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Last year, we logged on to digital press conferences, met over Zoom, and found new ways to try adjusting to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES for short) going virtual in 2021 for the first time in its 53-year history. This year, we spent the convention doing pretty much exactly the same.
There was a lot of optimism going into CES 2022, with the calm after the storm that was Delta variant of Covid-19 making big tech companies and keynote speakers feel comfortable enough to commit to an enormous in-person event. Heck, we even had our own flights and hotels booked. But you know the drill — Omicron held no punches. As several major exhibitors, from Microsoft, to Amazon, Meta, Lenovo, and T-Mobile, pulled out of live showings and keynotes, this year started to feel like we were stuck in a Trek-esque time loop.
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On December 25, amidst skyrocketing caseloads, President of the Consumer Technology Association Gary Shapiro said in the Las Vegas Review Journal that “CES will and must go on.” The CTA’s proposed solution as the organizers of CES: to wade through this uncertainly and commit to a hybrid model, offering up the option for in-person attendance with, or virtual viewership through a digital platform.
Despite enhanced Covid-19 safety protocols like requiring proof of Covid vaccination, handing out free Covid rapid tests for attendees, and even stickers available to show off how much physical contact you’re comfortable with, the main halls were, anecdotally, pretty much a ghost town. Sure, there were live press conferences and product demos, but many of us only had to open up our laptops to see the latest in emerging global technologies.
The pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work over the past few years — some of us are back at the office, and some of us have permanently gone remote, from home. Some of us are shifting gears to a hybrid work model, going back and forth in-person. Companies have finally acknowledged that we’re going to be living in a hybrid world moving forward, and this trend touched every aspect of new tech presented this year at CES.
We saw a lot of great innovation around PCs this year, both laptops and desktops, aimed specifically at people who won’t be going back into the office anytime soon. There was a lot of both under-the-hood and design emphasis on productivity features for WFH (think webcam quality, screens, new chips).
One of the most controversial upgrades to a reliable line came from the Dell XPS 13 Plus, which made the bold choice to make both keyboard and the touchpad run from end-to-end on the bottom of the laptop. Does your business computer need to be “minimalist and modern,” as Dell called it? We’re not sure. HP‘s new Elite Dragonfly laptop, for example, added the latest 12th Gen Intel CPUs and the option to upgrade to an OLED touchscreen display, all in a ultralight, 13.5-inch package. LG‘s DualUp monitor has a unique square-shaped 16:18 aspect ratio that looks like it’ll be a productivity dream for anyone whose desktop workplace is overrun with windows (guilty as charged).
Though some companies tried to make checking emails and working on spreadsheets a lot flashier. Asus released their Zenbook 17 Fold, a 17.3-inch flexible touchscreen laptop that can be paired with a keyboard or literally folded up like a foldable phone, great for packing up back and forth to the office. Lenovo‘s ThinkBook Plus Gen 3 also surprised us with their dual-display laptop, which features both an ultra-wide 17.3-inch main screen with a 21:10 aspect ratio at 120Hz, and an eight-inch second screen next to the keyboard. You can use it with a stylus to jot down notes or make digital art, and essentially proved that sometimes more is more.
It wasn’t just laptops — TVs too, were hyped up a lot, as they usually are (hey, it’s pre-Super Bowl season, after all). But this year’s TV landscape was kept exciting by a few key players accepting the hybrid nature of TVs as not just a device to stream Netflix on — but for remote learning, fitness, and generally as a smart home hub, more as some of us hunker back down again.
Samsung swept in and broke up the tired LG versus Sony picture quality battle royale with the announcement of their first QD (quantum dot) OLED TV, which produced the brightness of an LED TV with the color accuracy of OLED. The 65-inch model also included a 144Hz refresh rate for reduced lag while gaming, and a custom processor to optimize the image quality of anything you’re watching or playing. But arguably, their best TV at the show wasn’t even a TV — it was Samsung’s surprising new Freestyle TV portable projector, which has 1080p resolution, 360-degree sound, and a 100-inch picture, for using in the great indoors and beyond.
