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  • NETMEDIA International

Virtual Spaces: The Future of Events

The use of virtual meeting spaces has been developing for decades. Can this technology and the arrival of low-cost untethered VR equipment about to herald a new era of virtual events and tradeshows? Post-COVID-19, will the events space revert to its traditional form or continue to embrace the possibilities of virtual events?

One of the sectors that COVID-19 has massively impacted is events. Tradeshows and the plethora of conferences from every industry and sector suddenly had to halt as the pandemic took hold.

The events industry as a whole has had to reinvent itself. Embracing and repurposing videoconferencing platforms has enabled some events to occur, albeit in a very different form. It is fortuitous for the conference industry that VR technology has now advanced to the point where it doesn’t need a powerful PC to create the virtual spaces or that the VR headsets need to be physically attached to these machines.

Speaking to Silicon UK, Rob Nash, Founder, 4 Roads, explains how virtual events will become part of the conferencing landscape: “We’d be kidding ourselves to think that virtual events will disappear just because of a vaccine, especially given the level to which they’ve democratised access – opening up new revenue streams and driving exposure to new audiences.”

Nash continued: “What I expect to see instead is an increase in ‘hybrid’ events, with businesses encouraging smaller groups to meet face-to-face, at the same time as sharing content with broader audiences using digital platforms. It might take some time to get to grips with this approach, but it should theoretically be a win-win for all parties – the organisers, those taking part, and those attending.

One company that has embraced VR technology is Morningstar. Explain how the company uses VR; Leslie Marshall, Head of Experiential Marketing, says: “My job at Morningstar is to think about our brand experiences and how we can engage with our investors when they come to one of our events.”

“As many of the people that attend our events are financial advisors, we always look for ways to enhance their experiences. Several years ago, we could see how VR was developing. We liked the ability to build not just three-dimensional spaces, but that the technology could also build empathy and really connect people together. We also really liked the enhanced learning and retention that VR can offer.”

The events and conference space has radically changed – perhaps forever. The development of technologies like the Oculus Quest has delivered the technical foundation onto which a whole new era of virtual events will be built.

Have a headset, don’t travel

Customer experience has now become a key component of brand communication. Businesses don’t just need good customer services; they need to be developing next-generation experiences to attract and engage their customers. Research from NTT concludes that customer experience (CX) is now of paramount importance:

“The results show that CX is still recognised as a clear differentiator (by 81% of organisations) and the number one indicator of strategic performance. Board-level accountability for CX is rising, yet only 12% say customers rate their CX at a promoter level. Boardrooms need to follow through on sentiment and ensure that CX strategies are clearly formulated, managed and delivered.”

David Whelan, CEO and Founder of VR Education, commented: “Biggest tip for anybody seeking to impress their clients by holding a virtual event is not to replicate what happens in the real world. This is a fully digital environment that is only limited by your imagination. If I were launching a phone, I would host an event on the phone’s surface and have the environment interact with the audience during the conference. The communications aspect of immersive technologies cannot be understated as it is so much more than talking to somebody on video. Being in the room with a person makes a big difference and this is what VR/AR allows you to do.”

Also, Daniel Hemsley, Managing Director, Swamp Motel says: “At the moment, it feels very experimental, with event organisers all developing knowledge and understanding around the tech and seeing how audiences react. And ultimately, that is what will lead to the evolution of the space, audience behaviours. We’re taking part in SXSW this year, which is entirely virtual. They’ve been organising that event for over 30 years, but really this year, they’re treating it all as an experiment.

“So, as the virtual events space evolves, I believe that the ones who are leading the way now and leading the creation of this new kind of culture, will have the competitive edge in terms of having that deeper understanding about their audience’s behaviours and be able to design the most successful virtual experiences when the virtual events space becomes more established.”

The hybrid event

The events and conference industry have always embraced a hybrid approach mixing physical spaces with their digital counterparts. What is different today as businesses move into a post-COVID-19 environment, more virtual components will become the norm across the conference space.

Morningstar’s Leslie Marshall says: “Some of the core principles of Morningstar as an organisation, is that we want to demystify investing. If we can do that with innovative technologies like VR, we want to see what this technology can do. At our events, we have staff that guide our visitors who may not be familiar with VR. But we find once they experience the spaces, we have been able to create with Mesmerize, they embrace this new way of learning.”

