CES 2021 goes all-digital as COVID-19 cancels physical show

CES 2021 will no longer be held in person, with the Consumer Technology Association confirming today that it is switching to an all-digital version of the annual tech event. The CTA had faced growing calls for the January show to be cancelled, given the ongoing severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, but until today had been insisting that it could safely go ahead in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Now, though, those plans have been upended. "Amid the pandemic and growing global health concerns about the spread of COVID-19, it's just not possible to safely convene tens of thousands of people in Las Vegas in early January 2021 to meet and do business in person," Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA, said in a statement today.

It was only June 3rd when Shapiro and the CTA were sounding very different about CES 2021's chances. Back then, while it promised to "expand the show's digital reach," it nonetheless insisted that a physical event was still appropriate. The organization said it was working with the Las Vegas authorities – who have generally been pushing for the region to reopen – on developing best-practices for an in-person trade show.

That would include regular cleaning and the sanitizing of show spaces, plus mandatory mask-wearing, and guidance around hand-shaking. Thermal scan systems, to track body temperature of attendees as they entered the show, was also being considered.

With numbers of COVID-19 cases still rising, though, that's all off the table. As of July 27, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that there were over 4,225,000 cases of coronavirus known in the US. That was an increase of almost 62,000 versus the previous day. COVID-19 has now been responsible for more than 146,000 deaths in America, the CDC says.

The reality is that, even if the most ambitious expectations for a vaccine pan out, the tide looked unlikely to turn by CES 2021's planned dates in January of the new year. Instead, the CTA says it will develop a digital version of the show.

"Technology helps us all work, learn and connect during the pandemic — and that innovation will also help us reimagine CES 2021 and bring together the tech community in a meaningful way," Shapiro said in a statement. "By shifting to an all-digital platform for 2021, we can deliver a unique experience that helps our exhibitors connect with existing and new audiences."

More details on how, exactly, that will happen will be set out in the coming months.