The big talk at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show was not smartphones or the next big camera or drone – although those products and innovations were in abundant supply. No, the big talk this year was survival – getting the world immunized and healed and making sure that big tech does not become the big monster of our nightmares, or Hollywood’s version of our nightmares.

Around every (virtual) corner was a new concept for safe face masks, and new ways to execute room and space sanitization, not to mention new visions in touchless technology and robotic friends. The world took a detour this year and CES was its destination.

In 2020, the worldwide technology show pulled together some 171,268 attendants, including 4,419 people exhibiting and funneled them through what is, at best, a snakelike progression of booths and star-paneled sessions across some half dozen megaresorts in Las Vegas.

But in 2021, CES was, for the first time in its 54 years, not in Las Vegas.

Rather, it was everywhere as the conference’s first virtual event. That meant attendees could actually get a comfortable front row seat to all the plenaries and panels and wander virtual showrooms full of stuff. What it also meant, however, was the impossibility of feeling, touching, seeing the actual products or dropping in for spontaneous discussions with the teams.

Still, the most top-of-mind buzz was around managing the pandemic – and a topic given new oomph in day-to-day considerations due to advances in all manner of consumer technology and innovation. As a chaotic vaccination system rolls out with new strains and mutations of the coronavirus coming from behind, talk also turned to where we are in human history, what’s ahead for us, and how we can optimize our time in the present at home.

Prometheus Unbound
“I basically look at advances in technology through what I call Promethean moments,” said Thomas Friedman, three-time Pulitzer prize winning author and commentator at The New York Times.

“Prometheus was a Greek god who basically stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans to develop civilization,” Friedman explained. “I am thinking of three great Promethean leaps forward: the printing press, the Industrial Revolution, and the one we're going through right now. This promising moment is not about a single invention, not a printing press or a combustion engine. It's actually three simultaneous accelerations, and what I call the market, Mother Nature, and Moore's Law. Technology, globalization and climate change are all three accelerating in a nonlinear fashion in what I would argue is fast, fused and deep, and it's really forcing us to change everything, including how we govern ourselves.”

Friedman spoke with Amnon Shashua, president and CEO of Mobileye, in a session that made the two appear in the same room though they were 6,000 miles apart. Jerusalem-based Mobileye is a subsidiary of Intel working to develop a vision-based self-driving car and advanced driver-assistance systems. The talk also emphasized the advancements in Artificial Intelligence that now govern everything from complex transportation systems to the simplest children’s toys.

“The challenge of COVID-19 is that we're not up against another country, another human adversary,” added Friedman. “We're up against Mother Nature, and who does Mother Nature reward in these kinds of moments of change? Not the smartest, actually, not the strongest, but the most adaptive – and that's been the challenge here and going forward.”

Human First 
Indeed, Molly Battin, vice president of marketing for Delta Air Lines, noted during a panel that the pandemic gave the airline a once-in-a-century chance to refit its fleet for added technological conveniences and “personal touch” opportunities.

“As we think about technology at Delta, it's really from human first perspective. As a physical brand, we look at technology, how does it support the physical and how can digital and physical come together to create a more personalized human experience,” said Battin. “If it's your first flight on Delta, then, in a number of months, we can personally welcome you back. Or if you've been flying with us for a while, our flight attendants will have that information in their hands so they can then have that personal interaction.”

As the pandemic slowed travel, Delta used last year’s pull back to really “pull forward,” as Battin explained it. “We have taken the opportunity to streamline our fleet and did that years before we would have done it otherwise. We modernized technology across the globe and across the entire organization. We have a new partnership for high-speed WiFi,” she said. “Our goal is to create, basically replicate, your living room in the air so that you can enjoy everything you have at home while you're flying. I think this is going to be game-changing over the next year.”

Inside of these panels were discussions about the future of work and the strength of new trends wrought by the pandemic, the future of retail, the future of autonomous transportation, the future of medical practices and wellness accessories, the intelligent home, the intelligent city, and a host of other categories reminding us that technology and innovation touch every facet of our lives and in ways we cannot even fathom.

Artificial intelligence has manifested itself in systems as complex as managing warehouses and as mundane as adding items to a shopping list. “This is what I describe as the ‘intelligence of things.’ We're adding AI to everything,” commented Steve Koenig, the VP of research for the Consumer Technology Association. “That’s not just true in consumer tech but across the broader economy.”

On with the Show

Despite being virtual, CES 2021 was still not lacking in its stock-in-trade – those salient, sobering, seismic and even silly new innovations on parade. We made our way through the portals of new-fangled pitstops, sanitization sensations, rollable screens, gold-standard pet doors, super smart lipstick mixers and more to come up with a few gems for travel and home. Note: Not everything at CES is available now or will make it to the shelves and warehouses in the next few months, but here is a peek at what is possible.

