(CNN) CES, the closely-watched annual consumer electronics show, looked drastically different this year.
Sure, some things were familiar: companies showed off the latest batch of flashy TVs. The onslaught of oddball gadgets got odder. And there was no shortage of next-level health trackers, including a lightbulb that tracks how you sleep.
But this year's CES was also a grand experiment in how to hold an in-person event during a pandemic. Covid-19 rapid tests were handed out to attendees, and masks and proof of vaccination were required.
Many major tech companies and media outlets pulled out in the lead-up to the show. There were widely shared photos of nearly empty showroom areas. And a number of presentations, including CES' kickoff event with General Motors CEO Mary Barra, were pre-recorded.
"It was surreal," said Martin DeBono, president of GAF Energy, who decided to follow through with attending in person to show off his company's new solar roof shingle. "This was probably my eleventh year going to CES and the lack of crowds was bizarre."
Still, there was plenty of talk about the products on display this year. Here are 5 takeaways from the giant tech trade show:
It's been years since CES had a "next big thing" that everyone was talking about, but this year the conversation was largely focused on the metaverse, which refers to efforts to combine virtual and augmented reality technologies in a new online realm.
Facebook (FB) parent company Meta and its Oculus gaming system is by far the market leader right now, as it undergoes a massive hiring spree to build out the concept, but many other companies are still trying to get in on the action. The new PlayStation VR 2 headset and its VR2 Sense controller, as well as the HTC's Vive wrist controller for the Vive Focus 3 headset were both unveiled at CES. And if these products are any indication, these companies understand they need to come up with increasingly immersive hardware and experiences.
For example, the VR2 Sense controller features eye tracking and headset feedback that amplifies the sensations of in-game actions from the player. The company said in a press release that gamers can feel a character's "elevated pulse during tense moments, the rush of objects passing close to the character's head, or the thrust of a vehicle as the character speeds forward."
"This is the first time in a while that we see a new and strong topic emerging at CES, as for years this has always been about AI, internet-of-things or autonomous vehicles," said Pedro Pacheco, senior research director at market research firm Gartner. "At the moment, many companies are including Metaverse on their long-term tech roadmap thinking about how they should bring it to life."
Auto tech is always a big part of CES, but this year, one announcement after another seemed to make headlines: BMW teased a color-changing car, John Deere unveiled a self-driving tractor, and companies committed to making electric vehicles more affordable.
BMW's electric iX concept car featured electronic panels not unlike what you'd find in a Kindle e-reader that are coated to protect against the weather. In a demo, BMW showed how an owner could switch the car's color from black to white in a matter of seconds. (BMW has not announced any plans to bring this sort of technology to a production vehicle.)
Carmakers also launched several new electric vehicles with more competitive prices, including the Silverado EV starting at $39,900 and the 2024 Chevy Equinox starting at $30,000. Meanwhile, the trend of tech companies entering the vehicle manufacturing space continued: Sony announced plans for its own car brand, following in the footsteps of other tech companies like Xiaomi and Foxconn. If rumors are true, Apple could join the club, too.
While some of the innovations presented an optimistic vision for the future, others made the future (and even our current pandemic reality) look a bit more bleak.
Take the "Vision Omnipod," a concept LG announced this week. The autonomous vehicle — which is not yet an actual commercial product — features a fridge, a chair that reclines into a bed, a screen that passengers could use to watch movies or access games and other virtual spaces, and an AI assistant that could keep people entertained, help them work out or order them food. Loved quarantining all by yourself at home during the pandemic? Then maybe you'll enjoy hiding in this high-tech solo pod forever.
Other companies introduced more realistic but still unsettling products, including a charging station that purports to be able to prevent your phone or smart device from listening in on sensitive conversations. (While tech gadgets listening to users is a longtime fear, it's mostly unfounded, though the concern itself points to our sometimes strained relationship with technology.)
If that's not enough, there was also a stuffed animal, named Amagami Ham Ham, that will nibble on your finger to relieve stress because that's apparently where we're at after the chaos of the past two years.
Tech companies have been experimenting with foldable technology for the past few years, but many companies like Samsung showed off improved versions at CES 2022 that highlight how the niche market is evolving.
Samsung's tri-fold Flex S and Flex G concepts allow users to fold a tablet into three parts so it appears almost like an "s," hinting at how its foldable smartphone lines, Flip and Fold, could evolve in the future. Meanwhile, Asus' new Zenbook 17, a 17-inch foldable laptop with an OLED display, can be used as a tablet or folded in half like a laptop, with a 12.5-inch screen up top and an on-screen keyboard displaying below.
Other companies like Dell embraced products that cater to the hybrid work trend. Dell's Concept Flow connects and disconnects laptops from a second display based on proximity, and Dell's movable Pari webcam prototype attaches anywhere, whether it's on the side of a computer screen or above a drawing pad if you want colleagues to see notes in real time during a meeting.
In typical years, much of the attention during CES is directed at the biggest names in tech, and there were concerns that this year's event would fall flat after major exhibitors such as Meta and Amazon pulled out days before it started. But for the companies that decided to stay the course and attend in person, some said those empty showroom floor spaces were actually a boon.
"Normally, when you come to a CES, it's dominated by the biggest technology companies," making it harder to get media attention, said Richard Browning, chief marketing and sales officer at Nextbase, which launched a new smart dash camera called Nextbase IQ at CES this year. But this year, the company's new product got more press than expected in part "because a lot of the major brands haven't been here in person," he said.
While tech giants have plenty of other ways to reach audiences, CES is a crucial international venue for smaller players to reach consumers and industry partners.
In-person attendees said that despite the smaller overall attendance, those who were on the ground were more open to discovering new technologies and engaging more deeply. And some companies said the virtual elements of the show were less appealing after nearly two years of regularly showcasing their tech over Zoom meetings and other virtual forums.
In fact, after this year, some like GAF Energy's DeBono see potential for a new (if improbable) future for CES conferences where the "hordes of people" who just want to see the newest TVs and other common gadgets stay home, and only those who really want to see new innovations make the trip to be there in person.
"CES will persist and I think the proportion of true innovation to just iteration will increase," he said.