Despite an ongoing deadly pandemic and the violent decline of American empire, this year’s Consumer Electronics Show continues undeterred and its theme seems to be products straight out of the janky, dystopian world of Cyberpunk 2077.
CES has taken place annually in Las Vegas and serves as a cultural shrine to As Seen on TV-adjacent weird junk and tech excesses. This year's exhibition, for better or for worse, is taking inspiration from the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire showcase is virtual, featuring a never-ending stream of production presentations from sunrise to sundown. On top of that, most of the products seemed to be aimed at lifestyle changes accelerated by the pandemic.
AirPop Active Plus is a piece of surveillance tech that embodies the incredibly weird vibe of a gadget show held as society crumbles. It’s a mask that tracks your physical activity and the surrounding air quality—nevermind why the air quality is bad to begin with. Besides being tone-deaf, it will likely have the same privacy and ethical concerns as any connected device; for example, the disturbing trend of personal surveillance tech being used to inform insurance premiums.
On a similar note, a company called BioIntelliSense rolled out a disposable personal surveillance device that tracks the wearer’s temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. The idea is to monitor for signs of COVID-19 through continuous data collection, which seems like a great idea.
Samsung tackled the trade show’s absurd circumstances head-on, focusing around the idea of a “better normal.”
“Our world looks different, and many of you have been faced with a new reality–one where, among other things, your home has taken on a greater significance,” said Sebastian Seung, President and Head of Samsung Research, in a statement.
Samsung introduced solar-powered remotes with rechargeable batteries (no word on the huge cost borne by the global South in the form of child and slave labor in “green” tech). Other products for a “better normal:” A 110-inch TV, a smart fridge capable of making “ice bites,” and a robot vacuum cleaner that uses LiDAR.
It’s not clear that anyone truly needs these products. The reality is more so that these companies sense openings caused by the pandemic and are now diving headfirst into any that smell like money. The truth is that COVID-19 is not a problem that technology can solve on its own, as the lacklustre vaccine rollout shows. When companies try and address dire societal circumstances the only way they know how—selling us things that we emphatically do not need—it only highlights what always made CES absurd.