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July 27, 2006

Technology: The rise of the virtual event

With corporate and social responsibility becoming more important to companies, and green issues hitting the global business agenda, our attitude to events is going to have to change. As we seek to reduce carbon footprints, it will no longer be viable or socially acceptable for companies to send delegates flying half-way around the world to attend events at a whim.

Five years ago, possibly even two or three, this might have caused a serious problem for the events industry, but with the growing proliferation of broadband and the increasing stability of the technology surrounding it, virtual events are now a real option.

“Until recently, virtual events were very static affairs,” says Steve Martin, who runs virtual events provider Virtex. “They were more like online exhibitions, with some archived audio and video footage, but they lacked the live communication between visitor, exhibitor and speaker which makes real events so powerful.”

But all this has changed. The technology is now here to enable fully interactive live broadcasts. Paul Newman, of virtual events company InSitu Productions, is working on a project with Virtual Wine, that demonstrates just what it is now possible to do online. “We provide Virtual Wine with the technology to facilitate live interactive wine tasting. When people join they are sent a mixed case of wine with food suggestions, then at 8pm on a Saturday evening they can fire-up their computers and log into a real-time wine tasting seminar.”

As part of this, viewers can interact not just with the studio, which includes a panel of five experts, but they can also enter a chat room and share their view with other parties logged on to the event. “Our background is as a video production company, but we have invested heavily in this technology,” continues Newman. “To give an idea of the scale of what Virtual Wine is doing, the studio event is a three-camera outside broadcast with eight people working on it. It takes the form of a live web seminar where the specialists discuss the various wines, and we simultaneously transmit slides with details of the wines alongside the picture broadcast.”

One thing that InSitu has found to be a problem with this type of event is that there are often multiple viewers around the PC, but only the person can interact directly with the event. “To solve this, we have also included mobile text messaging now so that we can interact with others around the computer,” says Newman.

Virtual events are the next step from webcasting, which has been around for some time. Internet users are crying out for more interactivity. They want to be able to give and share opinions and get downloads and extra added value, and this is something that can now be provided, and it’s easily accessible. The most that you’ll require is a web browser and Windows Media Player on your PC.

Neither Newman nor Martin see virtual events as replacing their live cousins, as there is still no substitute for looking people in the eye and networking, and the anonymity of the 'visitors' is also a downside. But in the last 12 to 18 months there has been a growing popularity and awareness among corporates of the power of virtual events. Add to this the fact that it’s not getting any easier to travel to venues and the increased pressures and calls on people’s time, and the stage is set for a healthy future for virtual events.

“All media share the same space, we just use different types to access different information, and people will always want – and need – to get together,” explains Martin. “Where virtual events can provide a real bottom-line benefit is that they allow companies to touch clients and customers directly as everything goes straight to the desktop, whether that be in the home or in the office. You can reach more people for a lower cost, there’s no down time for travelling and it’s easy to access.”

On top of this there’s all the added benefits already seen with technologies like webcasting and podcasting in that broadcasts can be archived and accessed at the 'delegates' leisure at any point in the future, extending both the reach and the life of an event.  

Of course, the internet is not fool-proof so there are still potential problems, but Newman says the outages they have had have been minimal. One example he cites was when they were broadcasting from the London Stock Exchange when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot. “Everything went down and we never knew why. We can only assume that it was either sheer weight of traffic through the internet or some sort of anti-terrorist lock-down on the Stock Exchange.”

Whatever the vagueries, the rise of virtual events means that companies could easily reduce the number of events they travel to down to one or two main ones each year – indeed, consider how much carbon emissions would be reduced if all companies were able to cutback the number of events they attended live by just 25%.

The issue is to change the way we work and to change our attitude towards events, but it’s a challenge many companies and industry players are rising to. And it certainly represents a greener option for the future.


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