CES is a fantasyland of futuristic products. This year it was dominated by our bleak present

Photo taken in Los Angeles, California on Jan. 11, 2021 shows a smart phone screen displaying contents on the official site of the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show CES. - Xinhua/Getty Images

Originally Published: 16 JAN 21 09:56 ET

Updated: 16 JAN 21 18:39 ET

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

    (CNN) -- CES, the closely-watched annual consumer electronics show, often sets the tone for the tech trends of the year — but little did I realize how true that would be last year.

On the flight home from Las Vegas in January 2020, I wrote a piece for CNN Business about how the technology of the future paints a very lonely picture for all of us. I had just seen robots who call 911 when you fall down, mechanical companion cats that keep you company and "artificial humans" from startup Neon able to do the same.

Two months later, my New York neighborhood became one of the first in the country to go into lockdown; and it's been just as long since I've been able to hug some of the people I love the most. A virtual reality trip to the Amalfi Coast with them would be a welcomed change to our routine FaceTime check-ins, not quite the unusual concept I thought it was just a year ago.

If loneliness was the unspoken theme of CES 2020, this year's all-digital event was rife with anxiety and stress, both the everyday variety and the kind specific to the current health crisis. At the event, which took place online this week, there was the wearable for the ears that claims its gentle vibrations regulate stress; the small smart storage box with a fingerprint scanner to lock up your pill supply or credit cards; the bigger lock box that keeps porch pirates from stealing your Amazon packages; a pad for the car seat that sends an alert if you forget your child in the backseat; and the robot that loads your dishwasher.

The robot, Samsung's Bot Handy, is only in development for now, but it's the company's vision for "a better new normal," as more people work, cook, eat and drown in dishes at home than ever during the global pandemic. As seen in a video, Bot Handy sets the table, pours wine and reminds you of upcoming meetings.

"The technologies in your home need to work harder to help you adjust to this new normal," the company said in its session description on the CES website.

And then there were the masks. There was one with built-in earbuds and microphones to make calls, and another to monitor air quality. AirPop Active+ Smart Mask monitors and filters the air around you, blocking dust, allergens and microbial particles. It lets you know when you need a new filter and tracks your breathing with its sensors.

Perhaps the harrowing takeaway from CES this year is that we're not okay, but maybe technology can help.

Executives and thought leaders met virtually to offer solutions to the challenges many industries currently face. A session on the future of contactless payments, with a description on the website that led with "The less you touch, the safer you'll be," discussed how retailers can ride the momentum of the booming trend far past the pandemic. Another on the challenges of remote learning debated what's next for future classrooms, and whether certain tech tools could make telemedicine visits more meaningful.

"We live in a time when most of the things we once took for granted now seem like distant memories," said Brian Kwon, CEO of LG Electronics, in a video ahead of the company's presentation. "Life has changed in so many unexpected ways. While our approach to life may be different now, we persevere."

Not exactly the upbeat speech you normally expect to hear at a product launch.

Apple, which often makes headlines at CES without actually attending, used this week to reveal more details about its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. Launched in June following the news and protests around the death of George Floyd, the company announced where more of its funds will go to help address systemic racism and create more opportunities for communities of color.

CES 2021 still had its share of fun innovation: the rollable phone, the transparent TV, Cadillac's self-driving party bus concept, to name only a few. But the tech that resonated most reflected our current bleak world, at a time when many of us are trying to just get through the day.

The self-driving party bus will be an excellent way to celebrate the end of the pandemic whenever that time finally comes, but for now, all I really want is that Keurig-like machine for soft-serve ice cream to soothe my soul while I wait things out at home.

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