And how should a business begin to evaluate their use of VR in their events programs? Rosh Singh, Managing Director, UNIT9, Explained to Silicon UK: “The first thing is to remember is that participation is more effective than viewership. A virtual event still needs to involve the audience in some way to give them a sense of agency over the experience. Virtual events should also evoke emotion – through powerful content that makes the attendee feel something or by using sound and visuals to create an atmosphere rivalling that of a live event.

“There’s always the potential to get creative with events happening in a virtual space. You don’t just have to replicate a real-world environment – you can think outside the box and create something entirely new and engaging for your audience. We created a virtual concert experience for Intel’s 2020 keynote, inviting VIPs and tech journalists to watch Diplo perform in a psychedelic digital desert. It was worlds away from the tech brand’s usual annual event but definitely memorable because it was different. And lastly – the virtual event is just the start. Hosts should collect and use data wisely in order to continue the connection with attendees’ post-event through tailored follow-ups.”

Mike Piddock, the Founder and CEO of Glisser, an award-winning virtual and hybrid event hosting platform, also commented: “We’ll see a shift towards in-room events appearing much more traditional in their format, but many more will contain a virtual component, either tagged-on or integral to the event itself, as they try to cater for those audience members that continue to want to experience things virtually, perhaps because they don’t want to or can’t travel, or because they just enjoyed the virtual experience, and want to balance the amount of virtual versus physical events that they attend.”

We are on the cusp of what could be a revolutionary change to how the conference and events space is designed and delivered and how content is generally consumed.

“Apple is rumoured to be entering this arena soon which will push adoption rates and Facebook have stated that they will get one billion users using VR/AR in the next five years,” VR Education’s David Whelan concluded. “Telecoms companies also have a vested interest in pushing VR/AR adoption as it could utilise the higher bandwidths 5G and in the future, 6G, making those services valuable to the average consumer. We are on the cliff edge of mainstream adoption and expect someday soon to walk into a telecom shop to purchase your new mobile phone and they will sign you up for a 5G account and provide you with an immersive wearable device to consume vast amounts of data.”

Can you give me some brief background about Mesmerise?

“Mesmerise is a B2B virtual reality company, creating groundbreaking VR products that solve business problems. To do this, we have a talented team of software engineers, designers and artists creating rich and immersive computer-generated environments that blur the line between reality and imagination. At Mesmerise we envisage a world where human potential is not constrained by location, geography, race or gender. A world where people can gather, learn, discover and experience endless possibilities.

“Currently, we are focused on our Gatherings product – a range of spaces where you can meet and connect, created in VR. Our ambition and belief are that we can make VR events that are better and more rewarding than the human equivalent; transporting people into amazing settings or the perfect meeting environment, and improving the engagement and attention levels of those in attendance. Our vision is that this will create a frictionless shift between reality and virtual reality, where you punch in the goal of your gathering and the number of attendees, and the perfect space is ready for you and your colleagues.

“To give you some context on how the company came about, I left the BBC after 10 years as a current affairs journalist to join Microsoft in 1996. I wanted to be in at the beginning of the birth of a new medium and saw the potential of the internet to transform how people consume content and live their lives. Fast forward 20 years to 2016 and I felt exactly the same way about VR, which is why I decided to co-found Mesmerise. This is the beginning of a whole new wave of innovation that will transform a range of industries and I saw the opportunity and felt I had to grasp it.”

VR has accelerated its development over the past five years. Are we now on the cusp of VR becoming more mainstream?

“The upward spike is clear. We are already seeing that there is a greater demand for VR from a consumer standpoint just by looking at sales of headsets. There is more and more research showing the benefits that VR can bring from the perspective of creating more jobs and boosting productivity.

“A lot of businesses are already seeing the positive impact that VR can have when it comes to training and connecting employees and clients spread across the world. A recent report from PwC has outlined just how effective VR can be in allowing business leaders to upskill their employees faster – this is at a time when training budgets may be shrinking, people remain in remote working conditions and we continue to globally observe social distancing measures.”

Gaming has always been the primary focus for VR. How will training, education and brand communications become enhanced with VR?

“I think it’s better not to view these two arenas as mutually exclusive. As we see an increase in use and the advancement of VR technology across the gaming sector, it means more people are familiarising themselves with the concept of VR and the associated technology such as headsets and hand controls.

“It’s really clear that business sees the potential of VR in a wide array of different scenarios. We have always believed that VR can revolutionise training and education. With VR you can attend a class from anywhere in the world. With VR, you can simulate a real-life scenario for a number of professional areas, where trainees can be tested on their decision making and employers can monitor their outcomes, as they play out in real-time.

