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Nearly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, events that are “unprecedented” no longer need an introduction as such. This year’s virtual CES is no exception.

At the first CES, held in New York 54 years ago during the Summer of Love, pocket radios and integrated-circuit TVs dominated the headlines. Wow! It goes without saying that the show has changed considerably since then, swapping Manhattan for Las Vegas, videocassettes for streaming, and Atari’s “Pong” for million-dollar esports leagues. But 2021 will prove to be CES's most significant evolution yet, with the entire event as we know it switching to an online-only affair; one that will test the feasibility of holding it, and other major events, mid-pandemic.

What of the elbow-rubbing and deal-making, you may ask, or the partying on the Strip and lining up endlessly for an Uber? There’s no question the event will be scaled down: fewer exhibitors, less networking—the usual casualties of business so far this decade. But the event’s organizers hope to emulate the spirit of CES nonetheless, counting on 150,000 virtual attendees and big-name tech sponsors to replicate the in-person aura as best they can. So raise a glass in your home office, enter a videoconference, and hope that 2022 might look a little different.

You can read up on what you may have missed about the first-ever virtual CES, and what you can look forward to this morning, in our executive summary below. 

Tech to the rescue

Let’s state the obvious: your desk, no matter how glitzy or glamorous, is not the Las Vegas Strip, and clicking between Microsoft videoconferences can’t replace the rite-of-passage dash from packed convention hall to packed convention hall. And while the Consumer Technology Association—the industry trade group that puts on the show—didn’t decide to host an all-digital CES lightly, the show must go on!

In preparation for the event, CTA designed a videoconference portal in a “seven-figure” deal with Microsoft, based on Microsoft Teams; attendees can schedule meetings and break off into one-on-one conversations online; and exhibitors are offered greater flexibility in how they can showcase their innovations. (Organizers initially considered a complex VR-style framework, where people could interact as digital avatars, for example, but the group eventually settled on a simpler approach.)

Although this year’s CES boasts a relatively paltry 1,800 exhibitors—down from roughly 4,500 companies who appeared at the in-person Las Vegas event last year—all hope isn’t lost. After all, CES’s purpose is to showcase the future and, increasingly, virtual events and telecommuting are staples of doing business in our new normal.

Read more about technology’s role in replicating, or saving, CES, by Ad Age’s Garett Sloane here.

Companies are being pandemic-conscious

Technology responds to the world around it, so it’s not unthinkable that many of the innovations due to be unveiled at CES 2021 will be connected, in one way or another, to the novel coronavirus.

Take Kohler, for instance. Yesterday, the Wisconsin-based manufacturing outfit took to the virtual CES stage to debut touchless and automatic versions of kitchen faucets, bathroom taps, bidets, and even toilet handles during a media-only event, Ad Age’s Mike Juang reports. “Simply wave your hand over the trip lever to activate that flushing experience,” a Kohler spokesperson said. Best of all, the company added, its new germless products are designed for do-it-yourself projects and retrofitting, appealing to the locked-down masses who are still finding themselves at home.

It remains to be seen what percentage of this year’s CES innovations will be spurred by the pandemic, but with much of the world stuck at home for the long haul, brands would be right to embrace it.

The world is getting smarter

“Smart” technology has been the talk of the industry for the past few years, and it’ll be making its presence known at CES 2021. Even before this morning’s official event kick-off, companies have been debuting smart innovations that, as a category, are poised to define tech in the coming decade.

Samsung yesterday announced a combination robot vacuum-slash-mobile camera system dubbed JetBot 90 AI+, equipped with LiDAR that can intelligently detect both pets and dust bunnies, and may even have potential as a roving home-security system. That follows last week’s announcement from the South Korean tech giant that Samsung TVs will now include Samsung Smart Trainer, which uses built-in AI to analyze movement and give feedback to users; making suggestions to your form during yoga, for example.

For more insight on the topic of our increasingly intelligent world, don’t miss today’s “Smart Home with David Kohler and Katie Linendoll” presentation at 10:15 a.m. EST.

Sessions to attend today

Staying true to the in-person hustle and bustle of CES, there’s no shortage of events to attend today—85, to be exact, with multiple exhibits running in every timeslot. 

To help you curate your schedule, Ad Age staff have scoured the dozens of planned presentations to offer our picks for which events might pique the interest of brand folk, agency pros and media strategists alike. If you’ve got some time to fill, or are having trouble deciding what panels to listen in on, consider adding these to your list:

Retail Trends: The New Shopper,” 10:15 a.m. EST: After what was arguably the retail industry’s most turbulent year on record, this event with Coresight Research CEO Deborah Weinswig analyzes the retail trends that shaped 2020—and which ones are likely to stick around in 2021.

Marketing With Purpose,” 1 p.m. EST: In this afternoon session, Microsoft Advertising will share its own data and research in pursuit of understanding what consumers value and how brands can achieve true authenticity.

How Technology is Democratizing Entertainment,” 1:45 p.m. EST: The entertainment industry is more accessible to the masses than ever, and not just as consumers. Hear about TikTok’s role as a global platform in this session featuring influencer Addison Rae and the app’s head of global marketing Nick Tran.

Future Reimagined,” 4 p.m. EST: Hear about the future of tech straight from some of the industry’s biggest players in this panel with Mastercard CEO Michael Miebach and Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, moderated by LinkedIn’s editor-in-chief Daniel Roth.

When the party's over

Tonight, following the official public opening day of CES, don’t close your laptop right away, because MediaLink and iHeartMedia have secured two of the world’s biggest pop stars for a virtual event: Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.

Starting at 7 p.m. ET, the virtual event will first feature a “fireside chat” with Lipa being interviewed by Ryan Seacrest, followed by a special performance by Eilish. The host companies have also promised the event won’t be your typical Zoom call: “Think gathering around a speaker or topic, running into each other and catching up, and slipping off on a whim with others for smaller or one-on-one chats,” the invite says.

Read more about tonight’s star-studded event—and reminisce about some of MediaLink’s epic parties from years past—here.

Bright things ahead

On Sunday night, the lights and marquees of the Las Vegas Strip lit up with a coordinated message for CES's exhibitors, organizers and attendees: “We miss you and can’t wait to welcome you back in 2022.” More than two dozen resorts and attractions displayed the message, with many also addressing this year’s virtual CES via social media.

“CES is one of the largest and longest-standing conventions in the destination and we miss the show’s organizers and attendees greatly this year,” says Steve Hill, the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “We wish them a successful virtual show and we are excited to welcome them back to Las Vegas with open arms next year.”

That's it for today's edition of the Ad Age CES newsletter. We'll be back tomorrow for the second installment that will add big-picture perspective, industry insight and cover anything you might miss from today.

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