What Attending Virtual CES 2021 Might Be Like

Image of a Consumer Electronics Show
image: Techfluence

By: Tekla S. Perry

Can you have a virtual Consumer Electronics Show that feels anything like the real thing? That is, not just with streaming panels and press conferences, but with exhibit halls to wander, booths large and small to visit, and encounters with product designers and company executives both planned and random? 

You’d have to be able to peek in a booth and step right back out without wasting any time as well as the opportunity to spot something unexpected and quickly find out all about it. And you’d have to have flexible breaks; screen fatigue can be a lot harder to handle than sore feet.

That was the question on my mind as I entered last week’s Techfluence online event. With only 14 booths and 174 attendees, it was nowhere near the scale of a 4400-exhibitor and 170,000-attendee CES show. But the event, operated by Getgeeked Media, promised the ability to wander an exhibit hall, something that’s been sorely missing since large in-person events were wiped off the calendar by the pandemic.

Going in, honestly, I had my doubts. I find most online experiences tedious at best. But the event turned out to be just fine. Can it scale up? That I don’t know, though I’m sure many companies are making similar efforts to create virtual exhibit halls, large and small. CES itself has promised a digital show floor with “dynamic product showcases and live demos” for 2021, but hasn’t specified how that will work.

Here’s how I experienced the Techfluence event, along with a look at how the company pulled it together. (Getgeeked Media, founded by Barry Myers in 2014, puts on gadget showcases aimed at tech influencers and early adopters.)

“Walking” the Virtual Show Floor

I “arrived” at the event, about an hour or so after it started, opening up a browser window that displayed a list of exhibitors and their logos. The group was diverse, including storage peripheral manufacturer Western DigitalBlendjet with a portable mini blender, OhmniLabs with a telepresence robot, and Tivic Health with a gadget intended electrically reduce sinus pain.

I clicked on various pulldown menus to find a booth that I was interested in visiting, then clicked on the logo to “walk” through the entrance into the booth. In most booths, I was greeted by either a prerecorded video pitch for the product or a live spokesperson running through a scripted product overview. I was able to listen to this while grabbing press releases and brochures from a side menu and giving them a quick read.

If I stayed in that ‘booth’ for more than a minute or two, I generally received a message from a company representative in a group chat, similar to a real-world experience in which someone will approach you. For a deeper dive, I moved over to a live group video connection that came up using Zoom or another platform. Typically, one or two attendees were already talking to a company representative; I’d listen for a while then jump in myself. Again, that’s not unlike joining a cluster gathered around a product at a CES booth.

None of the exhibitors had technology that rocked my world. Indeed, most of it had been shown before, at CES or elsewhere. And when it comes to consumer gadgets, it’s hard to say much about them without actually getting your physical hands on them. But at this point, the intent was more to be a proof of concept than anything else. And Techfluence’s virtual exhibit hall worked much better than I would have imagined, making me think that attending a virtual CES—or at least the satellite press events held at CES where exhibitors are whittled down to a few hundred—wouldn’t be time wasted.

The Plan and How it Worked Out

Getgeeked founder Myers was thrilled with how his first virtual tech showcase went off, and while there are some glitches to fix, he said he plans to hold another virtual product showcase in November. I spoke to Myers along with Alfred Poor, a freelance writer who helped develop the concept and execute the event, about what they were trying to do, how they did it, and what they need to do better.

The prime directive, said Poor, was “to make it useful for press, so we wanted to have free movement around the exhibits. We also wanted to look at what would make it better for exhibitors, and one of the thing at top of my list is great analytics. You go to trade show, they maybe scan your badge or give a business card, that doesn’t tell you a lot, and then you have the drive-bys, and don’t even know who they are. So we wanted our event to be better than that.”

Poor said he looked at about two dozen platforms, mostly designed for webinars or web-based conferences, including corporate events that have multiple session tracks with scheduled speakers at each, and interactivity like text-based question and answer periods. He selected conferencing platform On24, and adapted it for use as a virtual exhibit hall.

“We didn’t have to add code,” Poor said, “but we came up with a new way of thinking about what they call the engagement hub. We relabeled some of the widgets, and used links to take users to, for example, an external video chat functionality.”

“The video chat was a link, and opened a new tab,” Myers explained. “It isn’t wired into the ‘booth’ so you don’t access it at first. But that wasn’t a drawback, rather, it let the attendee drive the engagement. If someone comes up to a booth at a real event, they may not want to engage, they might just want to take the press release and product brochure and move on.”

Because videochat is just a simple link, exhibitors could also have a second channel, he explained, password protect it, and use it for scheduled, one-on-one meetings, like many CES exhibitors hold in tucked-away conference rooms.

For this event, exhibitors could choose just about any platform for their videochat sessions; most selected ZoomMicrosoft Teams, or Google Meet. That, Myers admits, “injured the attendee experience,” by surprising attendees with requirements to download apps they didn’t already have or to restart their computers. Next time, he said, Techfluence will mandate use of a single video chat platform and let attendees know they should be prepared to use its app.

The system also created a link that went to an email standardized for product review unit requests; to make that process easier for exhibitors, these requests at the next event will feed into a form instead of an email and populate a spreadsheet, Myers said.

Besides generating more data for exhibitors about who came to “booths,” how much time they spent there, and what they looked at, such a virtual event, Myers says, is definitely “a less expensive endeavor” all around.

How big could it scale? Said Poor: “I think the Pepcom/Showstoppers market is a reasonable target for online events. For the broader CES attendee, beyond the media, perhaps not.” (Pepcom and Showstoppers run tabletop showcases for the media with hundreds of exhibitors that piggyback on CES and like events.)

“The onsite events aren’t going to go away,” Myers said, “But I firmly believe a significant portion of this kind of events in the new normal will use this approach.

Correction made 2 October 2020

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 1 October 2020.