This year CES went virtual

February 8, 2021
Matt Merralls
Production Director

I got the golden ticket. My first year at CES – where the best tech companies and brands come together to create a mecca of innovation, all set on the glamour and glitz of the Las Vegas strip.

Did someone say pandemic…? So, no flight to Vegas? That’s right. This year CES went virtual, so with my own Vegas style finger food buffet I settled into a Zoom marathon via CES’s digital venue. Here’s some thoughts of what I saw.

Most of the panels I tuned into focused on instore innovation teams and how they were ‘reinvigorating’ their bricks and mortar store offering with a focus on technologies that preserve the current consumer demand for a contactless experience in a safe environment.

I learned how investing in current technologies such as handheld POS systems, air filtration systems, autonomous robotic cleaners and Collect & Go pop up hubs enabled stores to offer some form of service. For example, the largest sporting goods chain in the US, Dick’s, saw 23% growth in Q4 as a direct result of the tech investments they’ve made(1), while many store environments were rendered redundant for those who hadn’t upped their tech game, such as bargain fashion giant Primark who have resisted moving their operation online even in the face of an expected £1bn lost revenue through UK store closures. (2)

So, while winners embrace and others resist tech investment, what’s next?

Embracing sprint innovation
We’re all aware that the shift in investment to e-commerce has been huge in 2020 and only matched in numbers by the migrating footfall to online shopping.

Commentators in both the UK and US suggest COVID-19 condensed 10 years of technical development into 9 months across all sectors and consumer behaviours. E-commerce sites are easier to navigate than ever and development in AI brings efficiency gains for brands, retailers and consumers alike – browsing is a breeze, and even a joy, especially when an unexpected product suggestion is exactly what you were looking for, even if you didn’t know it.

The problem for consumers now, is trust. Fake news, scepticism of product reviews and taking the leap of faith that AI is recommending the right product for you rather than what the algorithm is tasked to promote.

And this is where I think, post pandemic, brands can reimagine the core store function to once again become a consumer destination for the curious and knowledge hungry. From the emerging fitness fan who doesn’t know what trainer suits their running style to the teen who’s exploring male make up trends, brand ambassadors supported by immersive installations can give authentic, trustworthy advice and product recommendations while inviting the consumer to invest in a brand experience that’s not only enjoyable to be part of but elevates a brand as a trusted authority in the field.

Is immersive tech only for the geek elite?
There is without doubt an increased appetite for tech both for consumers and brands, especially in the immersive arenas of AR, VR and installations. The signs are all around us.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, revealed in October 2020 that “Oculus Quest 2 pre-orders were 5 times higher than the original Quest.”, which was released just 18 months after the Quest 1.

In November Sony showcased their Spatial Reality Display, which is effectively a screen that can show each eye a different image via eye tracking, which gives the user a sense of VR but without the headset. Designed with VR content creation in mind, it’s easy to see how the technology could also evolve into the retail space.

Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro just released with the LiDAR (Light Detecting And Ranging) scanner built into the camera which allows for a seamless and realistic AR experience, paving the way for AR e-commerce shopping and the release of Apple’s worst kept secret, the N421 – or as it’s expected to be named, Apple Glass.

And let’s not forget that one of the biggest music events, with a staggering 12.3 million attendees, was held by Travis Scott in the immersive gaming environment offered by Fortnite in April 2020. That’s an increase of 2 million attendees since Marshmello took to the virtual stage just 12 months prior in February 2019.

The biggest barriers for consumers are eroding. Hardware is becoming more powerful, and in some instances, cheaper. And the biggest barrier of all, which hinders digitally connected experiences, will be overcome with the roll out of 5G networks – bringing immersive experiences and e-commerce opportunities together in a seamless environment of zero latency.

As we move out of the pandemic, business and marketing strategies will be rewritten over and over. But one consistent theme, underpinned by the condensed technological advances of the past year, is evident. Consumers are already embracing immersive technologies both in the digital and physical space and it’s now over to retailers and brands to harness these technologies to deliver experiences that align with their wider business objectives.


(1) CES 2021, Retail Trends: The New Shopper.