I spent much of the last week at the Consumer Electronics Show. That’s pretty normal for me, since I work in events and it’s one of the biggest trade shows of the year. But it was anything but a normal CES experience.

The last time I was at CES was two years ago, before the pandemic. (I can’t remember the last time I had a two full year hiatus from Las Vegas, to be honest.) Last year the show was completely virtual. This year, of course, it was meant to be back to normal but omicron had other plans. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect this year, and I’m glad I came. But it all just felt strange.

One of the biggest differences from years past was just the scale. As I noted last week, CTA claimed only a small fraction of exhibitors canceled. That makes perfect sense when you consider that exhibitors had already spent most of their budgets by the time COVID surged again so they may as well get what they could from those sunk costs. But the exhibitors that did pull out were big. Primarily they were companies large enough to be able walk away from their exhibit investments without a huge impact to their bottom line.

So while the number of missing exhibitors was small, the impact on the show’s scale was pretty big. Within the convention center, there were no exhibit floors at all in the south halls. The newly renovated west hall was full of interesting exhibitors but was definitely sparse in places. The central hall, always the main event, was mostly full and did have some huge booths as usual. But even there, it was not the same. Most jarring of all was LG’s “booth”. Instead of staying away, they opted to simple stand up some signage with QR codes onto the subfloor of their massive booth space.

That’s a lot of plywood…

I also think the entirety of “Tech South” was eliminated when T-Mobile pulled out. One of my clients was meant to be colocated there but moved off the strip instead. I didn’t even bother going to the Aria to see if anything was still going on there. I’m also not sure about “Tech West” at the Wynn, as I didn’t make it over there either.

In some ways it was nice to have a CES that was small enough to cover in a day. It’s been a long time since I was able to feel like I didn’t miss much at a CES. And there was some really cool stuff to see. The west hall was full of smart farming and agricultural technology. There were some really cool home automation products and some new electric vehicles (including one from Sony!) And of course there were sexy new televisions and displays and some other cool gadgets. It is, after all, the consumer electronics show.

But what was missing was pretty stark also. Because all of the big tech players stayed home, there was almost nothing at CES about VR or AR. This at a time when there’s no end of buzz around the metaverse and many tech players are expected to be working on new headsets and smart glasses. We will certainly have to wait for all of that regardless, but it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t have seen a lot of visioneering along those lines in any normal CES.

The fact that John Deere’s fully autonomous new tractor was one of the biggest stories to come out of CES this year kind of just says it all…

Featured Image: Jörg Eugster