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Real talk about virtual events: What happens when the whole world moves online

In 2020, in-person events shut down practically overnight. Shows, conventions, product presentations, even the Olympics had to be canceled or postponed, sometimes indefinitely. And as it became clear that the pandemic’s impacts would be with us for some time, alternatives had to be found. Fortunately, we already had the technology to make it happen.

The truth is, the shift from live to virtual events was much more about social acceptance than technological viability. From Apple’s product showcases to Twitch’s gaming championship streams, our industry is no stranger to events that, despite drawing live crowds, were increasingly designed with massive virtual attendance in mind. The real challenge was how to develop an online format that would mirror the dynamic, engaging experiences the public had only ever known firsthand.

Here, we’ll delve into the different ways events went virtual, the multiple roles tech played, and how this change can be viewed as a boon rather than a bust.

The seamless transition of the gaming industry

Of all entertainment industries, video gaming was perhaps the most well-equipped against lockdown-imposed hardships; on the contrary, Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, otherwise a standard March release, went on to become the 28th best-selling game of all time. Among Us, a low-budget indie game released in 2018 to no fanfare, became the 10th most-viewed game on Twitch in 2020 and a cultural phenomenon to the point that it was live-streamed by members of Congress.

These surprises coincided with the industry’s innate capacity to move their main events, both corporate and player-centric, totally online without major hiccups. While the 2020 editions of E3 and Gamescom, the industry’s most important gaming-expo events, were canceled due to the pandemic, major companies like Microsoft and Sony held individual online events to announce novelties — including the PlayStation 5 — without negative repercussions.

In eSports, the lack of a live audience can quickly wither game-day hype, but even that reality was turned on its head. In the most striking adaptation of a live event to its virtual counterpart, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the world’s most prestigious automobile races, went fully virtual. Cars were chosen, tuned, and driven by eSports teams in RFactor 2, a computer racing simulator platform, with broadcasts reaching about 20 million viewers worldwide.

Virtual events come in many distinct forms, though, and plenty of industries have found ways to make them work this year; let’s have a look at a few of the most popular options.

Types of virtual events

Live stream events

These events can be hybrid — attended by a live audience as well as streamed — or totally online, with the former often leveraged by companies for major announcements and community building. Viewers can be charged an “online ticket” for stream access that, in some cases, also grants extra perks to discourage pirating. Interaction, if enabled, is often restricted to messaging in a general chat.

While many companies previously shied away from online events, the pandemic forced a shift in perception. Exhibit A: Activision Blizzard’s approach to BlizzCon 2020, its yearly fan convention. BlizzCon has been live-streamed as a paid service for over a decade, but following its postponement to February 2021, it was moved completely online and announced to be free of charge.

On-demand session content

Entertainment VODs, virtual classes, and hybrids like TED Talks have been on a steady rise for many years — we even wrote an article dedicated to edtech a couple of weeks ago — but the pandemic helped make these on-demand sessions mainstream. Benefits include them being flexible, repeatable, marketing-friendly, time-efficient, and untethered by geography.

Furthermore, on-demand sessions allow for post-production, which can vastly upgrade what would otherwise be a rudimentary slideshow presentation. In the hands of a skilled editor, basic conferences and seminars become documentary-like experiences, with the presenter acting as a narrator of sorts with imagery enhancing his or her points.

Webinars

Webinars, or virtual seminars, are essentially the more interactive cousin of live stream. Q&A sessions benefit from anonymity and the ability to solicit and select audience questions in advance; meanwhile, live polls are easier to administer, and work for big and small groups alike.

On the operational side, webinars do require a high-speed streaming service, preferably with a simple, functional UI. But all in all, the result will most certainly still be cost-effective when compared to the non-virtual alternative.

VR camps and training

Until not long ago, VR training was restricted to a small number of specialized sectors, like aviation (for pilot training) and the military. Today, VR tech is used widely to prepare professionals for a host of atypical work situations: a surge of holiday customers in retail, emergency evacuation in offshore drilling platforms, unusual surgeries, and even as an interview simulator for recruitment purposes.

Understandably though, there are drawbacks to this technology: it requires special hardware and, in most cases, custom software. VR has to be approached as an investment; defining its usability, scale, and integration with existing company practices is fundamental to its ROI.

VR events

VR events fuse traditional webinars with VR tech, then crank it up to 11. When properly executed, participants become fully immersed in the conference, turning it into the closest possible analog of an in-person event.

Film festivals can be attended as if in a cinema or drive-in theater. Sports are experienced as if the viewer is in the stadium. The concept of “couch tourism” first enabled by Google Earth advances into maturity. In fact, people spread all over the globe can gather together (almost) just by using a VR headset.

Of course, no nascent technology adoption is without its challenges. VR events tend to be even more complex than camps and training, with specialized hardware a requisite part of the event planning process. 360-degree cameras, for instance, have to be installed in the venue to enable a VR event, as well as to capture any pre-recorded VR content.

As this is a burgeoning corner of the market, its household names are still taking shape. One good example of an early adopter in the space is Procreation, who approached us last year needing a thorough exploration and analysis of their existing code to streamline bugs and processes. The London-based, multi-platform digital production company focuses on live stream events, interactive virtual meetings, motion graphics, VR/AR, and other digital tech solutions — and they got their start long before 2020.

What will virtual events look like in 2021?

The real world embraced its virtual counterpart as never before in 2020. We’ve increasingly adopted, upgraded, and accepted emerging technologies as the new normal — even grandparents have taken to Zoom this year — and the trend promises to keep growing, even after we return to normalcy.

With enterprises now fully aware of the many virtues of the virtual world — both in terms of logistics and budget — we can expect online conventions to remain a compelling option going forward, much like working from home will continue to be. And VR technology, with its ever-decreasing development costs and increasing hardware adoption, will no doubt push today’s capabilities to the next level.

The possibilities are, in short, virtually endless.

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