Coronavirus panic could spell the end for tech conventions

There's a reason this is happening now.

You know the scene: A man in a crisp suit stands on a dark, sterile stage at the head of a packed auditorium, surrounded by sleek screens. It's the year 2045 or 2060 or 3000, and the presenter delivers a sanctimonious speech about progress and humanity before revealing a product that will change the world. The audience goes wild. They get free, instant access to whatever piece of technology was just announced. And then, predictably, that gadget contributes to society's ultimate undoing.

It's a common scene in modern sci-fi dramas, but for a story set in the future, it's dead wrong. Big, in-person tech conferences may be a staple of the industry today, but as global internet infrastructure takes root and live streams become ubiquitous, these shows will fall by the wayside. They'll become a symbol of a past era, that time when society was awkwardly transitioning from physical interactions to digital experiences.

Suggesting tech companies will still rely on physical conferences in the year 2030, 2040 or 2050 is an error of extrapolation -- it's akin to someone in 1960 imagining computers in 1990 will still take up entire rooms, or assuming cars will always run on gas.

The trend toward digital tech conferences has been obvious for years. Media attendance at major trade shows has dropped significantly: In 2016, the Consumer Electronics Show hosted 7,545 journalists at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and in 2019, that figure had fallen to 6,365. Last year, headlining companies including Sony and EA skipped E3, the video game industry's most prominent gathering, and more big names are dropping out this year. Overall attendance at both shows is on the downswing, while in-house, online experiences are on the rise.

CES 2020

Enter: the coronavirus epidemic. Panic over COVID-19, a flu-like disease that's killed more than 3,000 people worldwide since its outbreak in December, has disrupted everyday life in the early months of 2020. Schools have closed, festivals have shuttered and companies are urging their employees to work from home. Notably, annual tech conventions are being canceled and major players are moving their showcases online.

Enter: the coronavirus epidemic.

For these conferences, the coronavirus frenzy is a hard shove off a tall ledge. It's easy to imagine a coronavirus-free reality, where attendance at big conventions continues to steadily, and then exponentially, decline until organizers are forced to transition to all-digital showcases just a few years down the road. Coronavirus fears have accelerated this timeline.

Amid the cancellations of GDC, MWC, I/O, F8 and other big technology shows, many of the involved companies revealed plans for digital versions of their panels, streamed live or pre-recorded and accessible on-demand. Facebook will host live streams and local events instead of one big gathering at F8; Microsoft and Unity will have digital events in lieu of GDC appearances; Google is investigating "other ways to evolve" I/O, rather than running an in-person event.

It's likely that some of these companies won't return to the idea of physical shows at all.

It's not completely the fault of coronavirus hysteria, however. After all, none of this happened when the H1N1 pandemic (swine flu) hit the globe in 2009 and 2010. E3 went off without a hitch at the height of that outbreak in June 2009, with 41,000 people showing up at the Los Angeles Convention Center to see Microsoft reveal the Kinect, and Sony announce the PSP Go and PlayStation Move. Overall, there were zero major conference cancellations tied to the pandemic. Meanwhile, COVID-19 isn't even classified as a pandemic (yet).

In-person trade shows are organizationally complex, costly and unpredictable. They've been this way since the beginning, but only out of necessity. There hasn't been a better way to drum up industry-wide excitement for new technologies -- until now. Companies today have multiple options for advertising directly to consumers, business partners and investors. Internet saturation has reached a stable point in most markets and its underlying infrastructure is expanding daily, while tools like live streaming and social media have made it easier than ever to reach audience members.

Nintendo has proven how successful online showcases can be. The House of Mario is notorious for exerting strict control over its franchises and ignoring industry trends to create wildly unique products, a strategy that's resulted in Nintendo Direct live streams. Since 2011, Nintendo executives have presented the company's most exciting announcements in scripted videos that talk directly to consumers, and the approach has paid off. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata hosted most of the company's digital showcases from 2011 until his death in 2015, and he grew to be one of the most beloved tech leaders of his time, largely because of the relationship he built with players through the camera lens. Every Nintendo Direct causes a tiny (and sometimes huge) news explosion in the video game industry, and fans eagerly await each one.

Best of all, Nintendo can create these showcases without leaving the office. So can any other company that takes this path.

Nintendo has proven how successful online showcases can be.

Online events make sense. Ditching big conventions means companies can better control their messaging without the perils of live, on-stage accidents, and they'll save money on exorbitant exhibitor fees, amphitheater and equipment rentals, transportation, event organization and on-site sustenance. Plus, they'll have more control over when these news drops will take place -- for instance, E3 is held in the summer and tends to interrupt the workflow of many attending studios, which aim to release big titles in the fall.

None of this is to say anything about fan-focused showcases like Comic-Con International or PAX. In fact, leaving companies more time to communicate with audiences directly could mean they'll organize even more of these events. And in-person, business-focused networking conferences won't disappear completely, but they'll likely become smaller, more targeted and less obvious to the public.

Just as in-person trade shows aren't the tech industry's final stop, Nintendo Direct-style showcases won't be the end game either. There are murmurs of VR-driven experiences and hyper-localized events that bridge the virtual and physical realms. Once the tech industry transitions away from a traditional conference structure, companies will have to experiment and find their footing all over again. But at least in a digital reality, falling doesn't hurt as bad.