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Protocol Next Up
Defining the future of tech and entertainment with Janko Roettgers.
Image: CES/Zoom/Protocol

Why Amazon and Google are skipping CES

CES Zoom

Good morning, and welcome to Protocol Next Up. This week, we're looking at who's bothering to turn up to a virtual CES and exploring how Samsung is cautiously embracing cameras for TVs.

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The Big Story

Who's bothering to show up to a virtual CES?

When Samsung unveiled its latest TV sets at its annual CES First Look event Wednesday, it began the video presentation with what looked like a typical January trip for many tech insiders: a plane descent, an airport full of shiny lights, a taxi drive across the Las Vegas strip. An homage to normal times that actually made me feel a bit nostalgic.

But this is 2021, nothing is normal, and next week's CES is virtual. And the decision to hold the show online has prompted many companies to skip it altogether:

  • Amazon will not have a presence at the show, a rep told me. Last year, Amazon rented a ballroom at The Venetian to tout Fire TV and Alexa products, and even hired Shaq and Guy Fieri to mix cocktails for journalists. This time, Fire TV VP and GM Sandeep Gupta will participate on a panel. "But no news," the rep told me.
  • Google will also skip the event. The company had a massive presence in recent years at CES with a pavilion across from the convention center and many, many billboards all over town touting Google Assistant. Not this year. "Google actually won't have a big participation at CES this year," a spokesperson told me. "We will be doing partner meetings and so on, but no major activation."
  • Facebook has no news either, according to a rep. To be fair, the company usually kept major announcements for its own events, but it did rent a bunch of space and meet with partners and press in years past.
  • HTC is a no-show, again. The company used to rely on the show to announce its new VR headsets. In 2020, it pulled out at the last minute, and it won't rejoin the show in 2021 either. "We're not participating," a spokesperson told me.
  • Sonos is ignoring CES as well. After skipping the show for a decade or so, Sonos started to ramp up its presence in recent years. No news this time, though, a spokesperson told me.
  • A bunch of smaller companies also told me they're going to skip the customary CES press releases and instead announce news on their own schedule. Many folks still have virtual meetings scheduled, and one exec told me that he's looking forward to "figuring out what a virtual CES really is." Me too, buddy.

That leaves the usual suspects, a.k.a. the TV makers:

  • Samsung showed off its TVs this week, and will have its annual CES press conference Monday at 6 a.m. PT. Which is kind of early by Vegas standards.
  • LG's response: Hold my soju. The other South Korean giant scheduled its Monday press conference for 5 a.m. PT. Which is really early.
  • TCL is all-in, with three press events scheduled. "TCL is proud to be at CES 2021 and a member of this vibrant industry," said TCL Electronics CEO Kevin Wang in a release.
  • Hisense, Panasonic, Philips and Skyworth are all also on tap to announce news Monday, too.

Here's the case for going to CES, even if it's virtual: The TV hardware business is highly seasonal, and manufacturers are using the event to hype up both consumers and retailers for 2021 models that will sell in time for major spring and summer TV events.

  • Samsung, LG and the others have also perfected CES PR over the years: make one outrageous TV that everyone will talk about, then show them a more affordable device that everyone will buy instead. It would be hard to replicate that kind of attention with standalone events.

As for why others are bowing out: Amazon, Google and Facebook are making cheaper devices that are sold primarily during the holiday season, so they've never been as reliant on CES for their own announcements.

  • CES is also just very expensive, and some companies have been rethinking their participation for a while now. A source told me that Intel used to pay more than $5 million for its booth, only to face a stampede of random people looking to collect free trinkets. Last year, Intel scrapped the booth and met behind closed doors in a restaurant instead.

For many companies, virtual CES could be a test case of whether the big Vegas blowout is really worth it in years to come.

Overheard

"Loving the New York Times comedy section." —Bigscreen VR CEO Darshan Shankar responded to a story that claimed that VR "has mostly been a disappointment."

"There has never been a better time to get in the lab and build products that deliver meaningful social presence." —Facebook Reality Labs head Andrew Bosworth, looking ahead at 2021.

