Pros, Cons, and Themes from CES 2022, a Hybrid Tech Show for a Hybrid Work World

Reprint courtesy of NACD Online

NACD Private Company Directorship

After its COVID-related cancellation in 2021, this year’s CES was meant to get back to a floor display-focused networking event. Unfortunately, a meteoric increase in COVID-19’s Omicron variant led to the show being quickly retooled as a hybrid event.

What followed were cancellations by major companies such as Amazon.com, Google, Intel Corp., Lenovo, Microsoft Corp., and Meta Platforms, although about 45,000 people did attend the event in person—around a quarter of the participation in the last in-person event two years earlier. It certainly made for a very different show experience, and in this post, I will share some of the good, the bad, and the major themes I think are important for board leaders of private companies.

The Pros and Cons of the Revised Format

Lower attendance had some advantages for the show: Hotel reservations were easy to get, costs were way down, and transportation was less crowded. After a long day of prearranged meetings in our suite with customers and partners, too, it was very convenient to watch a keynote address from my own room versus racing across town to get to a particular venue.

As for walking the show floor, there were no lines and no waiting. I was able to see every booth on my list—no sharp elbows required—and I especially enjoyed using the Las Vegas Convention Center Loop, a 1.7-mile underground tunnel system by Elon Musk’s Boring Company highlighting electric vehicles’ utility in moving passengers seamlessly (using Teslas driven by people, not autonomously).

But there were also downsides. Companies that invested in booths and expected heavy traffic were clearly disappointed, and even the largest booths had assistants trying to direct traffic to them. Additionally, some of the displays and demonstrations needed to be taken with a grain of salt; there was more “sizzle” than “steak” for a number of them, and some products displayed would clearly not be ready for sale for some time.

Key Themes to Consider

Devices are cool, but data is hot. All devices—from refrigerators to washing machines to televisions—now have smart and connected options. An interesting theme was the beginning of standardization in this interconnectivity for Internet of Things consumer appliances. These standards, Matter and Threadprovide consumers with the ability to buy connected products from different brands and have them successfully work together. Some of the functionality is truly impressive, but the real focus is on the data that these devices collect on their users.

Personalization is front and center. Curating the user experience was a focus for nearly every exhibitor I saw at CES this year, with this level of personalization possible through smart, connected devices. This great user experience generally comes at the expense of privacy, and technology companies are certain that most of us will take that trade.

More technology is focusing on human-centric benefits. I saw greater emphasis on embedding more connected technology into our personal and business lives. Wearables, appliances, and home assistants are all working together to make computer power available everywhere you are and to provide information in context with seamless collaboration for what you are doing (and with whom) at work or during recreation.

Automotive electrification is going mainstream. Serious electric vehicles used to be synonymous with Tesla, periodIt’s clear from CES, though, that BMW, General Motors Co., and even Sony Group Corp. (which had a demonstration model at the show) recognize that automotive electrification is building momentum and mass acceptance that is likely to outpace recharging infrastructure for the next decade. Electric vehicles are available from or being developed by both major automakers and many lesser-known brands. When you reflect on how significantly the automobile transformed transportation, industry, and society itself, it’s not hard to imagine how automotive electrification will have similar implications.

Ultimate Takeaways for Private Company Directors

I believe that today every company is inherently a technology-enabled business. These new tools and megatrends provide an opportunity for the board to question management on their implications relative to the organization’s current strategies and customer value propositions. They can accelerate your company’s growth, disrupt its market, or both.

Ultimately, corporate survival is purely a matter of choice: choice in investments, choice in solution development, and choice in focus. Choosing wisely is the challenge we all face.

Andrew E. Chrostowski, NACD.DC, is chair and CEO of RealWear.

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