The biggest tech show of the year usually provides a glimpse into the future. But CES 2021 was all about the past year of pandemic life.

Lisa Eadicicco
·6 min read
razer project hazel
Razer Project Hazel Razer
  • The biggest theme at CES 2021 was adapting to the changes in life brought on by COVID-19.

  • Smart masks with built-in microphones, robots that can disinfect with UV light, and laptops that are better equipped for Zoom calls were among the highlights.

  • That represents a departure for CES, which is usually about envisioning the future of tech, transportation, health, and the home than reflecting on the past year.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The most exciting part of the annual CES tech show, which typically takes place in Las Vegas but was virtual for the first time in 2021, is always the extravagant, forward-looking technology concepts.

Whether it's flying taxis, futuristic cars without steering wheels, or giant modular TVs the size of an entire wall, CES has an earned a reputation for establishing what's coming over the next decade rather than the next year in tech.

But just as the COVID-19 pandemic has altered every aspect of life, it's also changed the year's biggest tech event.

The virtual version of CES still had all the hallmarks of the classic annual trade show, like phones with flexible, rollable screens and autonomous home robots. Yet it also felt pegged to the current moment in a way that CES usually doesn't, as some of the biggest headline-grabbers were new gadgets designed to accommodate life during a pandemic.

Smart masks were everywhere at CES

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The AirPop Active+ Smart Mask AirPop

Face masks got a big upgrade at CES, as many companies announced new protective face coverings designed to address some of the inconveniences of today's masks.

Among the most notable was gaming company Razer's Project Hazel, which has a built-in microphone and amplifier so that it's easier for people to hear you while the mask is being worn. The mask is also clear in the front, making it possible to see facial expressions. Project Hazel also comes with a charging case that disinfects the mask using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria.

Project Hazel is just a prototype at this time, so there's no launch or pricing information. But other companies at CES announced high-tech face masks that you'll actually be able to buy. The AirPop Active Plus Smart Mask, for example, comes with a sensor that can monitor the wearer's breathing as well as air quality from their surroundings and alert the user when the filter needs to be replaced. It launches this month for $149.99.

The Maskfone, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like: a protective mask that doubles as a wireless Bluetooth headset. It has built-in earbuds and a microphone so that you can take calls and listen to music while wearing it, and it comes with a medical-grade N95 filter. The Maskfone costs $49.99 and will be coming to Target and Amazon by February 1.

Read more: CES 2021: The 15 best new products revealed at the year's biggest tech conference

A big focus on sanitizing and cleanliness

LG UV Robot Side View scaled
LG's UV-C sanitizing robot LG

Robots, tech accessories, and smart home products have long been a staple of CES, but this year there was a common theme among several of them: safety and disinfection.

LG showed off its new Cloi UV-C robot, which is designed to autonomously rove around usually crowded areas like hotels, classrooms, offices, and restaurants to disinfect surfaces with UV-C rays. Like other home robots, it can map the environment so that it knows to avoid furniture and other fixtures, LG says. The company said it'll be delivering the bot to customers in early 2021.

Laptop case and accessory maker Targus, meanwhile, announced a UV-C light meant to sit on your desk to disinfect your workspace. The light runs for five minutes every hour and can disable itself if it senses motion near the cleaning zone. Targus said the desk light would be released sometime in March 2021.

The idea of using UV-C to disinfect frequently trafficked spaces is far from new. Some businesses like New York City's Magnolia Bakery began using so-called "cleanse portals" in 2020 that zap away germs with UV-C, and hospitals and medical facilities have also previously used the tech for sanitization purposes.

But the prominence of UV-C gadgets at CES, a show that's typically focused on cutting-edge tech, suggests there's renewed interest from companies large and small in finding new ways to use technology for sanitization.

Other companies focused on reducing contact with frequently touched surfaces rather than disinfection. Alarm.com's Touchless Video Doorbell can alert owners when someone is at the door either through their smartphone or a chime placed in the home after the visitor steps on a special doormat. The idea is to make deliveries and visits safer by eliminating the need to physically touch the doorbell, the company says.

New laptops designed with remote work in mind

HP Elite Dragonfly Max_Sparkling Black_Workspace 2
The HP Elite Dragonfly Max HP

It's been almost a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to shift to remote work. And during that time, the limitations of the devices we use to work from home have become abundantly clear - particularly when it comes to camera and microphone quality.

At CES 2021, major PC makers like Lenovo, HP, and Dell all announced new business laptops designed to address these shortcomings as consumers prepare for another year of Zoom meetings.

The HP Elite Dragonfly Max, for example, features four wide-range microphones that use artificial intelligence to optimize audio, along with a 5-megapixel camera. Those additions are significant considering most laptops typically come with two or three microphones and have only a 720p resolution camera. HP says the 720p cameras on its Dragonfly G1 and G2 laptops have a 1.2-megapixel sensor, so a 5-megapixel camera is a big jump.

Read more: The best laptops of CES 2021

Lenovo's Thinkpad X1 Titanium Yoga similarly has four far-field microphones for improved audio quality during conference calls, and Dell's Latitude 9420 has a camera that comes with automatic light correction for video calls.

Several of these new laptops from Dell, Lenovo, and HP also come with features meant to reduce eye strain from staring at the screen for prolonged periods of time.

Another big theme among laptops at CES: presence detection that can lock or wake your computer depending on whether you're nearby, a capability that can help keep sensitive work materials private when you're not working from the office.

Taken together, these updates suggest the PC industry is thinking about adapting laptops for an era in which many people are spending their time on video calls and in front of a screen for most of the day, even when working away from a traditional office setup.

Read the original article on Business Insider