CES 2022 struck me as an example of “on the other hand.” What I mean by this, is that fellow Mac Edition Radio editor Nancy Burlan and I debated attending CES. On the positive side, she hadn’t been to Las Vegas in years (apart from our numerous visits at the Las Vegas Airport) so we thought it would be fun for her to experience the conference. On the other hand, we had the very real and pervasive fear of catching COVID. Show organizers CTA (Consumer Technology Association) assured CES attendees that everyone involved - workers, attendees, and exhibitors - all needed to show proof of vaccination via uploading that information on the CLEAR app. We were all given Abbott Laboratories COVID test kits at registration. As the show continued, registrants were invited to come and get extra kits if we wanted, which came in very handy, as we will explain later.
Everyone we encountered at the many events and venues was wearing a mask, and had the mandatory proof of vaccination. As we walked through the hallways of the Mandalay Bay Hotel toward the CES Unveiled press event, I told Nancy tales of CES past, with long lines of attendees waiting to get in, desperate with hunger and thirst, ready to kill for a Lagavullin with spring water. But as we walked up to the entrance of the event, we found velvet ropes ready for a queue, but no lines at all. So, we walked right in, grabbed the obligatory signature cocktail (it would be a massive international faux pas not to), and took a socially distanced look around. The lack of a crowd definitely gave us more time to see the exhibits and talk with the vendors and a few old friends. But, it was clear from the reduced size of the venue and the number of empty booths that many exhibitors chose not to come this year at all, many at the last minute. And even amongst our colleagues from the press, there were many of them missing too.
Still, there were some old standbys, and some newer European companies and start-ups. We loved the Moonbike electric snow bike. Not really a snowmobile, not a bike, part snowboard, it looked like a lot of fun. There was a nifty electric autonomous farm robot, the Orio, the only 100% electric sustainable robot of this size, and of course, lots of electric motorcycles and scooters. Even Segway has entered the scooter market. The significance of what seems to be a trend towards electric motorcycles and bikes can’t be overstated. They weren’t just designed for basic transportation, but aimed also at businesses that seek an environmental, low-cost and maintenance transportation tool, as well as motocross enthusiasts. Food and drink were great, and there was a friendly mood in the room. Other World Computing was there, showing off their cool new accessories and speedy drives, Moen, Jabra, Shokz, and Edifier also had a presence, along with lots of visitors from around the world. Other World Computing is a perfect fit for CES, as it began life in Larry O’Connor’s family barn, and has grown into one of the best known names in storage and upgrades. The best part of CES isn’t the multinationals, but small businesses seeking to help a niche in need, and OWC is a prime example of that.
We attended the next day’s Media Day events, of which there were noticeably fewer than in previous years. We enjoyed the Doosan Bobcat and Indy Autonomous Race Car presentations. Bobcat showed off one of their newest products, an electric tractor. We were sitting next to a gent from the mayor’s office in San Jose, and we chatted about the potential he envisioned for a quiet, non-polluting, construction vehicle in the city, and for some applications, especially residential, for which this new electric Bobcat could be a vitally important tool. (We also noticed that the price was never mentioned!) As car geeks, we enjoyed listening to a tech discussion of fully autonomous gasoline-powered Indy cars, racing out at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway that week as part of CES. What interested us was learning that the automotive computers weren’t: a) all that powerful; b) still had lots of problems, like connections, vibrations, and build quality; and c) they didn’t have that much computing power. Let’s face it, racing on a track, even at almost 200 miles per hour, isn’t the same as say, navigating a street in the Bronx. But, with the students getting the opportunity to work side-by-side with industry, this was all win-win! Or should I say “Vroom Vroom!”
Tuesday was a return to Media Day at Mandalay Bay, again with a severely truncated schedule. We attended some talks, and planned what we wanted to see at that evening’s press event, Pepcom’s Digital Experience! at the Mirage. We would have liked to talk with more exhibitors about audio, but for the most part, not too many folks from the audio world were exhibiting, besides Victrola, and Audeze. Compare that with past shows, when the Venetian Tower used to have seven floors dedicated to audio, then five, and the 2020 CES had only one and a half. This year, we met with VisiSonics, some fine folks based out of Maryland, showing off their 3D spatial audio system, but that was it for the Venetian. We decided to visit the Venetian Convention & Expo Center (formerly the Sands Expo Center), which had a dramatically scaled-back version of Eureka Park, a showcase for innovative technologies, with large pavilions from a host of different countries taking center stage.
