I went to the biggest tech show in the world after not going for the past 7 years — and I was surprised by how little had changed

LAS VEGAS — Thousands of people flock to Nevada in the first weeks of January for the biggest annual tech show in the world — and this year, I was one of them.

I hadn’t been back to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — or Las Vegas, for that matter — since 2012, which was the last time I had been sent on assignment to cover the tech showcase.

Seven years is a very long time in the world of technology. Just think about smartphones made seven years ago: We were on the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 back then.

So, I was expecting the 2019 show would be different. Better. More interesting.

Perhaps, I would see tech that addressed issues that have only gotten more important over the past decade, like climate change.

That didn’t really happen.

What I saw in 2012, I saw in 2019

At CES 2012, 8K displays were the star of the show. In 2019, 8K displays are still the star — albeit more companies are making them than ever before.

Without big companies like LG, what would CES be?
Dave Smith/Business Insider

Electric cars and concept cars were also a hit back in 2012. It’s the same deal in 2019.

In 2012, I took dozens of photos of smartphone accessories, robots that can clean your home and keep you company, and smart appliances that talk to each other. In 2019, I felt like I was seeing all the same stuff again, including Roomba knock-offs, smart refrigerators and washing machines, and smart home-monitoring equipment.

Read: The best smart-home device we saw at CES 2019

And, of course, I saw dozens upon dozens of people napping in the showroom floor. Many of them lined the hallway leading to the media rooms, but most of them set up shop in one of the hundreds of massage chairs on display at CES. That was just like my last trip, too.

Some things are definitely better

For what it’s worth, the Consumer Electronics Show has certainly improved in some areas.

Cars, in particular, seem to have vastly improved. Most companies are now pushing all-green, all-electric, and mostly autonomous experiences. And while their outside form factors haven’t changed too drastically, companies are experimenting with more unique designs for the car’s interior, to provide more customizable experiences. This year, one of my favorite exhibits was from Magna, which showed how seats could automatically shift around in a next-generation car or van to fit the changing needs of the passengers.

I also noticed fewer instances of female objectification — “booth babes” — than the last time I attended CES, and that’s a good thing. Still, I was not happy every time I saw a woman wearing an ornate, revealing outfit for the sole purpose of presentation, and I still saw this more often than I would like.

These women are not expected to talk to people; just to stand, smile, and look pretty as random men take their pictures. While I didn’t notice as many gross instances as I did in 2012, I was still disappointed to see so many companies like Nikon failing in this regard.

Twitter/Nikon

You can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle

The last time I was at CES, it was Microsoft’s final year of attending, and having a big booth, at the show.

Years later, I definitely notice the impact of bigger companies pulling out of CES.

CES 2012 was Microsoft’s last major appearance at the show.
Ellis Hamburger, Business Insider

The biggest companies commanded the most attention at CES 2019: Google, Amazon, Samsung, LG, and the big automakers like Mercedes-Benz were on everyone’s lips. Smaller companies did have some unique inventions to show off, but they didn’t offer anything nearly as impressive or futuristic as the bigger companies, which makes sense. Tech giants have more money to spend toward research and development, sales, advertising, and of course, having massive booths and hotel suites at the biggest tech show in the world.

Still, the absences of Microsoft and Apple at CES are meaningful. They’re two of the most influential tech companies in the world and they choose to hold their own events throughout the year instead of participating in this massive show. And that sets a precedent. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Google and Amazon ditch CES in the coming years, too, for similar reasons — perhaps to give their own announcements more oomph and exclusivity.

CES is probably not going to change anytime soon

This robot doesn’t make coffee, it just takes orders and payment.
Dave Smith/Business Insider

While some attendees go to CES every single year, many people are first-timers, and this show is their first glimpse into the future. And that’s great!

Overall, I like what CES symbolizes — optimism, and progress — which are nice things to think about at the start of a new year.

But I hope CES continues to improve: I hope it finds a way to keep bigger companies coming back to the show, and I hope it encourages even more outlandish innovations, displays, and presentations to make the show feel a little more different from year to year.

I also hope CES finds a better way to showcase tech that addresses prevalent and immediate issues, like climate change, because if that tech was at the show I couldn’t find it.

CES does a great job at introducing people to the world of cutting-edge consumer tech. But for those people who go every year, or every few years, it doesn’t offer much in the way of newness. Many technologies shown off are iterative improvements, not radical reimaginings.

CES may not be able to control the companies that attend and present at the show, but I hope to see the Consumer Technology Association, the group that operates CES, try harder to make each show look and feel a little different from past years.

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