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CES 2021: What Worked, What Didn't

By Rob Enderle
Jan 18, 2021 4:00 AM PT
CES 2021 review

With the attack in Washington, D.C. happening right before CES, I was worried that I wouldn't focus on the show and, I expect, that distraction and the coming inauguration did split attention. However, one of the nice things about working from home is being able to watch TV while you are working. For many of us, the TV has become much more of a companion during the pandemic.

One thing that continues to strike me is that we still seem to do these remote activities as we did when we met in person. Streaming and video conferencing tools we are using still don't allow us to do what we once did face-to-face, but they have other advantages that aren't being utilized to make the experience better.

Let's talk about who did a great job, and what worked at CES; and then what sucked at the event last week. We'll close with my favorite product at CES, a promised new vehicle from GM: the Cadillac Lyriq.

The Promise and Problem With CES

CES is the largest online tech show thus far attempted in the U.S., and maybe the world. It represented a massive effort, and the work was reflected in the outcome. Events had decent descriptions, and when they overlapped, you could watch them as a delayed stream. There appeared to be no obvious advantage to watching live other than you got to see the information first.

Most Amazing Product

The most fantastic product at the show was the Mojo Vision AR contact lens. It was arguably the first bionic component that addresses the next generation of bionics I've seen and won the Last Gadget Standing award.

Imagine having people's names flash in your vision when they approach, or directional arrows helping you to navigate on a walk or bike ride, or getting an alert that you are walking into an area where many people are rejecting the mask mandate.

These devices will work best for those that already wear contact lenses, and they can be custom made to address your prescription. But, I'm also thinking that these could make it hard to tell if someone was cheating on a test or be used in debates to provide secret clues to the debaters.

Winning PC Vendor

The PC vendor that was the most visible at CES as a presenter was Lenovo, but Microsoft had the best placement. This result reminded me a bit about how CES was when Bill Gates was around; Microsoft hovered over the show. The visible CES staff appeared to be using Surface laptops. But the laptop getting most of the buzz was the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Fold. I'll do a full review of that product later as I have one in the house I'm testing.

The early conclusion is that it is likely the best laptop for a woman, mainly because its size is ideal for a purse. We need more products in this segment that specifically address women's needs; and I think this product does that well. Lenovo did the best, but Microsoft gets credit for some of the best product placement I've seen at CES.

Winning Keynote

Speaking of Microsoft, company President Brad Smith's keynote was as if the company had read my old class material on doing keynotes. Also, Microsoft thoroughly used the streaming medium and used it well. I look for big thoughts in a keynote, not just product pitches, addressing current events, and spending time making the world a better place to live.

Microsoft has a TV studio and the quality that provided came through. They went on location to talk about their Azure data centers and spoke to many of the imminent threats, like out-of-control AI, that keep many of us in the industry from sleeping well.

Smith's historical coverage of how Ronald Reagan developed the country's cybersecurity policy is both inspired and incredibly interesting. I had forgotten that the movie "War Games" and a Nancy Reagan question were the sources of that policy. He talked about innovation and government in the context of Kennedy's Moon Shot speech, and the execution was nothing short of brilliant.

Including clips of those historical events not only broke up his talk but kept the audience engaged. This last is critical because talking heads alone tend to result in quick loss of interest and retention. Honorable mention goes to GM's CEO Mary Barra, who showcased that a woman can run a car company and run it very well.

Best Car Company

CES has always be dominated by firms like Ford, Audi, and Mercedes Benz. I don't recall GM even being at the event before, even though I typically spend a great deal of time in the automotive section because I love cars.

I've never really cared for GM cars, as I've mostly found them cheap, ugly, and unreliable. But after watching the aforementioned Mary Barra present, I now lust after the Cadillac Lyriq (see below under product of the week).

GM's flying car prototype is the most innovative so far, and this was the first time I saw a firm truly step up to Tesla with more innovation.

At the beginning of the presentation, my view of GM was of an aging company that is slowly going out of business. In the end, it was clear that this early impression was wrong. GM came to the show intending to kick butts and take names, and Barra did that with a flourish. Like Microsoft, GM thoroughly used the medium with remote shots, but the cars were the stars.

Best Consumer Electronics Presentation

Samsung, hands down, had the best consumer products presentation. LG came to play and did better with TVs, but Samsung dominated everyplace else, particularly with Robotics and AI, which were show themes.

LG had a creepy digitally-rendered avatar called a "virtual influencer" and likely should have gotten help from Nvidia before showing it to a live audience, because it detracted from the LG pitch.

Samsung had a family of robots, which included its robotic vacuum driven by AI, representing the first genuinely autonomous offering. The other two robots, one a moving digital assistant; and the other with an arm designed to do things like load dishes in the dishwasher and then put them away when done, appeared to address the problems we are dealing with in our new work-from-home lives.

Best Session

To select the best session, I looked for content that most of us need right now, professional execution, and competence. Of the sessions I saw -- and I saw more sessions than ever before thanks to this show being virtual -- the best was "Home as the New Headquarters." This event was moderated by my old co-worker Brian Cooley and Paul Lee from Deloitte LLP, Jennifer Kent from Parks Associates, and Megan Wollerton from CNET Home.

What's fascinating is that they pointed out what wasn't working with events like CES, though they focused on our more typical Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams meetings. What isn't working are the social aspects of these events. We don't have a replacement for casual in office conversations, friendships, or meals where we engage socially and get the closely held information we need to function in a company of people.

