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Meetings Get Real—and then Some—with Virtual and Augmented Reality Technology

Meeting planners are people people—they have to be, given that what they do is all about providing in-person experiences. So the thought of using virtual and augmented reality in meetings has been a little controversial, said Brandt Krueger, educator, speaker, consultant who specializes in the field of meeting technology, during a recent MeetingsNet webinar.

“The idea of having people in the room strap devices on their heads that are going to separate them from each other gives a lot of meeting professionals the heebie-jeebies,” he said. But, like it or not, AR and VR are not just coming—they’re already here, and according to Krueger, they can be a boon to planners before and during events.

Going Virtual
This technology is not new—both AR and VR have been brewing for a long time, with some successes and a lot of failures, he said. Even if it doesn’t seem like it will have an immediate effect on meetings and events, you should pay attention to how it is evolving. Even though the AR apparatus of a couple of years ago was pretty clunky, it “paved the way directly for the phenomenon that is Pokémon Go,” he said.

“Virtual reality means going all the way down the rabbit hole and being transported out of the real world and into a virtual one.” The VR category also includes immersive video: Using a 360-degree camera to record what’s going on at a particular moment in time. The creator can edit it just like any other type of video to show exactly what they want you to see. “While you can look in any direction you want, you can’t really move around or interact with the scene in any meaningful way,” he explained.

We already have a number of available VR platforms, including the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, Playstation VR, “and any second now we are going to be hit with a trove of knock-off devices, all of which will have some sort of display built into a headset,” he said. On the phone side, we have the Samsung Gear, the Google Daydream View, and the least expensive device, the Google Cardboard, “which is literally a cardboard viewer with a couple of lenses and a rubber band. It actually works quite well if you have a newer smartphone,” Krueger said. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine that one day in the near future we may be handing out VR goggles as people check in, he added.

Reality Plus
Augmented reality is the process of layering something over reality. Users can still see and hear the world around them, but additional images or content is layered over that real world via a smartphone, smart glasses like Google Glass, or a full-on headgear, he said.

While you may think you haven’t experienced augmented reality personally—as three-quarters of the webinar audience said in a poll—if you’ve watched a football game in the past 20 years, you have seen augmented reality at work. You know that yellow first-down line that gets layered over the field? That line is not actually there; it is digitally laid over the screen. “It’s gotten so good that we just take it for granted. We have to go see a game live to realize that no, it’s not really there,” said Krueger.

“Google saw so much potential with AR that they wanted to get it out of the smartphone and onto your face. With Google Glass, the new era of AR was born, and almost immediately died a fiery painful death,” he said. “It turns out that people weren’t ready for their fellow human beings to be walking around with strange-looking devices strapped to their faces.” And as insanely popular as Pokémon Go initially was, it too is already on the downswing, he said.

But down does not mean out, he added. Microsoft is working on a product called HoloLens, a “mixed reality” device that is designed to blend physical and virtual worlds. There also is a company called Magic Leap—while it has received millions in investment, hardly anyone outside the company has heard of or seen the product, Krueger said. “The next generation of AR is coming within the next year or so; we’re just not exactly sure what form it’s going to take.”

Site Inspections Go Virtual
One obvious opportunity to use this technology is on the venue side, he said. For example:

• Venue promotion using immersive video. While they don’t completely replace an in-person site visit, “virtual site inspections could at least reduce the number of possible site visits or help you rule out a venue based on something you see in the virtual site tour without you having to go all the way to that site,” he said. “It’s one thing to hand someone a glossy brochure with a bunch of photos; it’s quite another to give someone access to a fully 360-degree, three-dimensional-feeling, virtual reality experience.

“Imagine a potential client putting on a VR headset and headphones and not only seeing the panoramic views of your beautiful seaside location, but also hearing the waves crashing and the birds calling. It’s really going to help sell that venue on a very intimate, personal level. Same thing applies to the ballrooms—they can see the ballroom from different angles, different configurations, and different décor. Once again, we have the option of providing full mockups of virtual ballrooms, setup options, overlays, all of those options and amenities that will show a potential client what a venue has to offer,” said Krueger.

Showcase third-party suppliers’ design and lighting, “not only from a creative conceptual standpoint, but also regarding power installations, rigging points, camera angles, screen sizes…we’re talking about immersive CAD drawings that enable you to fully visualize your event in that venue months before the first attendee sets foot in the venue, including cabling, camera angles, screen sizes, décor options, and bar locations.

It may sound like science fiction, but “A few venues and destinations have already begun to experiment with the power of VR as a marketing tool. With  high-definition, 360-degree cameras now available for less than $500, venues can economically create these immersive videos and post them on YouTube, where anyone with a compatible AR viewer can play them. They can even distribute fully branded versions of Google Cardboard with their marketing materials. These things cost less than $20 apiece, which is a lot less than some companies charge for high-end brochures. So if you’re a venue, the time to get into the VR game is now, before the market is completely saturated,” he said.

Meetings and Events Use Cases
AR and VR technologies also are starting to be used for meetings and events, said Krueger.

Provide additional information on what the attendee is already experiencing. AR and VR first crept into the meetings realm through image recognition technologies like QR codes. “Basically, you could point your smartphone at a certain piece of paper or place on the conference brochure and something would happen,” he said. “Usually it would be some sort of overlay, like an animation that would expand and give you more information about whatever it was you were looking at—maybe an expanded speaker profile, or clues for a game, sponsorship information, all kinds of things.” While most of these technologies will begin on our smartphones, “they will easily translate to some kind of headset, which will itself act as some sort of screen for the video.”

Attendee experiential stations. Instead of a vodka luge or a photo opp station, some event managers are now developing VR experiential stations to let their participants share an experience.

Use virtual to enhance the message of the meeting. Krueger When Audi was launching its new Q7 vehicle in Moscow in 2015, they did so with a VR group experience, a virtual movie theater they called #imagineQ7 (link to video of the event). Attendees were guided into a room where they donned VR goggles and watched the synchronized VR experience in chairs that spun to mimic the movement in the VR movie. The actual car was wheeled into the room so the dealers could get up and see it in reality after experiencing it virtually. “There was a lot of laughing going on, holding hands—lots of social behavior,” said Krueger. “It didn’t take away from the event—it only added to it.

“AR and VR aren’t some future technology—they’ve been evolving for a long time, and a lot of that technology is already here, ready and waiting for you to experiment with it,” he said. “There’s never been a better time to launch into virtual reality.”

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