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Technology has been a hot topic in the convention and meetings industry for many years. This conversation has encompassed a broad range, from the potential demise of the industry resulting from the ability to hold web-based meetings to whether Wi-Fiaccess must be free. Based on industry research over the past several years, the concerns about a technology-driven end to the face-to-face meetings industry have been abandoned. Even with the gradual rise of generations who have grown up in a technology-saturated culture, the desire to meet face-to-face is still strong and perhaps even growing. Now the conversation has turned to how technology provides enhancements to face-to-face meetings and other live events. Two emerging technologies are hot topics in the industry today – Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Experiments with both technologies are happening in facilities and at events.
Because of the devices required to support VR, mainly goggles of some form, this technology is primarily an individual experience not well-suited for group gatherings. This will remain true until the technology for multiple users in the same virtual environment matures and becomes more affordable. One way that this technology is being used is to provide convention centers a way to showcase their facilities to potential customers as part of their sales and marketing process. Using VR in this way allows the potential customer not only to view the facility and its offered spaces and amenities, but to continue the conversation to seeing how their event would be set up in the venue, perhaps interactively with their general services contractor and facility staff, and help avoid last minute surprises and changes to the setup.
Another way VR is being used is to provide event attendees an opportunity to have an experience that would be difficult to simulate in real space. At PCMA’s Convening Leaders event this past January, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a “hands-on” experience with three important societal issues via VR: ocean acidification, homelessness, and racism. By placing the participant in an underwater environment, in the environment of a homeless person, and in the shoes of a young black man, VR was used to educate participants about the reality of each of these three issues in a very personal, but non-threating, way. As the sponsoring organizations of events increasingly seek to reach beyond their core areas of interest to engage social issues, we are likely to see more uses of VR in this context.
"The larger question is whether broader use of VR and AR technologies will reduce demand for face-to-face meetings"
Since it does not require the same level of isolation with the devices it uses, AR is of much greater interest from the standpoint of enhancing and impacting event attendees’ experience. In the sports event world for example, viewers have become accustomed to seeing the yellow line-to-gain and blue line of scrimmage markers, as well as statistical and analytical data, projected on the playing field as we watch football games on television or via streaming. So far, this experience has been limited to viewing on a larger screen in the venue or on televisions at home and in entertainment venues, the leap to making this an individual experience with wearables that don’t isolate the user is not hard to envision.
Walking the exhibit hall of a trade show or the concourse of a meeting area using an AR app like the Monocle feature in the Yelp! app is already being seen in some events. The primary limitations are the hardware platforms available. Walking around holding one’s smart phone up to see the information is awkward, so until devices with a more heads-up display are widely and affordably available, the application of this technology is going to be necessarily limited.
The key implication this has for event management really affects the event venues most. Ubiquitous and fast wireless connections are essential to the success of implementing AR technology for events. This creates additional pressure on facilities to keep up with the increasing demand for bandwidth. Whether it is expressed this way or not, most of the end user complaints about technology finally come back to facility infrastructure. Slow connection speed, signal weakness, and cost are all common complaints and points of negotiation between the event organizers and mangers and the buildings in which their events are held. Until consensus develops among all the participants in the event management industry about the issue of the cost of providing the technology infrastructure, broad implementation of AR and VR technologies in events will be limited to more static event and facility apps.
The larger question is whether broader use of VR and AR technologies will reduce demand for face-to-face meetings. The answer to that question, at least today, seems to be no. Twenty years ago as new technologies like web meetings were being introduced, many predicted that the events industry would decline significantly, but that has not happened. People still have a basic desire to interact in real time and space – to sit with each other over coffee or drinks or a meal and have a conversation about a topic of shared interest and to meet new friends that broaden their networks. Technology’s role is, and will remain, to both facilitate and enhance that experience.