“Data is a key element in VR and that’s why we recently hired Michael Fagan as our Chief Data Scientist. Michael is an expert in machine learning and was at Microsoft for nearly 20 years. Michael’s role within the company will be to harness the potential to use data in training and education and optimise user experience; we are extremely excited to have him on board.”

The main issue with using VR is that every consumer doesn’t have a VR headset, unlike their smartphone. Is the lack of penetration into the general consumer market an issue for companies in the B2C space?

“The form factor is changing rapidly. When we formed the company in 2016, in order to experience VR you needed an expensive computer, a cumbersome VR headset with wires and sensors – the cost overall was in the thousands. Now with the Oculus Quest, the device is portable, wireless and costs £299. That is driving consumer adoption – but there is still a long way to go. In January, John Lewis announced that sales of the consumer-focused Oculus VR headsets were up 350%.

“In five years, I’m sure we will look back at where we are now and be amazed at the developments. I think of this a bit like cloud computing. A decade ago, if you asked ‘would you share your documents in the cloud?’, you would get blank stares. Now it’s the norm. I believe that will happen with VR – but the headsets will be lighter and more powerful, and probably connected using 5G.”

For businesses operating in the B2B space, VR looks like an exciting new way to connect with their commercial partners and those in their supply chains. What are the essential first steps to using VR effectively?

“I’d say as a first point of call, it’s imperative to have a trusted provider of VR software. This means finding a provider who truly understands your business and what it needs to connect with its commercial partners. This requires more than just understanding the technology itself. It is crucial they also understand the purpose of your business and where specifically VR can bring added value. To embrace VR, businesses need the right guide for the journey, letting them know they are in safe hands while being clear on the destination.

“The earliest adopters we have seen take on VR technology as a business offering are global businesses with workforces and clients spread across many countries. Pre-pandemic, VR was already being embraced as a method of connecting people in an engaging way without huge travel costs. In the last year, this has been amplified as events calendars have been displaced by the pandemic. However, it’s fair to say that VR events can work for any business, especially those who are innovative and who want to show their own workforce and clients alike that they are going the extra mile to provide a variety of spaces to host meetings, seminars and other events.”

The impact the pandemic has had on the events space has been massive. Will VR events become the norm, or just a stopgap until events get back to normal?

“Generally speaking, I believe we are seeing big changes in the way people gather and work. As a result, we will not only see standalone VR events, but also hybrid events – where there is a physical event happening but offers those individuals who can’t or don’t want to travel, the opportunity to attend from the comfort of their own home.

“It’s clear that remote working is here to stay. But there are also many signals that people still want to feel they are able to connect with their colleagues. VR offers individuals the potential to work remotely and still be connected with their colleagues, through a shared virtual space.

“From a business standpoint, when you look at various reports from professional services companies like PwC, they estimate VR has the potential to boost GDP in the UK by £14.6 billion by 2030. I think this further indicates that VR will not just enter, but remain a key platform in the events space as people continue to work from home after restrictions lift.”

Is there a limit to the size of the event that can be held? I’m thinking of the cost of buying and shipping enough headsets to delegates that want to attend.

“At the minute, yes. With VR still in its early stages, most people won’t have a headset, so there is a cost consideration when it comes to getting hundreds of people set up with one. We are very likely to see more innovation when it comes to renting and leasing models once more investment pours into the sector, and this will obviously make things easier. But, as the overall popularity of VR increases and more people buy their own headsets, this shifts exclusive ownership away from businesses in need to provide each team member with one.”

Can VR become a ‘premium’ option for any delegates that want that additional immersive experience? Or VR can be used for VIP visitors to your stand?

“VR can be a great platform for hosting exclusive or VIP events and we are very much catering to this in the way that we design the experience of our service offering. In a VR event, the sense of co-presence is key; that doesn’t just apply to attendees, but further applies to sponsors at events, who still want to connect with attendees in a marketing capacity. VR enables that conversation to remain open in a more effective way than simply attending a seminar or event online, at present.”

What are the limitations of VR in the events space? How do you think these will be overcome?

“At the moment, there is the accessibility factor, which will disappear once headsets become more widely owned. There is also an adoption issue where many attendees will be using VR for the first time, so may require time in time in getting to grips with the software – perhaps even a learning curve on how to get the most out of the technology. Other than this, the potential is almost limitless and it’s a very exciting space to be operating in.”

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