CES 2021 will be a true test of the online experience

imaginationThey say necessity is the mother of invention. The greatest technological and social advances are often borne from times of great hardship. Wars, recession… and pandemics.

Amid this uncertainty, new businesses and business models will emerge to face the challenge. The CES annual trade show has served as the annual barometer for what the technology world is thinking and doing for decades, and for the first time in its history has, according to CES, gone “ALL-DIGITAL” for 2021.

For many, the last few months has meant a rapid education in how to use technology to communicate and collaborate effectively without being in the same physical room. In-person experiences disappeared overnight, marketing budgets were slashed, forcing marketing and event managers to adapt, redefining the purpose and value of experiences and thinking long and hard about how to deliver the same impact when everyone is in front of a screen, instead of in front of a stage, or each other.

We often focus only on the limitations of putting a screen between ourselves and the experience. But the screen – be it a mobile, laptop, smart TV or VR headset – has become the de facto live filter through which we watch and engage with rich and immersive experiences in realtime, delivered to huge audiences – not limited by the constraints of the real world, geography, or even language.

Visual and audio effects and production techniques, previously the preserve of high-end film and TV such as Disney+’s The Mandalorian, are now being introduced to audiences of every type of live experience, exploring techniques such as remote avatars, merged reality, immersive audio and interactive environments using real-time 3D graphics engines originally designed for video games.

There is a certain irony that there is always a big focus on physical screens at CES. Brands such as Sony, Samsung and LG typically showcase the ‘World’s Biggest Screen’, with the deepest blacks, fastest motion and the most vibrant colours. This year, the only way to experience these innovations is through a screen. The trend for ultrathin, bendable and transparent screens also has an innate physicality to it. How will brands present these new innovations in an impactful way this year, when you cannot see, hear and feel it directly will prove interesting for sure.

Will we be surprised and delighted through exciting live and interactive moments, or feel like we are watching an elaborately produced and pre-recorded TV ad? Will we see a purposeful use of second screening, so you can see and interact with a version of the product in your living room using augmented reality, or enable you to ask questions live, or individually control the content on-screen, while keeping the main presentation full screen? Rather than your laptop, will the content be adapted to offer a big screen and immersive audio experience through your home theatre system, or even your VR headset?

It will be interesting to see what the big tech brands such as Intel, IBM and Nvidia do to leverage their AI and video processing chops, to deliver some kind of live immersive experience. Could we see live audio translation in action, for example.

For our mental and physical wellbeing, there has never been a better time for smart home, health, and in particular sleep and fitness tech, which has consistently emerged as an increasingly innovative and fascinating area of CES. How will these brands bring these stories to life this year? This medium opens up some excellent opportunities to so-called mindfulness companies, such as Headspace, Calm and newcomers such as URGOnight, to demonstrate their technology to a huge audience in the comfort of their own home.

Personally, I cannot wait to visit CES again in-person. Beyond this year there will continue to be a huge appetite for live in-person experiences, where the visceral thrill and lasting memory of being there will be more valued than ever. What will hopefully change, is that those who could never make CES in-person, will be able to engage in ways not previously possible. This year will be a true test of how to bring such a large and influential physical experience online.

Anton C E Christodoulou is group chief technology officer at Imagination

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