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CES, formerly known as the Consumer Electronics Show, is the global gathering of innovators for tech’s biggest showcase of the year. CES is historically one of the best ways get a pulse on emerging trends in technology that will impact consumers, and thus helps inform how brands can and will engage with consumers through those technologies.

As culture continues to evolve and tech-adoption increases, it’s important to have a sense of where things are at and where they’re headed. That’s why modern marketers spend so much energy at CES. Sure, some of is vaporware, but overall there are common themes and trends from the show that prove valuable.

To get a sense how far we’ve come, watch CNN’s retro tech coverage from CES 1989, covering the introduction of the CD player, portable television sets, the threat of the VCR medium to Hollywood, a teddy bear car alarm, and that cool new gaming system called Nintendo. Take me back!

The overall theme of CES 2021 wasn’t necessarily found in a keynote or exhibitor booth. It was bigger than a product launch and omnipresent across every single touchpoint: “Digital-First Communications Are Here to Stay.”

Digital-first Communications ARE HERE TO STAY

Since CES 2020, we’ve seen a massive shift in our relationship with technology, as witnessed by widespread consumer adoption of video conferencing – matched with the power of digital presence to make or break your brand – and the discovery that consumer technology and access to high-speed internet is imperative to daily life, work, and play. 

“Digital communications” is a trend that is mainstream and undergirds modern life. It’s accepted. It’s expected. And evolved and became the primary means of communication on a timeline and at a scale we never could have predicted one year ago.

In thinking through the digital communications innovation curve of the last 12 months, CES icon Shelly Palmer observed we’ve had “10 years of social innovation in the last 10 months” brought on by a global pandemic that accelerated video conferencing and connectivity. 

As we entered Q2 2020, there was massive demand for low-cost PCs (both for working from home and schooling from home) and mobile phones with cameras. And to power these devices, we needed high speed internet, which unfortunately isn’t as available and affordable as it should be. And many today now find themselves sitting in some kind of TV studio — whether powered by your cell phone in self mode, laptop in a spare room, or perhaps a corner of your bedroom made to look like an office when on camera (which has been my move). I even stole my daughter’s TikTok ring light for meetings.

For all our complaints about Zoom fatigue, the democratization and forced adoption of video conferencing for school, work, and socializing is the greatest and most positively embraced technology advancement of 2020. It’s already becoming evident how much this rapid adoption will affect the post-pandemic years, whether impacting business travel, business development, career development, or work/life balance. And the router speeds aren’t fast enough. The data isn’t accessible and affordable enough. And our collective education level isn’t high enough to maneuver through it all.

There’s a lot of work to do coming out of this massive digital communication adoption curve. And you can get a sense of that while surveying Virtual CES 2021.

As far as marketing and sales atop these consumer habits, we can expect to see trends and technology innovation accelerated by the pandemic becoming mainstream and part of daily life in the following categories: digital and mobile retail, self-checkout, curbside pickup, delivery, social customer care, A.I. targeting, A.I. experiences, digital marketing, social engagement, and more. 

So although the virtual CES experience was less-than-desirable to the IRL experience of years past, it was made possible by the widespread accessibility of high-speed internet, the ease of video conferencing, and the plug-and-play ability of companies to produce promotional videos, build microsites, and participate in chat with attendees. 

Essentially, the same tools we used for commerce and communications connectivity since March 2020 were now on full display at a virtual conference, which further underlines the huge leap for the adoption of and expectations upon digital communications for the coming decade. 

We have only a few examples of these kind of black swan consumer technology moments in history.

My favorite is the rapid adoption of SMS. In 2008, Barack Obama announced he would announce his VP pick via text message. This strategy greatly increased the visibility of text messaging platforms, and for many Baby Boomers, became the catalyst for the first text message they ever received. It pushed massive adoption of a widely available technology by demonstrating utility. 

Here we are in 2021 and the primary way we interact with each other is through consumer technology devices, powered by the anytime web, creating engagement with companies almost completely through their websites, apps, and social media. 

For many of our grandparents and parents, the first FaceTime or Zoom call they ever did was prompted because of the pandemic. For some, they will never go back to non-video calls again. For others, this was finally the reason to get an A.I. assistant in the home, like Amazon Echo or Google Home. Others learned to use Siri for text dictation.

For most, this new all-digital-communications world was tangential to daily life before and become a huge part of daily habits and rituals. It’s really quite amazing, and the consumer technology innovation undergirding the adoption is revolutionary.

The rapid adoption of digital communications may not seem interesting or that ground-breaking, and that’s because you’re LIVING IT EVERY DAY.

Instead, it’s important we need to take a beat and behold the miracles that are working-from-home, schooling-from-home, socializing-from-home. And although they aren’t a replacement for physical interpersonal communications, they are the best possible supplement available, and they have been widely adopted. And thus, we can expect them to persist. And grow. And innovation to fuel its momentum.

