Over 170,000 people attended the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this month, including 50,000 international visitors.

CES 2016 marked somewhat of a transition year for the overall positioning of the conference. The discussion on the trade show floor transcended the individual technology products and services to themes about how technology will impact every facet of our daily lives.

“We’re talking increasingly about what’s technologically meaningful versus technologically possible,” said Shawn DuBravac, Ph.D., chief economist and senior director of research for the Consumer Technology Association, which operates CES.

Driving this shift is what the World Economic Forum is calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”

Virtual reality, for example, goes mainstream this year when Oculus Rift starts shipping its consumer VR headsets within the first quarter. Oculus Rift secured some of its early seed capital as one of the startup companies in the CES Eureka Park before Facebook scooped it up in March 2014. There were over 500 startups at Eureka Park at CES this year, up from 350 in 2015 and 200 in 2014.

That evolution from a tech gadget show for super geeks to a global hub of conversation around the future of technology as a business driver and mainstream lifestyle experience is significantly expanding the live show experience in January and the virtual experience during the rest of the year.

According to Jeff Joseph, senior VP of strategic relationships for CES, there was a greater focus on segmenting the programming and content at CES 2016. The show has grown to the point where attendees needed more help navigating it to better connect with the right people.

“One of the most exciting experiences at CES is you never know what you’re going to run into, so we didn’t want to lose that sort of magic serendipity during the live event,” Joseph told Skift. “But we also recognize that certain attendees come to see certain markets, or they want to be able to find their distinct community. So with that in mind, we’ve organized the show into different marketplaces around everything, ranging from vehicle intelligence to health and wellness to robotics.”

Community Curation

The 25-plus CES Marketplaces help visitors navigate the show, who are confronted with 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space on different parts of the Strip. That’s about 45 football fields, spanning most of the Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo & Convention Center, and MGM Resorts’ massive CityCenter complex.

Among the most popular Marketplaces, the year-old CES C Space “dives into the synergies and growth of content and brand integration.” It was designed exclusively for the booming contingent of digital content creators swarming into CES, such as Stephen Burke, CEO of NBCUniversal, who discussed the state of the television industry during so much disruption by the on-demand networks.

Likewise, Allison Lewis, CMO of Johnson & Johnson, and Kristin Lemkau, CMO of JP Morgan Chase, described the future of mobile advertising platforms. Lewis said that over 50% of Johnson & Johnson’s web traffic comes from mobile. Lemkau added, “We want the ability to target, and more ways to authentically integrate into programming, to get more creative in advertising.”

In another panel, Margo Georgiadis, president, Americas, of Google; Kristen O’Hara, CMO of Time Warner; and Greg Revelle, CMO of Best Buy, discussed the suddenly popular theme of “micro-moments” in marketing.

“C Space is amazing, it’s a curated exhibit area with conference sessions`for the marketing, advertising and creative content communities,” says Joseph. “We saw we were attracting a lot of people from that industry, and one of the things we heard from them was they really loved the show, but they wanted a space where they could build their community.”

In essence, CES is evolving into the Cannes or SXSW for tech industries. The forum is as important, or often more important, than the actual content and programming, both as a meeting place for client dialogue and a launchpad for third party digital content.

According to AdAge, “[CES] is now a global event that marketers and agency people attend, but sometimes they don’t even make it to any panels or exhibits. Instead, they use the event as a setting for major meetings with top worldwide executives to refine plans for the coming year.”

Digiday adds, “CES, originally a trade show for hardware, has been fully infiltrated by Future of Media specialists who are wont to document all of their encounters on social media.”

Content Curation

That push for community-building to develop passionate “tribes” of brand advocates is the wet dream of every marketer these days. Toward that end, Joseph says CES is expanding into a year-round media company to keep consumers and business partners engaged.

The CES website is easily one of the 10 best conference websites in existence based on the volume and variety of content in the center of a social media ecosystem, spurring an uncanny amount of additional mainstream media attention.

For example, the CES Waywire video portal is a compilation of YouTube videos curated day-by-day that are embedded in the brand.com website. Most conferences simply show their YouTube content on YouTube, but the Waywire platform doubles the exposure and it’s a better user experience.

“We’ve created a lot more content over the last two years to tell our story, because all of our exhibitors want to be accessible everywhere and all the time,” says Joseph. “We try to reflect the industry we represent, and we want to be the front edge of digital storytelling.”

The CES event app also evolved to improve community building among buyers and suppliers. This year the app included an immersive map that provided a point-to-point geolocation navigation system using Bluetooth beacons on the trade show floor.

Kind of like an indoor Uber map, attendees could search for a specific exhibitor, and then the floor map in the event app would show the quickest way to get there based on real time attendee flow.

“We wanted to make the app experience much smoother and more informative, and we tried to bring more immediacy to the event,” Joseph says. “So we also added Snapchat and we did a lot of Periscope feeds to create a more ‘being there’ experience.”

More app content included a virtual scavenger hunt designed around the CES beacon infrastructure. The app directed users to key portions of the show where the beacons would activate the app to move onto the next level of the hunt.

It also housed CES partner white papers like IBM’s The Economy of Things: Extracting Value From the Internet of Things.

Overall, CES cut back on the amount of components inside the app to focus on more essential functionalities. Joseph says it’s too easy to get overwhelmed on the show floor with so much live and virtual content swirling around attendees at any given time, which is only growing year over year.

It goes back to DuBravac’s earlier comment about the shift from focusing on technologically possible to technologically meaningful.

Joseph told us, “We’re much more open to communicating with everyone now, but it’s more important than ever today to find the right balance.”

Photo Credit: 2016 is going to be the breakout year for virtual reality with Oculus Rift VR consumer headsets shipping soon. CES