COVID-19 has shown the business world how important conventions are, especially for SMEs in engineering, component development, materials science etc, companies who do not have sales offices across the world, and are dependent upon such events to sell their specialised products.
The race had already started long before COVID-19 even appeared on our screens, yet no solution has managed to land and put a flag on that space and call it his.
There are numerous reasons for this.
The first reason is that regardless to how good your graphics are, the virtual world is still too far off replacing that personal touch that you get when meeting someone, and as good as some video conference facilities are, it is still a rather 2D experience.
The first mistake is the replication, there are some solutions on the market which do have a seriously good replication, almost life like, however the bigger players like LAVAL work on a virtual world idea, where every user creates their own avatar and enters into a virtual world designed to look like an exhibition facility, seeing fellow AVATARS both within the buildings and outside, being able to click on them and see information. Although I can watch livestream meetings and conduct video and audio discussions with other participants, the solution is too complex, the user experience is compromised through over sensitive movement, especially if the user is not using VR glasses. As playful as it may be, the presentation of components and products that need technical explanation are limited. Yes, the integration of AR models is possible but the communication is fake and feels impersonal. Do I have to re-educate myself to live in a matrix, or can I get the matrix to represent the true world around me?
However other solutions where the world is better represented like that from voelkel ITK in Germany also have issues with the product presentation, allowing one to watch a video or open a PDF. Let us remember here, that a sales person can send an Email with a video link and a PDF.
So summarising, the first and without doubt the most difficult hurdle to overcome is the definition of inter personal and product communication within the virtual experience.
The second reason, and my guess the bigger reason, why none of the solutions on the market will really take off is simple. The developers have been too greedy. They have used the environmental and cost issues behind conventions as a scape goat and are prepared to destroy a whole industry with millions of jobs behind it, respectively the event organisers themselves have big conference facilities to fill and employ a huge number of staff and agencies to sell exhibitions, floor space, catering, marketing etc. Some organisers employ thousands of staff to ensure that conferences run smoothly from cleaners, and staff in the car parks through to door attendants, waiters and advisors for lost visitors. On top of this, many organisers pride themselves with knowhow of the industry to offer tailor made events.
Secondly the huge exhibition stand companies are completely cut out of the picture. The VR operator will even design your stand for you, how nice, and can do it at a fraction of the price, after all you do not need materials or lighting, the likelihood is that the VR operator has little knowledge of trends and how to attract visitors like the exhibition consultants do.
Then of course it is the exhibitors themselves, especially in the fields of machinery and plant manufacturing equipment for process engineering, who pride themselves on specially build trade stands to show the public hands on how a process is carried out in-front of their own eyes. Yes it is true that the majority of exhibitors do go for general stands, especially in smaller conferences like recruitment events or symposiums.
The VR person does not have the sales experience that the organisers do, however with everything that the organisers miss out on, they are unlikely to support such a software.
One would think that at least the attendees win out on this one, after all they can stay in the office and do not have to travel or stay in a hotel and over binge on the alcohol and food at company expense. Nevertheless, the fact that companies thrive on innovation through their product management who are dependent upon these events and the conversations in the evening in hotel bars with potential clients, just playing the environmental and cost card is also unfair to the attendees and the companies behind them.
However, what all have totally forgotten about is the local community – hoteliers, gastronomy, local transport, retail etc. which hugely benefit from such events, all because a VR guru wants to earn cash by offering his own stand and virtual hall, video conferencing etc. A major critical error hurting thousands if not millions.
This article is by no means an argument against the need for the digitalisation of this industry, alongside the environmental issue, lie further aspects which play into the hand of virtual conventions, the ability to make quicker decisions with technical issues by being able to get sales, technology around a virtual table within minutes and decisions being able to be made there and then rather than weeks later. So therefore if VR firms would adopt perhaps a more holistic view, then perhaps we will fly into convention space virtually and everyone is a winner.
COVID-19 has shown us both the need for digitalisation, but it has also closely shown us that people need people around them. As the restrictions are being lifted, ever increasing amounts of people are ignoring contact bans and visiting friends and relatives, because we have been designed that way.