They also accurately pointed out why we need robots like Samsung's because, with kids and work at home, many of us are overwhelmed with chores, so having robots that could do those tasks unattended would be a godsend.

What Didn't Work at CES 2021

Engagement
If you watch TV shows during the pandemic, they are experimenting with ways to get audience interaction by using monitors instead of audience members, or using actual COVID-tested audiences. Without this audience engagement, energy is down, speakers who aren't experienced with broadcast members have trouble with energy and pacing, and the talks can be overly dry. Most of the speakers did very well despite this, but it felt like CES had missed the lessons of the last 12 months, and engagement suffered.

One-on-One Meetings
They used Microsoft Teams, which seemed to work at scale for some of the talks just fine, but they often wouldn't initialize for one-on-one meetings, which is where it should have done better, not worse. This result suggests that the implementation did not mess up, but vendors were complaining this part of the show was very disappointing.

Showstoppers and Pepcom
These two events that slipstream the in-person event didn't work well with CES being virtual. This outcome was because the CES event sucked up the week's time, leaving none for these events, which could have, and should have, taken place a different week. The whole point of having these events the same week was because the audience for them was already in Las Vegas. But when everyone is remote, you don't need to compete with CES during the same week -- you can do them a week later. Neither team thought this through, and the quality of both offerings was particularly poor and almost unwatchable.

Lack of Technology Use
Here was a technology show, but the proper use of technology wasn't very evident. The streaming tools can do things like automatically take notes and transcribe the content, but that wasn't done. They have chat features that can be used to help direct the content in real time based on interest; they weren't used either, and many have new capabilities for social interaction which was also not evident.

CES should show the tools they use to showcase what is possible and be more cutting edge. AI could have been used to match people socially, help them put together a schedule, and match potential buyers with smaller companies they otherwise wouldn't see.

This event should not only be a showcase for technology, but an example of how to best use it, and a powerful display of just what some of these tools can do. In particular, Microsoft Teams came off very poorly and given I use Teams a lot, I believe it wasn't a product but an implementation problem that was the cause.

Wrapping Up

I saw more stuff at CES, was less tired, and enjoyed the show more this year than when I attended in person. However, the show's social aspects were non-existent, one-on-one meetings were all but non-existent, and the technical tools were underutilized.

Still, this was arguably the most impressive virtual show at scale since the start of the pandemic, and there is a learning process to doing anything significant first. Given the coronavirus mutations, immunizations that might provide only 6 to 12-month protection, and the slow rollout and the unsustainable cost of free vaccines, I anticipate this show to be remote again next year.

However, if the CES folks can fix the problems, doing this show remotely may become better than in person, and we'll never have to travel to this event again.

Rob Enderle's Technology Product of the Week

Cadillac Lyriq

Every year at CES there is at least one expensive thing I want, and this year was no exception. To set the stage, I've owned two GM cars in my life: a 1965 Chevy Impala SS and a 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado. Since then, I've been tempted by Camaros and Firebirds, and I do admit to thinking about buying the new mid-engined Corvette, but most of the GM cars I've test-driven are crap.

Well, seeing the GM session at CES, I had a near out-of-body experience. You see, I've been lamenting that none of the car companies seem to understand why Tesla is successful. I even told the last Ford CEO (at CES) that he'd likely be fired if he didn't fix that problem. He is no longer at Ford, and I was never invited back to meet with a Ford CEO.

Tesla builds electric cars that excite people. They have fun, unique features, incredible performance, and ground-up electric designs, not conversions of designs used for internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Tesla effectively took a page from Apple's book to build cars that people brag about a lot. Well, next to the new Cadillac and Hummer electric vehicles, Tesla's look plain.

The one I fell in love with was the Cadillac Lyriq SUV. It had interactive lighting that would engage as you approached the car, giving it an "oh wow" element, software updates, of course, a futuristic interior, and it was one of the most beautiful cars I've ever seen -- and I drive a Jaguar I-Pace, arguably the most beautiful electric currently in the market.

During the presentation, I got my wife and told her the Lyriq is my next car.

Cadillac Lyriq Electric SUV
Cadillac Lyriq Electric SUV
GM promises new battery technology (more range and faster charging at lower cost), substantially more range (300 m and 150kW fast charging), and impressive power. Their experience with the Chevy Volt shows, because this car looks like a second- or third-generation electric offering.

Check out the video:

Even the charging port was made better than any others (the pop-open doors on cars like mine tend to get broken). Oh, and I should mention that on the last ranking for autonomous drive (more advanced cruise control) systems, Cadillac outranked Tesla (ranking is Cadillac, then Tesla, then everyone else).

If you care about diversity, which I do, this is one of the few cars designed by a diverse team, and it shows with masculine performance elements and feminine lines and design elements. A nicely balanced offering, which is unusual in the automotive or tech industries.

They hinted about a coming electric sports car, so there is a chance I could go from no GM cars to two GM cars in a couple of years (the Lyriq is due the first quarter of 2022, and, coincidently, my I-Pace lease expires mid-2022).

Thanks to GM, I'm looking forward to 2022, and the Cadillac Lyriq is my product of the week. (It will be AWESOME!) If GM pulls this off, Mary Barra could become the poster child for how female CEOs can transform companies and take them into a far more diverse future.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.


Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.


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