What we learned from this year’s virtual CES

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Over the past year, the pandemic has pushed us increasingly towards using technology to facilitate safe interactions – be it for work, study, or play. 

Although most of us have now come to grips with using tools such as video conferencing and even meeting up in Virtual Reality, the question remains whether this is actually scalable.

So what could be a better test for that concept than the world’s biggest Consumer Electronics Show (CES) going entirely virtual for the first time? 

Events like this are just as much about face-to-face interactions as they are about getting to play with the latest gadgets, and both are multi-sensory experiences that very much require attendees to “be there” physically to get the full effect. 

Geoff Blaber, Vice President Research, Americas, at CCS Insights, says it’s inescapable that the value of CES, as with any large trade show, comes from opportunities for meetings and networking rather than the conference track and hours of keynote sessions.

At the same time, there is also a real opportunity here to build upon the sort of immersive experiences that worked, and do more of them next time around – even if social distancing rules are relaxed.

Virtual spaces and performances at CES

Several companies experimented with deploying immersive technology at CES 2021, and they went about it in very different ways. 

Journalist Laura Kobylecky writes that Proctor and Gamble created a virtual world called LifeLab, which was accessible as a CES microsite and offered visitors the ability to customize their avatars and interact with reps within that space. She describes it as an interesting attempt at virtual experiential marketing and can imagine that many companies coming to see this as a cost-effective substitute for the live events.

At the more artistic end of that spectrum, Epic Records singer-songwriter Madison Beer collaborated with Sony Music Entertainment and Verizon to create an Immersive Reality Concert. Using real-time 3D creation technology, the musician was transformed into a highly realistic avatar which performed a medley of her latest songs in a virtual recreation of Sony Hall. 

Recording artist Madison Beer collaborates with Sony Music Entertainment and Verizon to put on an Immersive Reality concert.

This ties into Sony’s broader strategy of leveraging what it calls “3R Technology” – Reality, Real-time, and Remote – to inspire Kando (emotion) through the power of entertainment. The tech giant also has plans to launch a live performance video content streaming service featuring spatial sound and 360-video in partnership with major music labels and other streaming services by the end of 2021. The company promises that with this service, listeners will be able to experience a sense of presence and immersion as if they were in the same space as the artist. 

Philip Rosedale – a virtual worlds pioneer who started Second Life back in the ‘90s and went on to found the VR social platform High Fidelity – says much of the type of tech showcased by Sony at the event is still in early stages, but the state of animation of live characters with motion tracking is getting better all the time. This is largely driven by a lot of the VR work that’s been done by a number of companies over the past five years or so.  

“It will be interesting to see actual live events (where the performer is animated but is able to hear and interact with the audience) done this way, as opposed to the pre-recorded clips that we’ve seen in things like the Fortnite concerts,” Rosedale muses.

Speaking of concerts, as I recall from those distant pre-COVID days when I was constantly travelling to different time zones to keep up with conference season, you got as much meaningful work done at the parties as you did trundling through the halls during the day. 

Which is why I was interested to see Rosedale tweeting about the “huge” CES party with a live performance from Billie Eilish, featuring spatial audio built by High Fidelity which allowed all the partygoers to hear each other. 

“The big magic with our engine is that you can hear many people at once, in the direction they are speaking from, meaning you can still understand, even when many people are talking at once… the ‘cocktail party’ phenomenon.  It feels wonderful – you were able to move around and mingle, find friends, etc.,” he explains. Indeed, if we’re ever going to re-create the chemistry of these conferences in the virtual world, nailing the after-party is certainly half the battle. 

5G is having its moment

5G was very much front and center at CES. The fact that the entire conference was taking place virtually – and therefore fully dependent on connectivity to even exist – brought home the fact that fast and reliable networks have become nothing short of essential in this new normal. 

5G is expected to enable $12-trillion of global economic activity by 2035. Yet the most tantalizing question, which we might be closer than ever to answering, is what possibilities can we unlock when everyone is able to have reliable, high-speed connectivity? 

In his keynote, Verizon Chairman and CEO Hans Vestberg described 5G as the “framework of the 21st century, the essential tech of the present and accelerated tech of the future to move our global community forward.”

Verizon’s 5G nationwide network is now available to over 200 million people in eighteen hundred cities and towns and 5G ultra wide band is now in over 50 metro areas. The technology has the ability to support more devices than ever before, up to one million per square kilometer 10x faster ultra low lag.

“The global pandemic has driven us to accelerate the development of new and creative solutions,” he says, adding that 5G will eventually allow us to experience art and culture in a completely new way, with high-fidelity 3D scans of objects, for example, which in turn enables increasingly seamless augmented reality applications. 

“We knew this was coming, but now instead of being our future, it’s our present,” says Vestberg, adding that as live music and other events come back, the technology will be there to help make them better than ever.

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