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7 January 2021

Spotlight on first virtual CES – how will it fair without usual extravagance?

While CES is accustomed to being the inaugural major technology event of the year, this year, however, the world’s largest consumer electronics event finds itself in unfamiliar territory – hosting its debut all-digital show months after most.

All eyes are on CES to start 2021 with a bang. Of course, event organizers have benefited from substantially more preparation time than the major events throughout 2020’s panic-strewn calendar, yet CES is a show like no other – where gadgets, gizmos and monolithic TV sets take center stage ever year on the show floor. Transitioning a show like CES to a virtual experience therefore offers greater challengers than the software-centric shows of the video entertainment and communications sectors, so CES 2021 will be taking on an uncharacteristically subdued persona – swapping the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas for a schedule of carefully crafted keynote sessions and panel discussions.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg has the honors of the opening keynote address, which we expect to be a generic overview of his company’s 2020 performance padded out with some buzzwordy side ventures the telco plans to embark on in 2020, such as telemedicine and tele-education.

A few more relevant stand out sessions that Faultline will be popping its head into next week include an important update on NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) with speakers from Fox Sports, Samsung Electronics and of course ATSC itself, while a politically-motivated session titled ‘A Biden Administration’s Approach to Technology and Innovation’ also jumps out from the list.

With very little known about the US President Elect’s stance on key technology issues, we are hoping this conference session will shine some light on defining FCC matters such as reinstating net neutrality, US-China trade relations, and the small matter of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This long-held law essentially protects social media platforms from being sued due to user-generated posts – which is just one debate within the broader big tech problem that will exacerbate once again this year with calls for companies like Facebook to be broken up.

While Biden has been quiet on the net neutrality front, a spokesperson for the President Elect recently said, “As Barack Obama’s VP, Joe Biden was proud to push for net neutrality and see the FCC take direct action to keep the internet open and free for all Americas.” There have been some reservations about Biden’s net neutrality stance given the sizable checks his presidential campaign received from Comcast, among others, but then again so did Obama’s, so this is really a non-argument.

‘The Great Unbundling in Video’ session at CES 2021, featuring speakers from Philo and Pluto TV, should offer an opportunity to hear how direct to consumer streaming brands are shaping up for the next decade. More significantly, we aim to explore how traditional pay TV operators can possibly respond to the great video unbundling trend – or whether the so-called super aggregation trend (which is essentially re-bundling) is enough to keep the great pay TV superpowers competitive in video. Expect much of the same throughout this year.

A number of advertising spotlight sessions are also on show next week, with plenty zooming in on connected TVs in particular – where untapped opportunities lie in abundance for advertisers, ad tech firms and service providers alike. These themes look set to feature prominently again throughout Faultline’s 2021 coverage.

On the hardware side of things, which CES is infinitely more famous for, numerous sizable product launches in virtual formats are being primed by the electronics big-hitters. Most notably, CES 2021 is shaping up to be a battle of microLED TVs, with Samsung and TCL both preparing to launch slightly scaled down versions of the widely used panel technology for commercial rollouts.

While Samsung is keeping a lid on any announcement details until next week, its monolithic 110-inch microLED TV set, unveiled a month ago, is likely to steal the show. Finely tuned semiconductor processes have allowed Samsung to gradually shrink panel size to a more manageable form factor for consumer homes.

TCL, meanwhile, is going for a mini-LED look for its similar display technology, which again could mark the company’s debut consumer mini-LED device.

Two years have passed since Samsung debuted its first microLED TV set, yet pushing the technology as a commercial mainstay has been tricky. This is due in part to the sheer size of the screens, while microLED flat panel technology is still head and shoulders above ULED XD and OLED panels in terms of density.

A year later, at CES 2020, Samsung again made hay with its microLED TV panel, dubbed The Wall, comprising micrometer sized elements, assembled in various sizes from constituent panels without bezels. Samsung conceded that its ultimate destiny for LED is to eliminate backlighting altogether, using self-emissive quantum dots that produce the light directly in response to electrical signals, more like OLED. This iteration of LED represents an attempt to reduce the handicap of the backlight by using ultra small elements so that the panel can be thinner.

Launches are also primed from the electronics world in the areas of bendable/foldable TVs, wearables, cameras, smartphones, and more. While we expect much of the same from CES 2021, we are braced for the first year in the event’s history that it will look to neighboring trade events for inspiration on how to pull off a well-rounded virtual showcase without the extravagant backdrop.