Extending the reality of events through virtual and augmented reality

Published on 6/1/2017 by Serafino Melloni

Plunge into virtual worlds and expand on the live experience: no organiser can get by without virtual reality and augmented reality today. Just how the organisers of exhibitions and events can employ virtual and augmented reality in a profitable manner is explained by Serafino Melloni, Head of New Business Initiatives at MCH Group.

Virtual Reality (MCH Group)

What exactly are virtual reality and augmented reality?

Virtual and augmented reality are computer-generated realities that endeavour to simulate the feel of a genuine environment. In the case of virtual reality (VR), a person puts on glasses that completely cut them off from reality. The glasses visually simulate, and in some cases acoustically simulate, a virtual world that can be explored by moving the head.
In the case of augmented reality (AR) an extended reality is generated by means of a screen or glasses, and this is generally on the visual plane. While, with VR, the user is immersed completely in a virtual world, AR is employed first and foremost to present additional information to supplement the live experience. Probably the most well-known example of AR is the smartphone game Pokémon Go in which small monsters appear in the user’s current environment when the phone is switched to camera mode. All this requires is the software to make use of the player’s existing hardware (mobile device) in the form of an app. Applications requiring glasses are more expensive, and these will be targeted more at the professional world in future. In this way, a servicing technician could automatically have information on the machine that he is currently repairing displayed on the glasses.

How can virtual reality be deployed at events and exhibitions?

Virtual reality makes it possible to expand the spatially restricted event world. Hence with the aid of VR, a number of wind machines and additional technical aids, a tour on Mount Everest can suddenly be experienced by everyone. 

At events, VR and AR have their key impact as a show element – for impressive presentations of complex topics or for displaying products that cannot be assembled on site. Visitors can also be attracted by technology as an eyecatcher. It remains to be seen, however, which of these applications generates a true benefit and will stand the test of time.
In future, CAD software will offer options directly in the workflow for playing VR contents. This will massively reduce the costs for content production. The data will then not only be used for development and design purposes but also for visualisation and training. Content of this type could be shown at exhibitions. Functions that are difficult to depict live and machines that cannot be displayed at exhibitions could then suddenly be put on show. 

How can augmented reality be deployed at events and exhibitions?

Augmented reality is of particular interest for exhibitions, because the screen solutions and glasses solutions do not cut the visitor off from the live experience. Visitors are still connected to reality. Additional information on the products displayed can be shown on the visitors’ mobile devices. As with Pokémon Go, gamification will be possible with the products, exhibition themes and innovations that are on display. In addition, exhibited products can be impressively showcased by means of AR glasses. Air flow trajectories can be visualised and then flow out of the actual air outlet on the display. In addition, exhibited products can be extended by a whole range of virtual products that would otherwise not have been presented.

Augmented Reality (MCH Group)

When does it make sense for organisers to deploy virtual or augmented reality?

An event should tell a story and entertain those taking part. If the story can be experienced more readily with AR or VR, then the technology should be deployed. This calls for event managers who can maximise the experience with the available means. If this complex technology is to be deployed in the optimum form, then recourse should be had to specialists. In cost terms, this will incur some CHF 10,000 or more for each event.

The smartphone game Pokémon Go, doubtless one of the most famous examples of the success of augmented reality, which triggered a hype worldwide. What significance does this hold for the organisers of events?

What is important is to jump on the bandwagon quickly, derive benefit from it and then jump off again. That is what is called agile adaptive action and benefiting. The difficulty lies in recognising just when is the right time, because all hype comes to an end at some stage. A new kind of consultancy expertise is required. New technology and best-practice applications must be constantly analysed and understood. This calls for a mixture of technology and business insight, with the ability to transfer this to other sectors and validate it there.

360-degree videos are a further trend. What are the opportunities for deploying these at events and exhibitions? 

Producing 360-degree videos is very simple; they can be made with special cameras and distributed in the web either live during the event, or afterwards. Using panorama projections, new worlds can also be created at events that can be consumed without VR glasses.

In conjunction with VR, 360-degree videos make it possible to be right at the heart of what is going on, to be present on the concert stage, or in the helicopter above the Gotthard. At the moment, marketing options are being tested for people who cannot attend an event – because people can also enjoy the videos on their own screen and follow what is going on. The difficulty, however, lies in not missing the key elements. With a feature film, each camera angle serves to take the story forward. If a user has to set the focus themselves, as with 360-degree videos, it is very easy to miss something important.

Will virtual reality and augmented reality be a fixed feature at events in future?

We go to events because we wish to enjoy the reality. The novelty value of both virtual reality and augmented reality will wear off in time. Virtual reality is to be understood as a further implement in the toolbox for event creation, but not as a fixed feature of events. Augmented reality is more interesting, since the reality of the event is not lost and combinations are possible. Since, however, technical aids such as mobile devices (weak point: battery) or glasses (expensive aids) will constitute an obstacle for a long time to come, the benefit of using them will always have to be weighed up here too.

It will be the cost-benefit calculation that determines when these tools are deployed. Used incorrectly, VR or AR are a waste of money but used correctly they can be a delightful enrichment. VR and AR are both ingenious new tools, however, which will be improved over the years to come and will change other sectors in a lasting manner.

If we can already visit faraway countries via virtual reality now, will we also just experience events through VR too in future, sitting on the sofa at home?

Cost and ease of use will be the decisive factors here. People hold video conferences today in order to save on airfares. While the expansion of events and exhibitions is certainly welcomed, it is not the intention that people should stay away from live events. I personally feel that a live event experience will never give way to a virtual event, but events will have to develop rapidly in terms of content and benefit.

Serafino Melloni

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