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CES and the future of tech

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Consumer Electronics Show, better known as CES, wrapped up on Friday in Las Vegas. The annual trade show is one of the biggest tech events of the year, a time for companies and inventors to display their latest and greatest ideas. And while the pandemic and politics put a damper on this year's gathering - attendance was way down, and many of the big names stayed away for fear of blowback - we still thought it would be a good time to hear about the show and what it tells us about the future of tech. So we called John Hendel, a tech reporter at Politico who attended CES in real life, as they say. John Hendel, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

JOHN HENDEL: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So first, what was it like to attend CES in person? As I mentioned, a lot of major companies decided to attend virtually this year. A lot of people did, too. So - but what was it like and how did that affect the feel of the conference?

HENDEL: That was the really kind of surprising thing in my mind because I think I initially expected just kind of pure tumbleweeds and, you know, no one really there even. You know, that was the initial kind of fear that, like, no one would come when you saw every major company from T-Mobile to Facebook to Amazon, you know, kind of pulling back from this. But there were still hundreds of people just all around the trade show. I mean, I think about 40,000 attendees still came to this.

MARTIN: Well, one of the points that you made in your post about it in writing about it with your colleague - because a lot of the big names stayed away, some of the smaller vendors got a chance to shine - right? - a little bit. So can you just tell us about one or two of the biggest trends that stood out to you from this week?

HENDEL: You know, one bigger focus we saw this year generally was on health and wellness very much front and center at the trade show. And you had health care companies like Abbott speaking when you really hadn't had health care companies at CES before. You know, Abbott was on stage talking about their ways to test and, you know, how they've been able to help during the COVID-19 pandemic with rapid tests and how that technology might be used in other sort of testing. And you saw a lot of other vendors. There was one I remember on the trade show floor that talked about, you know, an AI personal trainer that you could have. And there were different wearables that would be tracking health data. Those new sectors like health, wellness, transportation, all of that was very much kind of at the forefront in a different sort of way.

MARTIN: You mentioned that the decision by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, TikTok and others to sit out CES in person, we already talked about the fact that it kind of opened the door for other tech companies to flex their muscle, but you also said that the absence of these big tech companies who, you know, have drawn a lot of Washington's ire in recent months and years, you said it set a more harmonious tone. Do you think this conference tells us anything going forward about the relationship between Washington and tech companies, especially big tech, or was this just kind of a one-off given just the unique circumstances?

HENDEL: You clearly saw, even among like some of the healthcare companies here, you know, they were making a point that even though there's a lot of consumer data used in some of their health, tech services, they are different from some of the social media services that would be using data. That's something that really seemed striking and will be instructive when Congress does write any laws that may deal with this, whether they're on data privacy or other parts of the kind of tech policy arena. And again, you had senators who did come in person, and they said it's very important to be talking to these companies. You know, I saw the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee Maria Cantwell and Senator Jackie Rosen and Senator Blackburn. I saw them walking along - among the exhibitors and really looking deep into that. So I think for them, you know, they say that's valuable. And so, yeah, I'm curious what's next and where we'll see that go.

MARTIN: That was John Hendel, a tech reporter at Politico, telling us what he saw at the Consumer Electronics Show, CES, that just wrapped up on Friday. John Hendel, thanks so much for talking to us.

HENDEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.