CES 2023 Debrief • TechCrunch

It is strange Week. Strange and strangely familiar. You’re staying in the same hotel in a nearly identical room as you’ve been for the last 10 years or so. You see friends and colleagues you haven’t seen in a while. All are three years older and somewhat worn. A global pandemic will do that to a person.

Last year should mark your triumphant return to the show after a two-year absence. But you got cold feet when Omicron counts skyrocketed around the holidays. The holiday trips that followed, coupled with exhibitors from all over the world, were reason enough to worry. And you were far from alone. Attendance – which had reached 170,000 in 2020 – fell to ~40,000, a 75% drop in attendance.

In the year between – 2021 – there was no in-person CES at all. The CTA hosting the event ultimately made the right decision and went purely virtual for the first time in its history. This was his own brand of chaos. The infrastructure simply wasn’t there for an event of this size and scope. It’s also suggested that the CTA would rather ban people from getting too used to going live with shows like this for fear they’ll find it unnecessary to come back.

But the world has slowly returned to normal, and so has CES. It’s a bit like going back to old school a few years after graduation. There are some familiar faces and some new ones. For better or worse, life went on without you. Hell, the school even built a big new wing. In this case, it’s the gleaming West Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. With the South Hall more or less closed for the event, the growing army of mobility companies have since moved here. At some point when we weren’t looking, CES became an auto show.

That’s partly down to timing — both one of CES’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Strength in the sense that it’s the first show of the year. Weakness, because who really wants to be thinking (stressed) about the big show while eating dinner on the holiday or sitting on a plane on January 2nd?

In the weeks leading up to the event, CTA announced that it expects 100,000 people to attend the event. That’s nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, but it’s certainly a respectable recovery for a live event. After the dust settled, that number was revised upwards to 115,000. Purely anecdotally, it didn’t feel that high, but feelings are certainly no substitute for official attendance figures.

I will say there were places (large parts of Central Hall for example) that felt as crowded as any year before. I certainly felt it when I tried to have lunch in the cafeteria on the first day. Other places, like North Hall, seemed largely empty the few times I’ve returned. I’m not sure that bodes particularly well for the concentration of robotics companies there. I probably skipped the gun with my “Consumer Robotics Show” headline, even if it was done with my tongue planted halfway in my cheek.

Most, if not all, of the media outlets I spoke to sent fewer people than they did in 2020 for a variety of reasons. First, we’ve all become accustomed to remote monitoring. Second, many people are still (rightly) concerned about a pandemic. It turns out it hasn’t really gone away, despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise. Third, journalism is once again being crushed by the economic crisis. Budgets are getting tighter and many media simply have fewer reporters.

The full name is The International CES for obvious reasons. One could reasonably argue that CES 2020 was one of the first major COVID-19 superspreader events. However, travel restrictions still apply. Most notable is China. A day after the show officially ended, The Wall Street Journal ran the headline, “China reopens to world as international travel restrictions end.” China is obviously a big player on the scene and restrictions will invariably affect your bottom line. Many places were well represented at the fair, including Korea and France.

I discussed this a bit in the preview post, but it’s worth mentioning again. The CTA is very powerful, we call it “CES” and not “Consumer Electronics Show”. Pedantic? Secure. Tell? Absolutely. The organization wants CES to mean more to more people. This includes cars, robots and lots of software/apps. The event is still very traditional in parts, but the organizers have also done a good job in adjusting the scope.

size too. CES is spreading. It’s taking over the city — or at least the area around the Strip — and at times feels like a temporary city unto itself. Like any urban area, it has its pockets of concentration and its share of congestion. If you know what’s good for you, don’t try to catch a car outside the Venetian Expo (RIP, The Sands) around 6pm. You should also know that regardless of your mode of transport, you will need a 20-30 minute buffer, up to and including the Tesla Small World tunnel.

For the first time in 11(!) years, Adult Entertainment Expo coincided with CES, taking the AVN Show (the porn Oscars, if you will) with it. Fun trivia: the whole thing is actually an outgrowth of a CES adult software division that existed in the ’80s and ’90s. I regret not having had the time this year to look at the event and all of its idiosyncratic engineering. However, we had dinner at a great vegan restaurant in the new Resorts World Tower on our last night and managed to hit on some of the overflows from this show. They’re a fun bunch.

One of the most positive changes to the show in recent years is the shift in focus to startup culture. There’s no question that the two stories of Eureka Park are by far the liveliest part. The cabins and aisles are much smaller and closer together. Not everything you see in it is a winner, but the people who show it to you project a kind of genuine excitement that you rarely see at the bigger companies. I would have loved to have spent more time there, but this year it just didn’t work out for me.

The trend in recent years has been for big companies to choose to announce new things on their own stages and at their own time. The shift to virtual presses in recent years has only accelerated this. But as the big companies move away from the show, bright-eyed startups are more than happy to fill that void.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this was the year I put stuff on my face. I have tried the Magic Leap 2, Meta Quest Pro, Vive XR Elite, PSVR2 and Dyson Bane masks. VR/AR/XR reigned supreme once again. How that manifests itself in the broader consumer world, on the other hand, is another question entirely. However, it’s quite telling that everyone but Sony and its pure gaming headset is looking for business. It’s easy where the money is right now, at least until prices for high-quality headsets drop significantly.

Another theme I’ve found talking to people in this world is a real sense of excitement surrounding Apple’s headset game. The consensus with these companies seems to be that the rising tide will raise all ships here as the company reinvigorates the scene. The truth is, it’s been the “closest thing” for so long that there’s a real weariness here.

The same goes for Crypto/Web3, albeit for very different reasons. There has been a steady drumbeat of bad news for the category and many of the people who would otherwise have been shouting their message from the rooftops are now licking their wounds. I haven’t been shy about my feelings about technology, and honestly it’s been a relief not to have been bombarded with those pitches this year.

No doubt my inbox will be full of them by this time next year.

The TechCrunch staff have spent the last few days compiling their Hot or Not lists, so I’ll include these here:

Some of the shine surrounding smart home technology has faded. It’s hard not to see this reflected in the Amazon Echo’s struggles. At the very least, it’s clear that things haven’t quite gone according to plan for many companies. However, it is quite encouraging to see some sort of united front in the form of the Matter Alliance.

Health tech, meanwhile, remains a going concern, be it home fitness or wearables. We have seen widespread pressure to take some of these products more seriously as medical devices and that has been shown very clearly here. In the meantime, it was really sad to see what happened to Mojo Vision after reporting for so many CESs.

The economy, of course, played a major role. Overall, the release cadence of new products for the industry seems to have slowed down. The end of 2022 hasn’t seen the same rush of new products that we usually get before the holidays. The reasons are clear. For one thing, money is tight and inflation is high, so people are spending less on non-essentials. On the other hand, restrictions in the supply chain are having a noticeable effect on the industry’s ability to deliver.

Before the show I asked Sony what they wanted to show. For the first time I can remember, I received an official statement from a representative telling me what the company doesn’t show. “Sony will not be sharing TV details during CES 2023,” a spokesperson told me. “However, please stay tuned for an upcoming announcement shortly.” This is new. However, the company had movie trailers.

I’m not going to say that this felt like a transitional year – just because that can be said of pretty much every CES over the past decade. I also recognize that it’s perfectly fair to judge it by its first full-fledged show in three years. It was strange, and there was no chance it would be anything else. It’s a really good sign for the CTA that visitor numbers are beating seemingly optimistic expectations. As for us, I’m sure we’re not the only ones rethinking how we approach CES going forward.

Read more about CES 2023 on TechCrunch

Comments are closed.