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Under normal circumstances at this time of year, hundreds of companies would bring to life the Makuhari Messe venue in the city of Chiba with cutting-edge products from robots to cars and AI to internet-connected devices, for the annual event known as CEATEC (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies).

But on Tuesday, the major Japanese technology trade show achieved a first of its own by launching completely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, setting a precedent that could become a new normal for trade shows.

CEATEC earned its fame as a major exhibition of consumer electronics such as TVs and home appliances, but it has been shifting its focus to products and services related to the IoT (internet of things), AI and cybersecurity. Its theme this year is “New Normal.”

The decision to hold the event in cyberspace aims to keep people safe from the risk of infection with the COVID-19 virus and to improve efficiency, but the organizers and exhibitors have had to scale a number of hurdles to do it — including handling heavy online traffic and finding ways to effectively demonstrate physical products when “visitors” won’t get the chance to touch or see them.

The show got off to a rough start, having to restrict access to its online venue for the first three hours due to surging traffic.

The website prepared by the organizing committee offers virtual space for 356 exhibitors to make online presentations, and will host a slew of conferences scheduled to be streamed during the four-day event.

The CEATEC website displays materials from participating companies on Tuesday as the event kicks off completely online for the first time. | KYODO
The CEATEC website displays materials from participating companies on Tuesday as the event kicks off completely online for the first time. | KYODO

As CEATEC expects over 200,000 visitors during the event, it has created a robust website capable of handling high volumes of traffic, but there was some difficulty when the server used by visitors during the registration process saw traffic spike to twice the expected load, which made the virtual venue unstable for a few hours, said Shun Yoshida, who manages public relations for the CEATEC Organizing Committee.

The event may not have opened smoothly, but the problems will serve as a valuable lesson for the organizers in planning future CEATEC events.

When it first started sounding out exhibitors, in late January, CEATEC had planned to hold the event in-person as usual, but then decided in May to run it fully online.

Yoshida said the decision was welcomed by many companies because they have established internal guidance encouraging staff to refrain from engaging in large-scale events, and similar activities, because of the virus risk.

But even at that point, the CEATEC team found they “were already behind schedule, with the organizer and exhibitors having to create an online event that had never done before from scratch,” Yoshida said, adding that they hope to draw on what they have learned this time around when organizing future events.

Adapting to an online event was a challenge for participating firms, too.

Yukai Engineering Inc., a Tokyo-based startup that creates communication robots, has created an online booth at the CEATEC show, which kicked off Tuesday and is being run completely online this year.
Yukai Engineering Inc., a Tokyo-based startup that creates communication robots, has created an online booth at the CEATEC show, which kicked off Tuesday and is being run completely online this year.

Many exhibitions were related to COVID-19, such as products that would reduce infection risks or help companies promote digital transformation and telework.

However, some manufacturing firms have said they struggled with finding ways to effectively exhibit their products in a virtual space.

For instance, Alps Alpine Co., a Tokyo-based electronic components maker, is exhibiting a digital panel that allows users to control a screen without touching it, using sensors to detect fingers within a close range.

“Of course, it would be best if people could try it out firsthand — they don’t really understand if they just see an image of it pasted online,” an Alps Alpine spokesman said.

He added that while one of the merits of going online is that more people are likely to come to the event, the preparation has taken a lot of work.

“Since this is our first experience (participating in a large-scale online trade show), we don’t know how we should prepare, so it’s been quite hectic,” he said.

The CEATEC website offers virtual space for 356 exhibitors to make online presentations, and will host a slew of conferences scheduled to be streamed during the four-day event.
The CEATEC website offers virtual space for 356 exhibitors to make online presentations, and will host a slew of conferences scheduled to be streamed during the four-day event.

Yukai Engineering Inc., a Tokyo-based startup that creates communication robots, also described encountering difficulty in demonstrating its products in a way that attracts visitors’ attention.

“We’d like people to actually see our robots with their own eyes, especially the movements and conversations. A lot of our clients say it is easier to get a sense of what our robots are like if they see them in person,” said Takamasa Araki, who works on solution sales at Yukai Engineering.

But Araki also sees a bright side in the online event.

“We were able to create very elaborate digital presentations so visitors can understand how we want our customers to use the robots,” he said, adding that the same materials can be used again later for public relations and sales.

Also, the internet-based event is more efficient, as the firm does not have to send people to the Makuhari Messe convention site, about an hour away by train from central Tokyo, for several days.

“It takes a lot for startups and university research institutes to set up physical booths (at Makuhari Messe) for several days,” so some had been reluctant to exhibit at CEATEC, said Yoshida from the event’s organizing committee. For them, he added, going online has lowered barriers that had limited their participation in the event.

The Japan Times is a CETEC media partner.

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