA introduced multiple layers of protection, from vaccination requirements to redesigned floor spaces to accommodate more space between exhibitors and attendees, and special badges that indicate your tolerance for physical interaction. As the Omicron variant took off, the CTA ramped up efforts, adding COVID-19 testing (an Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Self Test kit) before anyone could enter the show floor.

I appreciated all the effort and have been looking forward to a return to the show I’ve been attending consistently since 2004 (prior to that I was more of a COMDEX guy), especially after last year's all-digital fiasco. Even so, I must admit that I had moments of panic where I realized how royally screwed I’d be if I happened to - after arriving in Vegas - test positive for COVID. With the prevalence of Omicron, even with my double Vax and Boost, I knew that was a very real possibility. A positive test would trap any of us covering media in our Las Vegas hotel rooms for 10 days and mean that we missed the in-person event.

Now, I and countless others, including major tech companies like Amazon and T-Mobile, are staying home. But none of us are disengaging.

What’s Lost

What we lose by not being in Las Vegas from January 2 through January 8 is the connection to thousands of people in the industry, but then we lost a good part of that almost two years ago when COVID first hit. We’ve learned how to rebuild these relationships digitally out of necessity. I may joke about being so over Zoom, but the reality is I still rely on it and other video meeting platforms like Google Meet and WebEx to maintain critical relationships (both in-company and out).

There’ve also been text, emails, and even phone calls to contacts since 2020 to check in and see what’s up. I can seriously count on one hand the number of in-person meetings and demos I’ve had since March 2020.

The other, major thing we’ll lose in a virtual CES is the hands-ons; touching new and weird gadgets, and telling you how they feel and, maybe how they work.

We’ll all make up for that a bit with the steady stream of pre-briefs companies held in the run-up to CES 2022. Yes, some of those were even in-person (all before Omicron reared its ugly head). It’s a poorly kept secret that companies pre-brief dozens of major (and minor) tech outlets and journalists prior to official launch news. Those that honor embargoes, like TechRadar, get the nod. Those that don’t are usually playing catchup

There are, obviously, all the serendipitous discoveries we make at in-person show events like CES Unveiled, the renegade Pepcom Digital Experience (not a sanctioned part of CES), and Showstoppers. That’ll hurt a bit, and I will absolutely miss tweeting the heck out of of-the-moment weird, wacky, and fun discoveries.

The reality, though, is that I have press releases flowing into my inbox for all of them. I have images and sometimes video. There’s already a well-stocked CES 2022 Innovations Award Winners page, which strips away most of the mystery of, “What weird and wild stuff will show up at CES?”

Going back into the 1990s—especially at the dawn of the Internet—as we began to realize the promise of a globally connected society and the possibility that growing bandwidths might not only support video but streaming video encounters, we wondered about the long-term viability of in-person conventions and conferences like COMDEX, PCExpo, and CES.

That CES persisted in the face of broadband not just at home, but mobile is a testament to the CTA’s work at remaining relevant. It has, though, been swimming upstream for years.

Facing reality

No one makes a major, culture-shifting product announcements in Las Vegas anymore. The last one was, by most measures Palm in 2009. After that, all the majors—most of whom still attend CES—hold the big stuff for their own bespoke events.

All realize the power of the Internet and how they can digitally draw a global audience for every Samsung Unpacked and every Apple iPhone launch. They’re not just bypassing CES and events like it, they’re going straight to consumers. The good news for people like me is that most consumers still want the filter and insight you can only get from a tech journalist.

No matter what though, CES is no longer the place for the biggest announcements. It’s the event for sheer tech announcement scale: thousands of companies and untold products all arriving at one destination and competing for attention space.

This latest blow, though, sparks fresh handwringing about the need for an in-person event. Are we getting more out of the hours of traveling and time (and money) spent running from meeting to meeting to deliver a basketful of stories that may not be more powerful because we got them firsthand?

That’s a tough call.

I still love trying out everything at CES. I don’t care for the travel or walking miles and miles to see a dozen companies in a day (I see more on the show floor).

I can’t deny that we’ll still have amazing coverage—even without the benefit of being there.

I do know that as CES 2022 in person continues to unravel, it is time for a reckoning. Does CTA try again for in-person in 2023 or rethink CES from the ground up?

[Ed note: Updated to reflect accurate details on test kits CES is providing attendees. CES is also providing complementary PCR test kits for international attendees returning home.]

Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.