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Can Virtual Events Match the Real Thing?

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With Mobile World Congress, Prolight & Sound, and SXSW only the biggest conferences to cancel so far in the face of COVID-19—and as large exhibitors have pulled out of other events—some conference organizers may find themselves looking at online alternatives. For many years the streaming sector has been the engine behind "virtual event platforms," but we’ve yet to see them gain widespread adoption as attendance at  in-person events has grown. In part there has been no reason to turn down the opportunity to travel, to meet face-to-face away from the usual workplace, and to have a few days break from the normal work routine learning and developing relationships. And, of course, plenty of vendors set release and marketing schedules around such events.  

Still, as events cancel and many companies institute work-from-home policies, it’s time to take a look at some of the leading virtual conference platforms on the market. Not surprisingly, demand for them is high at the moment as the events industry is suddenly having to explore virtual options; when I started contacting companies, I had to wait at least 24 hours in each case before I could speak to any sales teams and get demos. 

Before we dive in to some of the platforms and what they offer, let’s look at the general options, which we’ve broken down into five categories:

There is some overlap, obviously, and so think of these groups as markers on a scale rather than fixed boundaries. Also note that the list of vendors mentioned is meant to be representative, not exhaustive. If you want to highlight additional services, please leave a note in the comments section below. 

Conference Calling

We are all familiar with a PSTN conference call—pick up a phone, dial into a conference bridge and chat with two or more other people. I think this is too basic to merit much more mention here. Obviously this can be facilitated entirely online using soft-phones or apps, and online tools usually offer video conferencing, text chat, and ASCII sharing, and some offer desktop sharing too. 

Multimedia Conferencing

For the uninitiated who have been forced to now learn how to use these tools, there is a small learning curve here, but it can be greatly accelerated by your own children since they have likely only ever known this type of communication: They spend all night conference-called with their friends sharing urls, images, and more. If they can do it then so can you! Again, I don’t think i need to go into too much detail here: If you read StreamingMedia, then Google Meet, Skype, Teams, WebEx, or Zoom (etc) are already likely in your daily communications toolbox. 

But these tools are not really what a conference organizer wants. To create a simulated event, they want to include several elements that make their conference attractive to the best minds in the business, and that requires more of a call to action than a calendar invite with a URL to a video call. 

They want to include the following:

  • One-to-many seminars/webinars/auditorium sessions with synchronized presentations of shared desktops, 
  • Space for sponsors to brand and raise the profile of new services and products and to engage with conference attendees, as they would at booths or stands at "in real life" conferences.
  • Perhaps the most important conference element of all: networking;with a strongly synchronous element to bring people together in real time

Those platforms that embrace multiple technologies to create the ‘complete event’ experience break into three event types:

Flat Events

When I started my research, I contacted Dom Pates, senior educational technologist at City, University of London. He has been working with education technology for years, and he pointed me at a group of organizations that serve the educational conference sector. While in the commercial industry we like to travel to conferences, and virtual events only come to mind when we can’t do so,  in education there has been a longer term demand for virtual events that arises from the limited budgets afforded to education. The platforms I looked at were all very functional, but essentially comprised content management systems and "flat" list-like web pages that would help you navigate from agenda item to agenda item, review lists of sponsors and participants, and in some cases—where live webinars or networking were included on the agenda—there are options to initiate text chat with other viewers on the site. Essentially, these are online forums, with most of the effort going into asynchronous comments under archived, pre-recorded video webinars. 

The only way a platform such as that can generate a call to action (i.e., "come join our event this week") is by limiting the time that the content is made available, or by offering live webinars. However the live webcasts are invariably left online as archives, and on my cursory scan of many of these sites indicated most of the comment activity was happening in response to the archives. So one has to ask why these forums are not simply live websites available all the time for interested parties to attend. Platforms I explored included Hopin and Nearpod. Both are great for organising content and for creating some focus on agenda items and even some live interaction around live webcasts. For educational organizations looking to provide many webinars in an easy format, these models are very workable. They require minimal configuration, and so with a short amount of practice both speakers and delegates can create perfectly usable means to share content.

But I can’t help but think they could also publish to YouTube and share the URL. There isn’t a real sense of "event." Again, these services feel more like they are part of an event toolkit rather than the whole event in once place.

Flat Simulated Events

Flat simulated events have been designed specifically to recreate, as closely as possible, the rich experience of live conferences along with the virtual exhibition stands and the facilitation of meeting rooms and networking events. 

Yes, it all sounds a bit bizarre. I can hear you cringing at the idea of "wandering around a virtual event." However having spent much of the last week immersed in various demo platforms, I can definitely say these experiences have grown on me, and while no one would pretend any of these can replace a real conference experience, given the travel restrictions emerging around the world, I think second-best is actually quite tolerable.

The demo platforms I have explored include vFairs, iVent, MeetYoo, and Virtway (which is a fully simulated event platform—see below), and INXPO (Disclosure: my own company provides some video streaming software to INXPO’s parent company Intrado, although it is used in a different product). Each of these include the ability to offer a series of webinars with interactivity, host a sponsor space, and offer some form of networking environment. They all offer a simulated event experience. Looking at their websites, one might be forgiven for thinking that these providers offer a full 3D virtual event (their landing page images and interactive conference stands appear on the screen shots to be full 3D). However several mentioned that while they had initially started out to build second-life-like environments the cross platform usability and performance was a challenge. So they seem to have collectively moved to  present each ‘area’ as a static flat image with hyperlinks, somewhat reminiscent of early interactive DVDs. For that reason while the layout of the event is common to all of them, and I can see familiarity and usability in that, I also still think of these events as flat events, rather than true simulated events.

