Are we going to keep remote events in the XR industry post COVID?
Whether you’re a regular in the XR space or not, you probably know that the industry has positively exploded during the last several months as the world has desperately sought ways to connect remotely. However, as COVID-19 rates go down and vaccine rates go up and we begin to think about returning to “normal” what does it mean for XR and remote events?
Some posit that we’ll never go back to the way things were and XR is now a part of our lives forever. Others argue that XR was a bubble that we were forced into by necessity and it’s now about to deflate. For the past few weeks, ARPost has been picking the brains of XR experts and remote events hosts for their insights and approaches.
The Introduction and Evolution of Remote Events
Praise for remote events largely started at those events which started to really tick up about a year ago. At first, many events were simply postponed in the hopes of a brief lockdown. But, as COVID cases continued to go up and the lockdown dragged on, virtual gatherings started to be praised as more than a temporary emergency stopgap.
“This is the beginning of us understanding how virtual worlds have meaning,” Nokia’s Head of Ecosystem and Trend scouting Leslie Shannon said during the VR/AR Association Global Summit in Early October of 2020. “It’s no longer going to be that people think that something has to happen in the real world to have value.”
The Global Summit and the Augmented World Expo, as well as most other remote events, even within the XR industry, have largely been 2D affairs. That is, interviews or video calls recorded and broadcast over the internet. Other remote events, like the Immersive Learning Research Network International Conference, took to 3D platforms like Virbela.
Some XR events arguably make more sense in XR. For example, the WebXR Polys Awards and subsequent Web XR Developers Summit were based around a continually expanding spatially designed website. While such remote events certainly could have taken place in person, there was something fitting about them having taken place in entirely virtual venues.
But this phase was not to last. As numbers showed success over the virus, events – even events in the XR space – began to move back into the physical world.
“The Return of Real Events”
In late May, the Extended Realities Digest newsletter called Tribeca Immersive “the return of real events” when it was announced for June 9-20. The Augmented World Expo wasn’t far behind it as their in-person return in November was announced this spring as well. For 2020, the event organized by Ori Inbar was hosted entirely online.
“When the pandemic hit and all of these physical events were canceled, there were virtual events. But, as I think we can all agree, these virtual events never really delivered,” Inbar told ARPost. “Around this time last year when the pandemic was still raging, we made a pretty audacious bet that by this time this year we would be able to have an in-person event.”
This year, AWE, of which ARPost is a media partner, will be held in person in Santa Clara California. The decision was made in haste, but not without consideration on the part of event organizers.
“If you know the cycle of securing venues, you have to do it a year or a year-and-a-half in advance,” said Inbar, calling the decision “a combination of huge pent-up demand with huge trust in the AWE brand.”
The event will remain a “definitely hybrid event.” Talks and events like the ever-expanding Auggie Awards will stream online just like last year, but there will also be irreplaceable in-person events. Inbar hopes to return to the in-person excitement of the event while maintaining the record “attendance” of the remote event.
Remaining Remote (For Now)
The VA/AR Association held the last two of their Global Summit events as well as their smaller more targeted Forum events entirely online and intends to continue to do so throughout 2021.
“In 2021, we are fully committed to virtual events, hence both of our Global Summits (North America in June and Europe in September) are virtual,” the Global Executive Director of the VR/AR Association, Kris Kolo, told ARPost.
During their time in the entirely virtual world, the VR/AR Association’s remote events have evolved to become more interactive. And, like other recently virtual events, attendance has improved since the events became more accessible.
“We used to do webinars, but now with Hopin [all-in-one virtual event platform], we can enable everything online, including multiple main stages, live sessions, virtual expo, 1-on-1 networking, which has received lots of good feedback,” said Kolo.
Attendees at the remote events are able to find one another through a chat feature, which also allows them to interact with presenters. Exhibitors also set up “virtual booths.” Kolo reported that over 90% of attendees to the recent Enterprise Forum connected in these ways rather than just watching videos.
“Hybrid” events like these may actually be the future of events, according to some industry leaders.
“Unfortunately, a huge bell didn’t ring and say ‘okay, you can go back to normal’,” Charlie Fink said during a collaboration panel at VIVECON 2021 in early May. “This is still the beginning of the beginning and the paradigm is still shifting.”
Forecasts and Insights
Virbela President and co-founder, Alex Howland, sees a future in which there is “a cohort that goes to a physical event,” but also “a larger cohort that will attend a virtual offering.” Echoing and uniting some of the sentiments that we’ve already looked at, Howland told ARPost that this reframing of the value of events could be a long-term benefit of the pandemic on our culture.
“The pandemic really shook up the events industry, in some ways positively, in some ways negatively,” Howland said in a meeting within the Virbela virtual world. “The community is the value, regardless of how you access it.”
Gabe Baker of FrameVR, Virbela’s lightweight VR remote collaboration solution, similarly said that while there is no “replacing” a physical event, remote events do add value by making the events more accessible.
“A lot of the people from the companies that have been kind of forced to have these virtual events have found them to be really successful, even if only because so many people from so many more places can come,” said Baker. “VR will continue to make events like that even richer.”
Augmented Events in the New Normal
The writing on the wall seems fairly unanimous: remote events were a poor substitute for in-person events but also brought their own benefits, primarily increasing accessibility. While even the XR community struggled, at least at first, remote events did improve over time and they may continue to augment in-person events as we navigate into the “new normal.”