What was most striking was how easy it was to maintain social distancing. Even with reduced exhibition space, there were lots of open spaces, and the aisles were most often free of people, so ironically, it was the nicest, most relaxed CES conference that I have experienced. If I were an exhibitor, shelling out hard dollars for a much smaller audience, I might not feel the same.
One difference between the 2020 and 2022 versions of CES were the number of e-bikes or variations on display. Every showcase had them, and they were in the Venetian as well. One regret is that by Thursday, I wasn’t feeling well, so I had to bail on visiting the e-bike demonstration track at the LVCC (Las Vegas Convention Center) which was reputed to be lots of fun. Before the conference, Nancy and I made a decision not to attend the LVCC, just to stay clear of as many crowds as possible for health reasons, and concentrated on the three nightly events for the press. ShowStoppers and Pepcom were both, as always, class act events. Great food, drink, and exhibitors. Once again, many folks pulled out, but there were still enough folks to make it worthwhile.
From GAF showing solar cell roofing material, to headphones manufacturer Audeze, there were plenty of vendors to meet with. The theme of the Pepcom event was Back to the Future, complete with an actual DeLorean tricked out and ready for time travel, and our favorite, large ice sculptures, that bartenders poured drinks through. It turns out that while we like them, and they are crowd favorites, to the bartenders they were a royal pain, since they required constant cleanup on the part of the bartending staff, and to be fair, the drinks weren’t changed by the short trip, similar to Elon Musk’s attempt to rewrite LVCC walking trips between halls. Still, everyone seemed to like making photos of the ice, or selfies with it, so the sculptures continue to be one of Pepcom’s signature crowd pleasers.
One of the most important aspects of CES is the diversity of countries that participate. The Netherlands’ pavilion in Eureka Park included the company Nowatch, which was also at ShowStoppers, so there was some crossover between events, always a nice thing. For Nancy, who was experiencing ShowStoppers and Pepcom in Las Vegas for the first time, it was a chance to see the shows she had attended, in their New York guises on the grander scale of CES, and sure enough, the grandeur of the Wynn Hotel definitely beat the pants off of the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York.
As I’ve mentioned, there were fewer audio products to discuss. Audeze showed off a nifty small, portable, planar speaker for office use, and in the Venetian Expo center, an easy-to-miss display in the middle of the QNAP booth was the Munich M1T Streamer from Silent Angel, although there really wasn’t a way to listen to it, as it was more of a product demonstration of QNAP products, switches, NAS, and a new line of Thunderbolt 4 NAS units. For audio, their new HS-264 home NAS designed specifically for audio and video playback and streaming. Victrola showed off a nifty battery-powered portable turntable and speaker, as well as a serious step up in quality, with a turntable, speakers, and subwoofer system that promises to sound very good. Of note is their switch away from Audio-Technica cartridges, not because they didn’t like them, but because the Audio-Technica supply has been so constrained that Victrola felt they had no choice but to create their own line.
I think that what struck me the most, was the feeling of then vs. now. In previous years, the line just to get into the Unveiled, ShowStoppers, or Pepcom press events was hundreds of people deep. But in 2022, we just walked right in. We give a lot of credit to CTA, and everyone else who gambled (Las Vegas pun intended) on the show happening, and who made the effort to attend. There are stories of jets being chartered to ferry sick employees home, and we did feel reassured by the vaccination required policy, and the sight of so many folks wearing masks.
