CES, typically one of the year’s biggest tech trade shows, is moving forward with plans to host an in-person component this week despite looming threats of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Although the event will return to Las Vegas for the first time since 2020 — marking the first major, in-person tech conference in the US since the start of the pandemic — it will look different than in pre-Covid times. To start, attendees will be required to masks, show proof of vaccination, and will have access to self-test kits. It will also close one day earlier than originally planned.

The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts the event, said more than 2,200 exhibitors committed and over 3,300 members of the media have registered for in-person attendance, but a number of media organizations and prominent companies — such as Lenovo, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Intel and Meta, formerly known as Facebook — have canceled plans to physically attend in recent weeks. (The event normally draws around 4,000 exhibitors.) It will also once again host a digital version of the conference, following last year’s all-virtual CES.

CES reduces schedule after Lenovo, other tech giants pull out

In a recent blog post published on LinkedIn, CTA president Gary Shapiro said canceling the event this year would hurt thousands of smaller companies who have made investments in building their exhibits and are counting on CES to help their business.

“CES will and must go on,” he wrote. “It will have many more small companies than large ones. It may have big gaps on the show floor. Certainly, it will be different from previous years. It may be messy. But innovation is messy. It is risky and uncomfortable.”

Despite the pandemic-related challenges, this year’s show floor will likely be a spectacle of giant TVs, roaming robots and gadgets that promise the future of tech.

Expected CES highlights this year

The auto industry is expected to have a bigger-than-ever presence. Although General Motors canceled its plans to attend in person, CEO Mary Barra will deliver the conference’s opening keynote address and is expected to share more about the company’s vision for mass-adoption of electric vehicles. GM is set to unveil a new, all-electric pickup truck at the show on January 5.

Other forms of transportation will also be on display, such as electric scooters, electric bikes and a Sierra Space plane, which is partnering with NASA to take goods to the International Space Station.

The digital health space, which has accelerated over the past two years, will be a major point of focus at CES this year, too. While companies will tout new health gadgets, apps and services, panel discussions will highlight the future of telemedicine and emerging products, such as mobile app-enabled, at-home Covid-19 tests. A healthcare provider — Abbott, a medical device company — will deliver a keynote presentation for the first time.

Meanwhile, discussions around a variety of policy issues facing the tech industry are also planned, such as how to craft effective privacy laws, how to address the growing threat of cyberattacks and how to regulate cryptocurrencies. The event comes as regulators in the United States and elsewhere consider how to rein in dominant big tech companies and how to responsibly manage emerging technologies such as AI, cryptocurrency and autonomous vehicles.

US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly are all expected to attend CES.

Other areas of focus include food tech, NFTs, augmented and virtual reality, and sessions focused on the metaverse, the vision for a 3D version of the internet whereamong other activities, digital avatars can walk around and interact with one another in real time.

A big test

Beyond setting the stage for the upcoming year in tech, CES will likely be a major test for the return of large, international conventions. Similar events, including the World Economic Forum’s annual event in Davos, Switzerland, have recently been postponed due to uncertainty over the variant.

“We are actively tracking the emerging news and science around the new Omicron variant,” the Consumer Tech Association said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor and adjust our plans and health protocols as necessary.”

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