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VR conferences and Zoom networking: the collapse of the event industry or the new reality?

Almost all niches were affected by the pandemic in 2020. But the technology came to save the day almost immediately.

Anastasiia Aloshyna

Content Creator
21 December 2020vr, ar, networking , technology

Almost all niches were affected by the pandemic in 2020. But it was the event industry that took the first hit from the quarantine measures in the beginning. All large and small-scale conferences were canceled or postponed indefinitely. In early March, for example, GSMA, Shopify, MIT, and even Google and Facebook were the first to cancel their events. The cancellation of such conferences showed others: it seemed that everyone would have to tighten their belts now.

But the technology came to save the day almost immediately. On March 19, 2020, for the first time in the history of the event industry, HTC held Vive Ecosystem Conference in VR. More than 2,000 participants from 55 countries were able to join the event on the ENGAGE VR platform. All "attendees" were in the same virtual space and could freely move and interact with each other using their avatars. Thus, the technology, which most people unfairly used to associate only with video games, became the impetus for rethinking the entire event industry. And it is VR that is predicted to revolutionize this sphere in 2021. Are these hopes justified? Let's find out.

A sudden leap into the future 

Of course, the format of virtual events is not only based on VR. It includes separate conference applications with automatic notification, schedule, and one-click transition from report to report, YouTube broadcasts, and group calls in Zoom for smaller events. Even networking has become more comfortable. You write to the speaker in the chat room and don't have to seek him or her out in the crowd after the presentation.

For example, the American Physical Society in March 2020 canceled its annual conference in Denver 36 hours before the start. But many participants had already arrived in the city, and it was decided to hold the event on Zoom. Session moderators told speakers when to start and end their presentations, and the audience asked questions. Those who wanted to talk to the speaker went straight to a private chat room while still listening to the next report. During the following days of the event, the society organized webinars, uploaded reports to YouTube, and created a Virtual APS March Meeting website for presentations. All of the participants were satisfied. The APS board of directors doubts that they will return to conferences with a physical presence in the future. As they say, they appreciate how online allows more people to attend events and reduces CO2 emissions from transportation.

However, the Zoom option did not suit everyone. Although the annual Human Genome Meeting attracted more participants online than usual, the organizers still encountered some problems. For some participants, small children or pets got in the way. Some had slow internet, so there was a delay in communication. And some lacked the sense of live presence, as during an ordinary conference. Obviously, Zoom is good under ideal conditions, but the full experience takes place in VR.

Another landmark event on par with the HTC event was the Laval Virtual World conference from the Laval Virtual Center. The organizers turned to VirBELA to develop a virtual environment where participants could be present as avatars. For three days, the event featured 150 speakers and more than 10,000 guests, who could watch presentations in the auditorium, interact with each other, and even take a walk "outside."

Such a virtual world is almost a full-fledged gamified solution. It resembles the graduation ceremony that Japanese schoolchildren held in Minecraft last April.

Photo: backyennew/Twitter

Of course, we should not forget that in the case of interactive VR, as in the example above, there is one problem: some of the participants simply may not have the right equipment. 360° broadcasts can elegantly solve this problem. This format is not as interactive. Still, it allows you to view the venue from any point from both a laptop and a smartphone. Convenient, easy, and inexpensive.

But there is a reasonable question: what about the product demonstration? VR or 360° broadcasts combined with 3D mapping can help with this as well. Thus, due to the annual Geneva International Motor Show's cancellation, automobile brands faced the need to find another way to present new models. For example, Volkswagen created virtual 3D copies of its new products. Visitors to the exhibition site could examine each of them from all sides, in different colors, and even with other rims. At the end of the "visit," all users got to a registration page where they could create a personal VW ID to receive more personalized offers in the future.

So, for many of us, VR has really become a breath of fresh air during the lockdown. The companies have recognized: a virtual event is not just an escape but also savings, convenience, and new functionality. At the moment, the new reality provides the following features:

  • Text, audio, and video chats — both group and one-on-one to communicate directly with the speaker.

  • Polls and Q&A sections for easier interaction with the audience.

  • Live streams with a recording option for participants to rewatch later.

  • Ability to attract more "visitors" since there is no need to fly to another country or city.

  • More accurate analytics tools for evaluating the results of the event.

  • Gamification to increase viewer engagement and concentration.

  • Savings for both the organizer and the companies that pay for their employees to attend events.

  • Accessibility for people with disabilities, from the remote format to the ability to adjust the brightness and size of fonts.

Conclusions: long-lasting effect on the event industry

In 2018, the entire global event business was valued at $1,100 billion. According to Allied Market Research, that number will double by 2026, reaching $2,330 billion with an annual growth rate of 10,3%. The growing popularity of virtual events is expected to contribute to this growth by making it easier to attend events. The anti-crisis measures of 2020 showed businesses a wide variety of ways to organize conferences and accelerated digital technologies' integration. So it makes sense that companies will increasingly rely on new tools. This is by no means to say that the traditional format will have no place — for many, it is still more acceptable and comfortable. However, virtual conferences, which provide a more accessible and intense experience, are the future of an industry that will never be the same again. We have to actively develop the available technology so that the virtual experience will be completely identical to the offline one in the future. Only better.

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