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CES counts on meat, cars to draw crowds

The flagship show, held every year in Las Vegas, has also branched into industries that wouldn’t have been considered 'tech' a few years ago

Hyundai’s S-A1 electric Urban Air Mobility concept on display at CES.
Hyundai’s S-A1 electric Urban Air Mobility concept on display at CES. (Photo: AFP)

Every year during the second week of January, nearly 200,000 people gather in Las Vegas for the tech industry’s most-maligned, yet well-attended event: the consumer electronics show.

The conference, officially known as CES, takes over the city, occupying numerous hotels and aeroplane hangar-sized halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Swarms of mostly male attendees, big plastic badges swinging from their necks, wander among the exhibition booths of some 4,500 companies showcasing everything from toilets that can talk to “flying cars" that can’t actually fly yet.

For years though, the biggest companies in tech have held back, opting for a more muted presence at CES and announcing their newest products in separate events. Apple Inc., whose slick product “Keynote" has since been copied by almost every other hardware company, started the trend years ago. Now it’s fashionable for tech journalists to brag about avoiding CES altogether. Without big announcements, and amid a broader backlash against the tech giants, some wonder why the event still exists.

And yet, people go in droves. Executives from the big names can meet suppliers and negotiate partnerships. For individual attendees, it’s also valuable for keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of bigger screens, longer battery life and internet-connected everything.

Even if Apple or, Inc. aren’t dropping new world-changing devices, it still matters to a manufacturer from Shenzhen, China, or a Best Buy Co. merchandising manager what the latest trends in consumer tech are, regardless of how incremental they might seem. Technology has infiltrated people’s lives and gadgets from small drones to mobile phones are now accessible to millions of people around the world, not just the rich, early-adopters of 20 years ago.

And CES continues to show off the proliferation of devices for every conceivable purpose, meaning a legion of product reviewers, who can easily reach huge audiences through YouTube, are needed to help consumers sift through their options. For them, CES is D-Day, the week where they shoot dozens of videos to roll out during the year.

CES has also branched into industries that wouldn’t have been considered “tech" a few years ago. Walking through the exhibition halls, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a car show. As the auto industry leans in to self-driving technology, voice-connected software and electric cars, companies like Mercedes-Benz AG and Honda Motor Co. have come to CES in force in the hope of getting some high-tech press. This year, Hyundai Motor Co. claims to have a flying car (or rather small helicopter) it wants to show off. CES’ colonization of the auto world was partly why the Detroit Auto Show—that industry’s flagship event—moved to June from January.

CES has also become one of the top events for the advertising world, much of which now revolves around interpreting moves made by Google and Facebook. Executives from the holding companies of the big advertising agencies camp in the upscale Aria hotel and rarely venture further afield for fear of the infamous hour-long taxi lines.

The latest trend to hit CES stretches the definition of tech beyond recognition. Last year, Impossible Foods Inc.’s unveiling of the meatless “Impossible Burger 2.0" was the show’s fan favourite, winning awards from numerous tech blogs. Now that rival Beyond Meat Inc. has seen its stock shoot up 200% after a wildly popular initial public offering, Impossible Foods looks to be planning something major this year too.

“We’ve got big news coming your way," the food company said on its Instagram last week. “We’re back."

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