So that’s the lens to view an all-virtual CES in 2021. It’s not what we predicted pre-pandemic and not something we want to be our only means of communication in the coming year, but it’s a miracle it’s possible.

The Virtual CES 2021 Experience showcased the power of digital communications

Greg Swan, attending CES 2021 from his bed in Minneapolis, Minn

CES 2021 was a time for marketers to flex what we’ve been practicing all last year. It takes a lot of bravery to host a global conference online for the very first time, and exhibtors needed to apply what they’ve learned in digital communications, reputation, how to drive online buzz, and how to create relevant engagement inside of energy-sucking platforms to stand out unlike ever before.

When “visiting” an exhibitor booth at virtual CES 2021, attendees would visit a microsite-type landing page with video, images, and downloadable brochures. And have the opportunity to chat with a rep. Some of the exhibitors had very little to share. Some were overly salesy. And some built their own microsites off platform that perfectly matched the rest of the brand’s experience. 

Many brands took the virtual CES opportunity to syndicate their content to public channels, like YouTube Live and Facebook Live — making their content more accessible than ever before. 

It raises the question: If your company didn’t have a well-produced, highly-watchable video on YouTube, were you even an exhibitor at CES 2021?

Some had their own programming and speakers — the best had custom backgrounds that matched booth branding. And when you viewed BMW and General Motors’ experiences, you quickly realized what is missing from most of the exhibitors. 

Given the increased adoption and accessibility of virtual reality tech, brands were also starting to develop programming and experiences that offer real value and utility — especially during a pandemic. P&G’s LifeLab Everyday virtual experience was available to virtual CES attendees and members of the public, and blended digital exploration with virtual reality to showcase their news this year. Dreamworld XR CES was an offshoot featuring programming and hosted an after-party. Watch here.  Look for experiential booth experiences like this to increase in the coming years. 

It was not an ideal CES experience, but it was the one we’ve got. Sounds like the mantra of the last year. 

2021 CES Takeaways

True to its reputation, there were plenty of new tech gadgets to gab about this year, even if the gems were harder to find. Some of my favorites:

Here are some of the most notable finds and observations based on keynotes, PR coverage, exhibitor booths, and chatting with my network: 

Pandemic-Tech: as expected, this year we’re seeing new virus-killing technology beyond healthcare, including innovations working to get antimicrobial, touchless, and ultraviolet light technology systems into homes, transit, and workplaces to tackle the current pandemic and future ones. Ubtech’s Adibot disinfects offices and schools with UV light — kind of like a disinfection Roomba. GHSP Grenlite even works in consumer vehicles. Targus announced an antimicrobial keyboard light and backpack. The BioButton is about the size of a silver dollar and uses sensors to continuously track your skin temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate, activity level and sleep – all factors that could indicate a positive COVID-19 case.

And yes, there was some face mask innovation. Including a $50 face mask phone accessory and a mask concept from Razer with voice projection speakers (so you can sound like Darth Vadar or Kylo Ren, finally). I personally hate it when I forget to recharge my mask. 

Wi-Fi 6/6E-enabled devices: similar to the buzz surrounding 5G mobile service in previous years, one of the biggest buzz themes of CES 2021 is the Wi-Fi 6/6E platform that will help distribute faster speeds across all of our devices. In laymen’s terms, Wi-Fi 6/6E is designed for an Internet of Things world on a newly opened spectrum. You know how you currently see 2.4GHz and 5GHz options on many routers? Wi-Fi 6E adds a third — 6GHz.

And although we may not seem extreme increases in speed by itself, this technology caters to lots of devices trying to access the same Wi-Fi at once or large group settings — kind of like the after-market mesh networks many of us have installed in our homes. Wi-Fi 6 gives you more bandwidth for all of your devices, and at CES 2021 we saw new routers from Netgear, Linksys, and TP-Link, plus all sorts of new gadgets that will soon transmit in the super-wide 6GHz band. Nearly 20 percent of all Wi-Fi 6 device shipments are expected to support 6GHz by 2022.

Smart Glasses: the CES crowd loves putting technology on their faces. Back in 2014, people manning booths at CES were more interested in my Google Glass than selling their stuff.

People Manning Booths at CES More Interested in My Google Glass Than Selling Me Their Stuff

In the last six years we’ve seen a significant number of glasses-related patents filed from some of the biggest tech companies – Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Snap, and Facebook – who are all working on new technology and innovation that will change how we think about wearables, hearables, and an A.I.-assisted lifestyle. Here’s my review of the new Amazon Echo Frames.

At CES this year, there was once again a number of smart glasses exhibitors, including the Vuzix MicroLED smart glasses, which have a projector the size of a pencil eraser built right into the frame. 

