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Insights from the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show (CES)

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It was no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic had a noticeable effect on the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, both in the experience and in the form of new, COVID-19 inspired trends and technologies. In early 2021, CES occurred virtually for the first time in its over 50 year history. While the physical experience in Las Vegas may have been missing, there was at least one benefit to the new virtual model, which is that participants from around the world who attended the event this year may not have been able to make the trip if CES had occurred in its traditional location in Las Vegas.

COVID-19 also inspired new types of consumer innovations, creating a new focus on at-home and health products due to priorities inspired by the conditions consumers across the globe have been living in for months. Based on both the keynote speeches and the innovative technologies presented, we saw the key themes of CES this year to be as follows:

  • COVID-19 and its resulting changes in consumer behavior have caused an acceleration in digital transformation. This digital acceleration stood out in multiple forms but two of the most evident categories were the emphasis on a combined digital and physical experience to optimize the consumer journey and innovation in the transportation and mobility space. The enhanced effect of the combination of physical experience with digital was most evident in the keynote speeches.Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon reiterated the importance of maintaining physical stores alongside the expected surge in online orders during his keynote, and Best Buy’s CEO Corie Barry discussed the observation that after Best Buy stores reopened, the most trafficked areas of the stores were those with complex entertainment offerings that consumers felt had to be seen in person to be evaluated. Transportation innovations were also abundant. Emphasis was placed on personal and private forms of transportation, with the belief that consumers will begin investing more heavily in innovative non-shared transportation solutions in the coming years. Topics included autonomous technology, electric cars, flying vehicles and micromobility (small lightweight vehicles traveling under 15mph) solutions. Examples of technologies highlighted at CES include both a flying car and an autonomous personal taxi debuted by GM, and a self-balancing Segway eScooter. It can be deduced from these trends that consumers are expected to begin to travelling away from their homes again in the coming years because some experiences are still better in person, but that these consumers expect innovation throughout the experience.
  • The home is becoming a more important hub for all aspects of life, including working, living and learning. After spending, in many cases a considerable amount more time in the home last year, consumers’ anticipated interest in new technology for their residence comes as no surprise. Many of the technologies discussed during CES were focused on robotics and other IOT devices for the home, along with additional technologies to make the home a better, more comfortable place to spend time. Innovations ranged from work and gaming chairs with heating and massage options to robotic food production devices and voice-controlled bathtubs. The focus on home this year emphasized the assumption by many companies that even as vaccines are rolled out, consumers still plan to spend extended amounts of time in their homes in the near future.
  • Consumers are becoming more interested in their health, with growing interest in digital health products they can utilize at home. The two major health and wellness themes during CES 2021 were those inspired by the pandemic (“pandemic tech”) and those focused more generally on tracking health at home. Based on the number of innovative masks, disinfecting robots, and other creative technologies such as a temperature-tracking doorbell, it’s evident that many companies are placing bets that consumers will look for protections from COVID-19 well into the next 1-2 years. In addition, there was a new prioritization of healthcare and wellness practices in the home. Deeptha Khanna, Chief Business Leader of Personal Health at Philips, stated “we have witnessed the reinvention of our homes as a core element of the healthcare pathway with telehealth, virtual and remote care technologies as the key drivers for change during COVID-19… and these changes are here to stay”. Health-focused innovations displayed this year included a wellness toilet that uses stool to make wellness recommendations, multiple at home vitals monitoring devices and a robot that learns a consumers’ lifestyle and provides recommended changes to improve mental health.

As can be expected during such a pivotal time in history, the COVID-19 pandemic was the key driver in practically all of the main trends and themes evident at this year’s CES event. There are many lessons that can be learned through this year’s trends. For example, it can be deduced that companies believe consumers still value the physical experience, but that those experiences can and will be augmented with digital. They also believe consumers plan to be mobile this year and will invest in transportation, with an emphasis on personal transportation including micromobility solutions. With the amount of smart home technologies on display this year, it seems evident that companies believe consumers are getting more comfortable with robotics and automation and will more frequently welcome those technologies into their homes. The expectation that consumers will invest in these technologies is also a sign that consumers are expected to continue spending significant amounts time in their homes. Unfortunately, fears from COVID-19 aren’t expected to go away any time soon so many companies are continuing to focus on pandemic-focused technologies. And finally, health and wellness in general has become a much more important topic for consumers, in particular when it comes to solutions that can be used within their homes.

While we’d be surprised if many of these sometimes science fiction-inspired, futuristic technologies end up entering mass production any time soon, the takeaways from the 2021 CES conference are highly informative in highlighting expectations for consumer behavior in the coming years. We look forward to seeing whether and how these trends become a reality in the months and years to come!

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