INXPO, which is one of the giants in the enterprise video space, focuses on flat events but offers a range of options to include more calls to action and "event" elements than Hopin and Nearpod, including text-based networking and interaction, with the option to open up audio and video calls. 

Given its scale, INXPO has clearly kept a few things simple to ensure that attendees are not distracted by technology and features that detract from the core purpose: getting attendees to focus on the content. The demo was fairly robust, and of all the platforms I reviewed, I think this would be the right choice for the risk-averse blue chip organization focused solely on dissemination of the content and access/ 

However there are elements of the UI that were comparatively dated, and while I could see myself easily using this platform to watch a series of events and to explore some sponsor pages, I was unlikely to walk away from the event thinking "Wow, that was an immersive experience."

While vFair, iVent and MeetYoo had a slightly more polished UI, I did have occasional issues with elements loading slowly, so they are clearly pushing the boundaries of the UI, illustrating a tradeoff between reliability/simplicity and the "richness" of the experience 

Each of these companies offers a project manager who oversees your entire event, who can be as lightly or deeply involved as you need. For example, each will help support sponsors in configuring their virtual stands, setting up branding, planning and deploying copy, and so on. Their workflows can process payments, notify delegates of agenda updates, capture speaker details, and so on. Interestingly, for the engineers in the room, in some ways the only clue that these companies are not all simply white labels on the same underlying backend system is variations in how their webcasting and interactive elements worked. Most include at least 1:1 audio calling, if not multiparty video conferencing options, within their text chat environments.

All of these flat event models loaded directly into an HTML5 browser. I didn’t try INXPO on IOS, but all the others worked on my iPad, too. 

INXPO Virtual Event

Like other flat simulated event services, INXPO offers the ability to interact with attendees via chat and audio, and connect on social media.

Fully Simulated Events

Now, for the fully "simulated events" platform. When I first started looking for virtual events platforms, this was what I had in mind. These providers actually use 3D modelling to create a game-like virtual environment in which you could walk/explore exactly as if you were in a real conference.

I have only so far tested one of these (as I mentioned these companies are having a very busy few weeks), and that was Virtway Events. A few companies in the flat event group mentioned they had started off trying to create the Second Life-style full 3D virtual conferences, but, at least a few years ago, reliability was a challenge. 3D is often technically demanding, and delivering that cross-platform is even more so. Not only that, but they had found that the training required by the delegates to operate their avatars had been a distraction from the event's real purpose. For this reason, those I spoke to had retreated to a more stable and easier to use flat model.

That didn’t mean I didn’t want to try a fully simulated event. And while I had a few crashes on IOS, or platform-specific problems on my Mac (Virtway currently only works on Catalina on the Mac; it also works on PC and promises to work on VR headsets soon), once I got the IOS version running I spent many hours exploring the capabilities and became very immersed.

As you log in, you get to customise your avatar. This doubles as a delegate/speaker data capture option,  so you can edit the profile others will see when they click on your avatar, and you can include their LinkedIn/professional bio and photo as well. Once in the event, you can walk around, and as you walk near other avatars you can begin to speak to them (if you walk away, their voice gets quieter!). This capability is as close as I have seen to the real-world experience of a networking event. You can approach a group of talking parties, listen in to the conversation, and join in—just as you would at a real networking event. You can also spot other avatars walking past and leave one group to wander over to the one you have spotted or hailed. Text chat rooms can mirror this to an extent, but the experience is very different. Strangely, after only a few minutes in the Virtway platform, I found all of this very natural.

Once you are bored with networking, you can of course walk through a virtual exhibition, interacting with everything on the stand—not unlike the flat event exhibition sessions, and with many of the same features (the ability to download PDFs, watch videos, chat with attendants, etc). One of the nice extra features that the 3D environment offers is that you can effectively wander around an exhibition with a colleague. Again, you can do this in a text chat, but it is very binary. You are either together or not, and you are either together with the stand sponsor or not. In the 3D model you can walk away from a stand and pick up a conversation with your colleague before seamlessly moving to the next conversation on the next stand. In a text chat model, this is more like a sequence where you have to jump into one chat, sync with your colleague, chat with the vendor, then leave that chat into a private chat and repeat. The 3D model’s gamification actually felt like it worked well to me. I confess to having played a lot of Tomb Raider years ago, so this may predispose me to feeling comfortable in this type of environment!

Virtway exhibit stand

In the Virtway virtual event, you use your avatar to wander from booth to booth, and can engage exhibitors and other attendees in real-time via audio chat.

Finally the auditorium experience was also quite impressive. On entering an auditorium you can see a screen, a presenter’s avatar, and a video window with the speaker’s video feed. While it is 3D and you can move around the room, it is so far not unlike the flat events. Where it adds features is that you can opt to sit next to a colleague and privately talk to them, and you can raise your hand and talk to the speaker, so the whole experience is richer than a flat event would be. 

Virtway conference room

When you enter a presentation room in Virtway's virtual events, your avatar takes a seat and watches the presenter onscreen.

Faced with the prospect of spending this summer either clicking my way around flat web pages with some links on and a very asynchronous feel or responding to a call to action to join a live happening,  I would definitely opt to be immersed in a proper virtual event. I can see that the full 3D environment may have a few challenges, such as ease of use, the technical demands on the user’s computer, and overall reliability. As the novelty of attending a virtual event wears off it, may turn out that all the gamification of the 3D world distracts too much or is too much of a lean-forward, effort and it may be more appealing to log into a flatter experience for subsequent events. 

For now, though, I do hope that some of the events that are being challenged by COVID-19 decide to try the full 3D experience, since I would relish a chance to see how effectively I can learn, develop business, and network online.

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