It says something about the times that the most-discussed new product at the year-defining Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2022 was a stuffed toy that nibbles on your finger.

Yukai Engineering’s robotic cat, called Amagami Ham Ham, nibbles on a finger inserted into its mouth, with 24 different patterns designed to simulate a relaxing “forbidden pleasure” that creator Tsubasa Tominaga said “frees humankind from the conundrum” of deciding whether to encourage or discourage the biting sensation.

It wasn’t the only massager on the show floor, with Massage Robotics demonstrating a full-body robotic massager whose administrations can be controlled using voice commands.

They were just two of hundreds of gadgets on display at the event, which kicks off each year’s conference circuit and has traditionally been an opportunity for tech giants and home electronics companies to tease their latest designs.

Even as the Omicron surge drove big-name vendors like Intel, Google, AMD, MSI, Twitter, Meta, and Amazon to not send representatives, other companies took advantage of the removal of big distractions to pepper the show with all manner of eye-catching – and ear-catching – innovations.

Noveto’s N1 soundbar works as ‘invisible’ headphones by using beam-forming technology to project a targeted ultrasonic sound wave directly at your ears – producing sound that only you can hear.

Tying in with the overall theme of energy efficiency and smart homes, ICON.AI’s Alexa-connected smart mirror carries an IPX6 waterproof rating for safe bathroom use while listening to music, news reports, weather and other details as you get ready for your day.

There were self-charging solar Bluetooth speakers, a ‘breathing’ gaming PC case with moving louvres to adjust airflow, a bevy of new vinyl record players, and a GoPro for cyclists that also projects laser bike lanes onto the road on either side of the rider.

Asus’s Zenbook 17 demonstrated a foldable-screen laptop whose screen extends across both top and bottom halves, and new gaming laptops.

The show also featured new phones of all shapes and sizes, with high-profile new launches from the likes of Samsung, Vivo and Realme.

CES is always big on car-related technology, and this year’s show didn’t disappoint as BMW debuted a colour-changing car that uses e-ink panels – the same technology found in Amazon’s Kindle e-book readers – to change its outside appearance from black to white, or to decorate the car with a range of patterns.

A personal flying taxi from SkyDrive was parked onsite – allowing visitors to sit inside if not actually ride in the device – while Mercedes debuted its Vision EQXX, an EV concept car with range of over 1000km and a 47.5-inch 8K primary display.

There were also a host of practical new entrants that highlight car makers’ full-court press on the EV market, with competitive prices designed to challenge Tesla in the market that it all but created.

Conferences meet the new normal

The presence of actual attendees was a step forward from the 2021 event, which was held as a completely virtual event online.

Yet as exhibitors packed up their displays and the show finished a day early due to the surge of Omicron cases in Las Vegas, overall attendee numbers were down dramatically: over 45,000 people, show organiser the Consumer Technology Association said, compared to pre-pandemic attendance of 170,000 in 2020.

“The CES show floor buzzed with the joy of human interaction and a five-sense innovation experience,” CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro said, “with products that will redefine our future and change our world for the better.”

Yet as attendees headed home to find out whether the show had become a superspreader event, many other conference organisers – who had been watching CES closely for indications of how their own events might proceed – were bowing to inevitability by cancelling their events.

The upcoming RSA security conference, for example, was delayed until mid-year while Gartner converted a planned upcoming conference to virtual format and Cisco cancelled a planned February conference in Amsterdam.

The January ShmooCon event was pushed back to March given the Omicron surge, with organiser Heidi Potter warning that “things just aren’t looking good… bringing people into the city right now just isn’t smart.”