CES 2021: The Latest in Tech-forward Gadgets and Gear

• TCL Wearable Display (tcl.com) These fashionable sunglasses are actually screens for streaming your favorite shows. Next time you are in an interminable meeting or Zoom call, grab the TLC, look cool, checkout Netflix.

• It’s mind over matter with Melomid. (melomind.com) This smartphone-connected headset lets you listen to your brain. Developed by a team of neuroscientists in partnership with the Brain Institute (ICM), the app uses encephalographic sensors “listen” to brainwaves and offer up relaxation vibrations to immediately change deep brain frequencies toward calm. Result: More peace, better focus, better sleep.

• Cove (feelcove.com) is another feelgood wearable, this one built on science originating at MIT and Harvard by experts in neuromodulation, mood disorders, and sleep science. In appearance it approximates a vibrating headband, and in action is able to dissipate stress by emitting certain vibrations that activate the brain’s limbic system regulating emotion, stress, and anxiety – replacing stressful type-A personality Beta waves with calming Alpha waves. Suggested use: 20 minutes a day. The Cove is available now for $499.

•The Pocketalk translator device (pocketalk.com) listens up and to a language you record, then instantly translates it back so you know what is going on. It also works for two-way conversations. We used it and it does what it promises from a hand-sized, rechargeable pocket device. The updated S version can now translate in 82 languages. Pocketalk is available for $299.

• Coffee-to-go takes on a new energy with GoSun's Flow and Brew (gosun.co/products/brew), a water filtration and coffee maker that runs on solar power, should the need for coffee hit while off the grid. The travel mug, French press and water purification system is light weight and packs easily making it ideal for caffeine addicts and campers.

• While reusable N95 mask options were in ubiquitous supply at CES this year, the Razer N95 Mask (razer.com) got most of the attention. Billed as the world’s smartest face mask, it’s reusable, made from recyclable plastics and features a microphone, voice amplification, a rechargeable ventilator, and LED lights that pop on in darkness. Optimized airflow exchanges cool air from outside and removes CO2 released by the wearer. The comfortable sealed and transparent mask operates on a long-running rechargeable battery.

• Life during COVID would not be complete without the LG Rolling Sanitation Robot. Sanitizing products were front and center in the virtual showroom but tech like this deserved its own spotlight. The robotic sanitizer can move easily around tables, chairs and other furniture, generally irradiating a room’s touchable surfaces in 15 to 30 minutes using UV-C wavelength light controlled and monitored without training via smartphones and tablets. LG Business Solutions USA (lg.com) plans to offer the UV robot to US-based hospitality, education, corporate, retail, restaurant, and transportation customers in the next few months.

• Chargers were showing up in force again this year. The Eggtronic Wireless Power Bar (einova.com) ($119.99) is a favorite for travelers who want to have a one and done solution for charging their Apple items – smartphone, iWatch and AirPods – simultaneously through Qi capabilities with one small device. For those who are hanging tight in the home office, the Marble Wireless Phone Charger ($49) is both an art piece and a charger for phone and earbuds in an attractive pancake-sized disk of stone.

• If you want to turn your tablet into a kind of mini-computer, the Kensington StudioDock (kensington.com) does just that. As an iPad Pro docking station it includes built-in Qi-enabled wireless platform charging for iPhone and AirPods, and offers an optional iWatch charger for juicing up multiple Apple devices all at once. It has three USB-A ports, one USB-C port, an HDMI 2.0 port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, an SD card reader, and a Gigabit Ethernet port for plugging in just about everything except your refrigerator. Launch price starts at $369.
Naturally, televisions were on display, even if we could not see them this year. Massive 100-plus-inch screens, screens that bend, screens that double as fine art were vying for attention in a crowded room in the cloud. But it was the transparent screen that caught our eye.

• LG Display (lgdisplay.com) is coming out with a new transparent organic light-emitting diode – or OLED – screen you can see through. Uses could include smart homes and buildings, restaurants, autonomous vehicles, aircraft, subways and trains. The Transparent OLED allows a 40 percent transparency to the screen or window or door, for instance, seeing into a refrigerator rather than opening the door, or offering messages and information as passengers gaze through transportation windows. The item is not yet available but was given a debut at CES.

• Finally, what’s old is new again as flip phones are making a comeback. But these aren’t the not-so-smart, palm-sized mobile phones of the ‘90s and early aughts. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 5G (samsung.com) is a slick-looking 6.7-inch glass display that mimics a make-up compact or metallic wallet as much as it does a phone. It folds horizontally into the users’ hand but offers two layered screens that can be one long screen or two 3.9-inch screens doing different things. The 5G-enabled phone’s swivel mode lets users interact with the second screen while leaving content uninterrupted on the main screen. When in use, the phone’s camera component can be fashioned to stand on its own using the strong hinge function like a compact mirror. Pricing starts at $649.99.
Didn’t find what you didn’t need? Stay tuned for next year’s (hopefully) post-pandemic blow-out in the city of endless neon and dreams.