Conversely, some brands tried to go big this year, like TCL‘s largest TV ever, a whopping 98-inch, Roku-ready model. But it begs the question, who are these massive models even for if everyone’s mostly perfected their pandemic living room set-up at this point, and for less? It was LG (who also announced their largest OLED ever for their new G2 series) who showed that in this day and age, it’s what you do with the size that really matters. We were more impressed by LG’s integration of new services to their TVs that facilitate more interactive, at-home experiences (like apps for watching live concerts, a new workout platform, and even tele-health services).
The irony wasn’t lost on us either that one of the biggest trends this year was the blending of the real world with the virtual. During Sony’s press conference, they dropped the news about their new PlayStation VR 2 system for the PS5. Even after showing off the unique, artsy controllers, the details were still a little light overall. But deeper immersion is clearly their key focus — the PSVR 2 will offer vibration feedback, 4K HDR, and an advanced eye tracking system that maximizes the resolution based on where you’re looking. Panasonic, meanwhile, has set out to make VR more compact with their new tiny, goggles-looking SteamVR headset, which has a higher resolution than the Oculus Quest 2.
Even TCL, branching out from TVs, is looking to explore the potential of augmented reality and jump into the ring with tech giants like Facebook and innovators like Mojo Vision (who showed off a prototype smart contact lens this year, pending FDA-approval). This is the point where we’re practically obligated to bring up the biggest buzzword this year: the “metaverse.”
Discussions of the “metaverse” at CES 2022 were overkill at best, and annoying at worse, mostly because everyone is looking to carve out their corner of the AR/VR market, and the ring is only getting more crowded. TCL’s concept for their new AR smart glasses stood out because not only do they combine every-day functionality with capabilities for office workers, they look like regular, un-bulky glasses a normal person would actually wear. They can show walking directions like a souped-up Google Maps, can take and share photos, and even call into video work meetings.
But therein lied the issue with a lot of non-standard tech at this year’s convention. To a certain extent, we know that TVs and PCs will always receive minor upgrades to graphics, or processor chips. The big swings made at CES this year, though, were hard to judge without seeing or experiencing them in-person. Hybridity has its limits, after all.
Razer, whose gaming laptops are always front and center, as is their groundbreaking gear, was showing off their new Razer Enki Pro Hypersense concept gaming chair during a virtual booth tour. This impressive chair, which may or may not ever come to market, has a base with a large motor, which provides fully-immersive haptic feedback support for almost 2,000 games. It can tilt and jolt in response to the game or music, and you feel every rumble on the screen in your seat. But through the shaky screen of a Razer rep’s phone camera, the movement looked more subtle than it probably felt. I was clearly missing out on something.
The same with demoing headphones, speakers, and audio devices. Noveto released the N1, a fascinating and incredibly cool sound bar-type device they’re calling “invisible headphones”. By emitting ultrasonic waves through the air, it creates two audible pockets of three-dimensional sound around your ears — which everyone else around you can barely hear. Motion sensors also track your head so the sound performance stays accurate. But I will readily admit, I have no idea what these sound like, or how successful the functionality is. For many virtual attendees, they won’t get to find out either.
So what does that mean for us, in this increasingly hybrid world? How are we to judge the merits of new products if we can’t go into an electronics store, or browse through a mall and try things out in-person? Is the concept of a product alone enough to inform us of how well it will actually work? Is a virtual demonstration or showing footage of a VR headset, for example, enough to gauge how worth it (or just how fun) it will be to play?
It seems like pandemic or no pandemic, this has always been a big ask of consumers excited about trying out new technologies. We watch the latest gadget announcements with a discerning eye and take a chance on the “new”. We look at prototypes and demos and trust that companies won’t cut too much of the good stuff when it comes time to release the final product. Sometimes we even shell out the cash, and just pray that it works.
At its best, CES 2022 showed us that this new hybrid world isn’t all about making sacrifices and concessions to innovation. Familiar technologies were not only improved upon, but were adapted — different ways to turn your home into a viable work space, different ways to integrate VR into everyday life, different ways to listen and view art differently. The future is uncertain, but this is how we’ll get through it. Flexibility, with a touch of escapism.
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