World's biggest tech show CES set to open Wednesday, despite Omicron spread

The Consumer Electronics Show kicks off on Wednesday, the first time it has been staged since before the pandemic began. Despite big name companies backing out because of the spread of Omicron, organizers say there is still a lot to see.

Pandemic cancelled world's biggest showcase of new electronic gadgets last year

People walk through the lobby of the Las Vegas Convention Center during set up for CES 2022 in Las Vegas, Nev., on Monday. This year marks the first time the Consumer Electronics Show has been staged since before the pandemic began. (REUTERS)

With thousands descending on Las Vegas this week for a glimpse of the latest gadgets and innovations at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), organizers offered the media a glimpse of what's in store when the world's biggest tech and gadget showcase officially opens on Wednesday.

With concerns growing over the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant that has seen companies such as Inc. and General Motors Co. drop out of attending the Las Vegas event in person, organizers said there was still a lot on offer at the 2022 show.

"We are thrilled to be back in Las Vegas where we belong after a two year absence for the platform for innovation globally," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).

"There's a whole plethora of different things, from robotics to artificial intelligence to 5G to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), to many other technologies, including food technology, space technology. So many things that we focused on that we haven't before that have changed in just a couple of years," he said.

As worries over the new variant loom, many companies have withdrawn from presenting at the event, planned both virtually and in-person, that begins on Jan. 5 with over 2,200 exhibitors. The spread of Omicron has also made many reconsider their travel plans after thousands of flight cancellations.

Smaller attendance expected

Last month, organizers were anticipating between 50,000 and 75,000 attendees for this week's conference, down from more than 170,000 who came for the last in-person gathering two years ago.

But those guesses were made before the full force of Omicron hit the U.S. The country recorded more than a million new cases on Monday, a new record.

"As much as I'm a cheerleader for the technology industry, I recognize you have to be face-to-face with people. There isn't a CEO I've spoken to around the world who doesn't agree with that statement," said Shapiro, about why he was determined to have an in-person event this year.

Over the last week, a host of firms, including Advanced Micro Devices, Proctor & Gamble, Alphabet Inc's Google, Facebook parent Meta Platforms, have also dropped their in-person plans.

Sony Group's Sony Electronics has said it will have limited staffing and attendees at the event.

All attendees in Las Vegas will be required to be fully vaccinated and masked. COVID-19 test kits will also be provided at the venue, according to a statement from CTA. 

Even without a pandemic to dampen the party, tech industry analyst Carolina Milanesi said "big industry events like this are becoming less important than they used to be" as digital technology has supplied other ways to network and keep up with trends.

Milanesi has regularly attended CES for a decade and while she briefly considered not coming, she ultimately decided to attend, but plans to do things differently — visiting the exhibition halls but skipping big speaking events she can watch from her hotel room.

"I haven't decided yet on the cocktail hours," she said. "That's a big reason to go to CES and meet people face to face. With a glass in your hand, people get a little more comfortable discussing things."

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press