But what’s more interesting is the aftermarket glasses technology to add to your current prescription or sunglasses. JLab’s new Jbuds Frames is a $50 accessory that adds detachable speakers to any pair of glasses. And ActiveLook provides a compact head-up display that can be embedded in normal glasses and powered by Bluetooth. Much like we saw with the aftermarket Amazon Echo Auto as a smart-lite alternative to buying a brand-new car, these aftermarket smart glasses innovations are a more accessible, affordable option for consumers to trial adoption versus investing in an entirely new glasses platform.

Jbuds Frames

Robots: Every year we’re delighted to find the next Rosie the Robot entry to the home automation suite. Here are some of my favs this year…

This year Samsung made waves with Bot Handy, a robot that can clean up messes, load the dishwasher, and move things around a house.

Reachy is a robot you can control via VR via “VR teleoperation,” similar to socially-distant surgery, except for whatever you want it to do — like take stuff out of the microwave, based on the video (if you have $17,000, of course).

Joining the ranks of therapeutic robots (like Paro) comes Moflin, the fuzzy emotional support robot that uses sensors, accelerometers, and microphones to power algorithms that help it learn and grow, distinguish between different people, and “express its feelings.” It’s basically what we thought the Furby was in 1998.

Keep Your Body Moving: A key need coming out of lockdowns and quarantines is trying to keep ourselves active, healthy, and stimulated, and CES exhibitors focused on replacing the gym at home, outdoor activities, and socially-distance sports found themselves more in demand than previous years.

Fitness platforms are the overall trend umbrella with the launch of Ultrahuman and Samsung Smart Trainer joining the ranks of Peloton and Apple+ to be your personal fitness operating system.

Of note, connected fitness bikes or treadmills may not change significantly on the hardware side in the coming year, but we should expect these more personalized software platforms to plug into this tech that tells you to fix your form, change your posture, or challenge your friends. Even with the return of gyms and fitness centers, the move to home-exercise and outdoor culture is expected to sustain itself for the foreseeable future.


Lidar-Enabled Aftermarket Cars and At-Home Shopping: Our cars and devices are getting better at sensing the outside world. Cepton’s CEO said by 2030 that 50% of all cars produced will have lidar — motion sensing radar — whether for autonomous vehicles or advanced driver assistance systems.

Although it’s a technology we usually associate with self-driving vehicles, the fact that phone manufacturers are pushing LIDAR into their devices means there is a number of use cases for shopping at-home. Whether you are shopping for furniture, clothing, artwork, or a car, you can now literally see, place, and size these higher-risk purchases before buying online. So while CES always has plenty of smart mirrors, digital fashion and LIDAR-innovations for vehicles, every iPhone 13 will have LIDAR, thus opening a whole new host of utility in the coming years.

Quick hits and notes overheard from the show:

  • Product innovation is important, but increasingly it’s less about making a product but also how to access, try on, purchase, return, and share data from the product. 
  • Delivery and timed-express delivery is expected to increase in the 2020s, which of course will lead to more smart doorbell, package security tech, food quality innovation, logistics management, A.I. and ecommerce advancements, and more.
  • Dark stores, ghost restaurants, and fast-food innovation are all adapting to the pandemic in ways that may continue post-pandemic, including rethinking the need for dine-in seating or a footprint at all, allowing people to order online and pickup locally, and planning ahead for how local delivery can scale.
  • Appetite for autonomous cars has cooled a bit thanks to the pandemic. There is some thinking that the trend has been pushed back 12 months, although as noted above, smart technology to make driving safer has continued to permeate into new cars.


Having attended CES many times since 2008, I found it the hardest experience of my career to synthesize trends and overall takeaways from the virtual show this year. What I discovered is the biggest trending takeaway is the fact the event happened at all. I’m grateful for video conferencing, the ease of video production and chat, and the ability to get your message out there using digital communications.

Holy shit. CES actually happened in the middle of a pandemic, thanks entirely to the rapid adoption of digital tools.

Did everyone do virtual CES perfectly? Absolutely not. There were tons of bad panels and empty exhibitors. There was no way to browse. And overall the whole thing was pretty messy. But it happened. And that’s a step. We’ll learn from it. Innovate and iterate. That’s what fuels the CES community.

Looking ahead in 2021, I’m personally hopeful and professionally pessimistic about a “return to normal” before 2022. 

So beyond the fun of robots, drones, and kitchen gadgets, it’s my hope we spend 2021 paying closer attention to consumer tech that helps connect us, improves diversity and historical issues with affordability and opportunity in the tech industry, helps consumers keep themselves healthy, equips seniors with tech-friendly access, and A.I. that helps connect our tech systems and improves daily life.

And maybe we should bring back that teddy bear car alarm from 1989, just for fun.

UPDATE (1/22/2021):

I’m quoted in Forbes about virtual CES and the necessity of prioritizing your brand’s digital footprint in a post-pandemic world: “At CES And Beyond, CMOs See Potential With New Kinds Of Virtual Events.”

SWAN’s Historical CES Round-ups and Debriefs