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We even instinctively adopt the ready position as we go through daily life. The athletic-ready position gives us maximum mobility and stability. Now imagine transferring this concept to your business. Technology agility drives business agility and developing an IT ready position can be a game changer in preparing your business for anything.

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Watch Out

Baby steps to a camera on your TV

Samsung is embracing our COVID-induced obsession with videoconferencing: The company will allow consumers to connect external USB cameras to some 2021 smart TVs so they can video chat with up to five others on the big screen. It's also embracing external cameras for interactive work-outs and to add accessibility, it announced at its annual home entertainment event Wednesday.

  • This initiative was very much a response to 2020, according to Samsung VP Grace Dolan. "TVs used to be this fun gadget," she told me in an interview after the event. During the pandemic, screens instead became a much-needed way to stay connected, fit and productive.
  • Video chatting is initially limited to Google Duo. Dolan wouldn't comment on whether the company has any plans to bring Zoom to Samsung TVs as well, except for telling me: "We are huge proponents of choice."
  • Samsung TVs will work with a range of external USB cameras, including popular models made by Logitech, and there will be some auto-zoom functionality to keep you in focus even if you walk around your living room during the call.
  • Samsung Health is gaining camera support as well. Consumers will be able to summon a smart trainer to guide them through workouts and critique their movements.
  • You'll be able to control your TV with sign language. This one may be a bit further out, but Samsung is also developing technology to help speech-impaired consumers control TVs without the remote. "This is about access for anybody," Dolan said.

Cameras on TVs were once controversial. While manufacturers played with the idea for years, much of that work never made it beyond CES show floor demos, in part because of privacy concerns. "A couple of years ago, a camera attached to a TV would have been just outrageous," admitted Dolan.

But the pandemic changed that, with consumers not only spending hours a day on Zoom, but also embracing smart displays with cameras for video chats. Samsung execs weren't sure whether consumers were ready to have cameras built into the TV sets just yet, though, which is why the company decided to launch these new features with external webcams first. "Baby steps," Dolan said.

And connecting cameras to TVs could become a big deal, especially if TV makers decide to open up their APIs and let developers build their own camera-ready apps. Asked about this, Dolan was once again non-committal, but I'd be surprised if the company wasn't at least considering it.

Fast Forward

Roku is looking to buy Quibi's shows. The "Reno 911!" reboot and other Quibi content could show up on the Roku Channel if the deal goes through.

On Protocol: LG acquired Alphonso. The ad tech startup could help the TV maker better compete with Roku, Samsung and Vizio.

Discovery launched its own streaming service. Discovery+ costs $6.99 per month, and includes Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri shows.

Google may be launching a new smart display. An FCC filing hinted at a Nest Hub successor with added radios for IoT connectivity.

What do we know about Apple's AR glasses? First written about in 2017, Apple has yet to confirm that it's even building the things. But here's a nice roundup of the very many leaks.

Niantic acquired Mayhem. AR is hard, so Niantic is getting some extra help to build a world-scale version of everything.

Microsoft will shut down Minecraft Earth in June. AR is really hard, so Microsoft's Mojang Studios is giving up on a world-scale version of Minecraft.

Facebook has more than 6,000 people working on AR, VR and Portal. And the company's first smart glasses will arrive "sooner rather than later," Reality Labs head Andy Bosworth told Bloomberg.

Auf Wiedersehen

Everyone's been there: You've got a dozen streaming services and no idea what to watch. Well, JustWatch, a website that aggregates titles from numerous services, has come up with a new solution for discovery. The company's plot recommender lets you type the synopsis of any movie or TV show, be it one that you vaguely remember or one you wish existed, and then finds the best matches in its catalog.

It sounds silly, but actually works surprisingly well. "Robot becomes jealous, plots revenge" got JustWatch to suggest the Russian Netflix drama "Better Than Us," which is actually pretty spot-on. "Retail workers are bored out of their minds" got me NBC's "Superstore," and "zombie has feelings" resulted in a suggestion for the movie "Warm Bodies," if only in fourth place. But I think I need to watch Disney's holiday movie "Noelle" again, as I really don't remember the whole "Santa is a cannibal" part that JustWatch thinks is in there.

Thanks for reading — see you next week.

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