by Robert Acquaotta, SVP Integrated Media

Today is the last day of CES 2021.  My sentiments can best be summed up by the photo montage above (the Las Vegas strip properties’ coordinated shout-out to the show on Sunday night):

“We Miss You CES.  Can’t Wait to Welcome You Back in 2022.” 

It was difficult to envision how a show as expansive as CES, the largest annual show in Las Vegas, could be adequately recreated on a laptop screen. The key challenge of this virtual CES is that the navigation of the show on their digital platform is akin to shopping on Amazon: you can’t find what you’re looking for without knowing in advance what you’re looking for.  Consequently, the “discovery” aspect of CES – finding an unexpected new product at a remote booth at the Las Vegas Convention Center – is difficult. 

That said, there are a few things so far that have stood out about this year’s show:  at least one impressive keynote, a few cool immersive digital exhibitor experiences, and generally, the ability of CES to still create excitement and hope around the idea of technology enabling a better future for all people.  Here is Part One of my observations and takeaways from CES 2021.

Wherefore art thou 5G?

We have been reporting on 5G at CES for four years now, and frustratingly, the state of 5G does not feel tangibly different today than it has in any of those four years.  Of course, there are many more handsets and devices at this year’s show that promote 5G compatibility, but the benefit of 5G to the average consumer is still unclear, other than the fact that it is something new. 

In listening to the Verizon keynote and various conference sessions, there is a consistent broader and better general understanding of what 5G means for the future.  The idea that 5G will enable autonomous cars and the continued explosive expansion of the Internet of Things is now widespread.  In truth though, it is hard for us to comprehend how 5G will alter our day to day lives. On a more micro level, we really do not yet know what new innovations 5G will unleash. 

Verizon showed off several impressive use cases:

  • A partnership with the NFL that will bring 5G to 28 NFL Stadiums in 2021 (already installed at Tampa Bay); in-stadium 5G will create a more engaging fan experience, including the ability for 5G viewers to choose from seven different camera angles to view the game via the NFL SuperStadium app.

 

  • Museum partnerships, including the Smithsonian and Metropolitan, to digitally render 3D images from multiple collections in AR and VR, allowing for remote exploration of simulated environments.

 

  • An announcement that Verizon will be launching 5G in 15 iconic Live Nation concert venues to allow future attendees to view live performances from a variety of camera angles.
  • And finally, a live concert with the Black Pumas to provide a live demo of this last use case – the audience was invited to scan a QR code on screen using their mobile device, which opened an app that triggered an AR view of the concert in your home.

 

Admittedly, all interesting and exciting stuff.  But the promise of this 5G future was once again tempered by the reality of today’s 5G:  while watching the Verizon keynote showing all these impressive use cases, the screen image froze (multiple times), the stream buffered, and chunks of content were lost.  This happened all while connected to the alleged 5G band of WIFI on my router.  

For the fourth straight year, we have the same takeaway about 5G:  2021 will be more marketing hype than reality and the 5G we think we are using on our new devices is not yet true 5G.  It remains a work in progress.  Perhaps with all the accelerated change wrought by the pandemic, 2022 will finally be the year of some real advancement.

GM: The Future Is Electric

This keynote was electric in more ways than one.  Sure, there was the repeated news that GM will be introducing 30 new electric vehicles in the next 5 years across all their brands (Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC, which will include the new Hummer sub-brand).  So, literally, electric.  But it was Mary Barra’s keynote presentation that was also electric.  It had the feel of those historic famous Steve Job’s Apple debuts, where he would introduce all the expected new products, and then utter those words “oh, and one more thing”, right before unveiling something jaw-droppingly cool.  Mary Barra never used those words, but the pacing of the presentation was quite similar:  a few expected elements followed by some genuinely surprising news.  

The presentation highlighted GM’s new Ultium Battery Platform and the technology behind it.  If this is your thing, you can geek out here:  https://www.gm.com/our-stories/commitment/ev-battery-modular-technology.html  With most of the other keynote segments focused on GM’s expansive technologies, it felt to me for the first time, that cars really belong at CES.  The GM automobile appears to be morphing into just another device, like your mobile handset or smart refrigerator.

About the surprises:

  • BrightDrop – an entirely new business focused on logistics and services. The product offering includes the EV600 electric delivery van, the EP1 electric-powered “e-pallet” plus operational support services.  And unlike so much of what is presented at CES, BrightDrop is already here, with FedEx receiving the new trucks beginning at the end of 2021:  gobrightdrop.com

  • Cruise, the self-driving start-up, is now testing fully autonomous, driverless cars on San Francisco streets. Your read correctly – they have now eliminated the “emergency” driver from the front seat of the car, so you can now ride and watch the steering wheel eerily turn without any human input, from the rear seat of a Cruise vehicle.
  • And since all of this is not enough, they teased CES attendees an Easter Egg of this Cadillac self-driving duo, a Flying Car (VTOL, vertical take-off and landing) and autonomous shuttle.

 

Can we go back to “30 new electric vehicles in the next 5 years?” For some reason in the context of this keynote, this news resonated with me for the first time – in and of itself, it’s huge deal.  The idea that electrification has further allowed GM to rethink the entire driver and brand experience is an equally huge deal.  But meanwhile, under the leadership of Mary Barra, the first-ever female CEO of the company, they have managed to be pushing all these other initiatives forward.  This is not the GM of old that churned out those rust buckets many of us first learned to drive in.

Oh, and did CES attendees notice that there were an equal number of women and men presenting in GM’s keynote?  Progress.

You stream, I stream, we all stream

Last year at this time, after watching main stage presentations from Quibi and NBCU (which only included a brief mention of their forthcoming Peacock launch), we were left to ponder the inevitable “streaming wars”:  was there a real market for Quibi’s mobile-focused streaming product serving up video in “quick bites”? (Qui Bi?  Get it?)  Would Comcast be able to successfully launch a streaming service without cannibalizing their cable bundle?  How many years would it take for a shake-out to occur in this crowded marketplace?

Like so many other pandemic-related changes to businesses and consumer behavior, it has dramatically accelerated the shift to streaming.  The initial battle of the “streaming wars”, with each new service fighting to gain awareness and trial, has largely already happened, in mere months instead of years.  Peacock, HBO Max and Discovery+ have all since launched.  Consumers have adapted streaming services at an astonishingly quick rate – according to media research firm Kagan, U.S. households subscribe to 3.1 services on average.  And Quibi launched and failed spectacularly, all within the course of just six months. 

 The show wraps up today.  We’ll finish with our Part Two wrap up next week.  Back to the show!