When I went to bed on Wednesday, I didn’t feel great, but chalked it up to my normal “burning the candle at both ends” approach to life. The next morning, when I drove to the airport to drop Nancy off for her flight home to Philadelphia, my throat was sore, my body was a bit achy, and I had developed a cough. Because of that, I decided that it would be best for my CES experience to end that day, so I just headed back down the 15 Freeway toward Orange County, where I was visiting and assisting my mom. The next morning, using one of the Abbot-supplied test kits, I had a negative response, but a second test the next day showed I was COVID-positive. So, after enduring the worst of the pandemic since March of 2020, like millions of people around the world, I finally (or inevitably) caught COVID-19. I never had a fever, no sweats or chills, no gastro adventures, just a sore throat, a bit achy, and very fatigued. And my 92-year-old mom wasn’t feeling well either, and she also tested positive, but I was fortunate enough to be able to score her some Paxlovid, an experience which deserves an article unto itself.
What I discovered was that, surprisingly, no one back in Las Vegas actually wanted to know about my test results. It turns out that CTA had no easy reporting option, nor did Clark County, nor did Nevada or California. The data that the media is given is only from hospitals, or test centers who are required to report results. So, what was the purpose of giving all of us test kits? Well, it was certainly useful as a diagnostic tool, especially with serial testing, but it didn’t provide any statistical insights into the virus.
How did we get it? Not sure, but according to the folks I spoke with at several health departments, our arrival Monday night, and first signs on Wednesday night, weren’t really long enough to place the blame on CES. We did visit several Apple stores on January 1st, and on the 2nd had a strange but memorable, seafood dinner at a well-regarded Chinese seafood restaurant in Garden Grove, as well as a side trip to Trader Joe’s and Costco. So, at least according to the experts we spoke to, that’s most likely where we were exposed, and then added that almost no one was doing contact tracing at this point. Nancy for her part, returned home, felt fine, and had several negative test results. So, go figure - none of it makes sense, but we were immensely grateful to have been triple vaccinated, plus had the flu vaccine, which all combined to contribute to our ability to fight off the virus to the best of our immune systems’ abilities.
Was CES worth attending? In some ways, yes, and on the other hand, not so much. It was disappointing to have so many colleagues and companies absent, which contributed to a general lack of momentum. And while we didn’t visit the LVCC, in an attempt to avoid at least a few of the most crowded venues, we did have a great time, and learned about some interesting new products. What we didn’t miss was attending the keynotes. I’ve never figured it out, but why anyone cares about the lavish keynotes that are brief overviews with few useful technical notes, has always been a bit of a mystery. Do you really gain something of serious value from sitting in a room with hundreds of other attendees, hearing CEOs talk about their companies? Rarely are those talks up to the level of the Steve Jobs keynotes of the past, where the intersection of showmanship and technical gravitas combine for a fun time.
Quite possibly the most important story of the show had no fancy trappings, just a booth in the Dutch Pavilion in Eureka Park. Windmills are a large part of the renewable energy option, but there is one huge challenge. Offshore wind farms, generate lots of electricity when it’s windy, and often overproduce power, but with no way to store that energy. A startup company in the Netherlands has a unique approach, large, enormous capacity long tubular “balloons” that are under water, at the base of the windmills. They fill up with water, and when needed the water pressure from the ocean above flattens the tubes, forcing water up, where it can generate more power in times of need. The company is Ocean Grazer, and along with advancements like GAF roofing’s, easy to apply roofing material, might be the key to our future.
There are everyday advancements, like the acceptance of GaN (Gallium arsenide) devices which can provide more power, in a smaller, cooler, form factor, with less power loss. We thought the Ocean Grazer idea was an act of obvious genius, and made perfect sense. Their motto was to use the ocean as your battery. Pretty nifty, not unlike the practice of pumping water to higher spots, only to release it to turbines when demand is higher, the difference is, pumping water requires massive amounts of energy. The Ocean Battery concept, is currently undergoing tests, so, who knows, maybe your next set of mono-blocks will be powered by ocean pressure.
It was important to see that the industry continues to move forward, despite the challenges we’re all experiencing in these fraught times. Let’s hope we can all make it to CES 2023, in whatever iteration or shape it takes.
Harris Fogel with editorial input by Nancy Burlan, Posted 2/10/2022
Photographs Copyright © Harris Fogel 2022
This originally appeared in Copper Magazine, Issue 155. Subscribe for free at: https://www.psaudio.com/copper/article/ces-2022-a-different-kind-of-show/