In a new white paper from Dubai World Trade Centre, Ahmed Alkhaja, senior vice president of venues, explores certain ways in which the events industry could benefit from virtual reality.
At the far north of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros stands ‘The Wall’. Protecting the realms from terrors beyond and guarded by the Nights Watch, it is a defining landmark of the fictional world created by George R.R. Martin for his A Song of Ice and Fire novels, adapted for TV as Game of Thrones. It has now also become a place we can visit with the prototype Oculus Rift virtuality system.
At the SXSW Interactive festival early in 2014, Oculus teamed up with HBO to show off its in-development virtual reality (VR) headset. The device provides a 360-degree field of vision in 3D, allowing wearers to view and react to their surroundings in a realistic manner.
At the SXSW ‘Ascend the Wall’ exhibit, visitors took turns to stand in a booth designed to look like the cage that rises to the top of The Wall. Once inside, they were fitted with the Oculus Rift and a set of headphones to enter the unreal world.
The visuals were built using a gaming engine and the booth’s floor and walls were equipped with rumble packs to create the illusion of movement. Air vents provided a howling wind as the cage ‘rose’ to the top of The Wall — where visitors could look out across the snow-covered landscape, walk to the edge, and see the dizzying drop below.
Virtual becomes very real
The general consensus was that the experience was scarily real — able to trigger attacks of vertigo for anyone with a fear of heights. It was a successful introduction to the new generation of VR, a technology that has so far only found uses in high-end commercial or military settings.
The arrival of consumer-priced tech will bring this within reach of smaller businesses, and events are a field ripe for virtual innovation.
VR has already found a number of practical uses. Industry website vrs.org.uk cites medical training through surgical simulation and military combat training as two areas that have already benefitted, allowing people to learn in a simulated environment before making critical real world decisions.
Other existing uses include universities and manufacturers for research and development, while some architectural firms use VR to create realistic walk-throughs of designs.
At the top end is the Cave Automated Virtual Environment — a room where a combination of 3D display panels or projectors creates a 360-degree view, including ground and sky. With 3D glasses, objects can float in front of the viewer. A 3D headset, combined with a suit equipped with motion sensors, achieves much the same result.
For events, the applications are still to be explored. The technology is almost here, and organisers and exhibitors at the leading edge will be experimenting very soon. We can probably expect the first wave of innovations to be with exhibitors at shows, using VR devices they own.
Exhibitors may be followed by organisers for shows and meetings, but for this second wave the improvement to audience experience is more incremental, and many possibilities will rely on technology owned by the end user.
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Showing off in cyberspace
Exhibition stands are ultimately a sales tool, and the first adoption of VR for events will most likely be as an enhanced means of displaying an exhibitor’s wares. As soon as one business successfully innovates, com-petitive pressure will force others to follow.
With VR technology, exhibitors can create 3D immersive audio-visual content, where the entire field of vision is occupied by the display. Users will be able to explore this virtual space, walking through the digital exhibit and viewing objects at different angles.
This will adapt applications already being used for more advanced purposes — such as with CAVE — and apply them at a consumer or sales-force level. For example, property developers often display architectural models of planned buildings or communities to entice buyers at shows. But with VR, sales teams will able to take prospective customers for a stroll through the development, or walk-through of their unbuilt dream home.
The virtual tour offers widespread potential. A pharmaceutical company can take you on a journey through the cellular make-up of a virus; an engineering firm can let customers operate its latest machinery; or a tourist resort can takes potential guests onto their hotel terrace to enjoy the sea view. Something that cannot be experienced in the real, limited space of an exhibition stand can be experienced in the virtual space.
Imminent uses for event organisers are less certain or obvious — although as a sales tool to attract business, the same points apply as for show exhibitors: give potential customers a virtual tour of your event as part of your sales pitch.
There are, however, some interesting ideas that are worth exploring. These include incorporating VR as a side-feature at a conference, such as by having a VR breakout area where headset stations are loaded with experiences that follow up on keynote presentations.
In the longer term there is potential to turn the digital content many events already produce, such as videos of a conference’s proceedings, into VR presentations.
These could be experienced not just as an image on a screen, but as a 360-degree virtual reality recording, where a virtual attendee experiences the session just as if they were in the conference hall. Conference sessions could also be enhanced by VR material, just as we use slide shows today.
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The current technology
Although we are looking at commercial applications, it is the potential for entertainment that is opening up new opportunities for VR. In most basic respects, the idea is the same as 30 years ago, when the first experimental ‘goggles-and-gloves’ systems were pioneered by Jaron Lantner and the 1980s tech start-up, VPL Research.
There are two big names behind current moves in the market: Sony with Project Morpheus, and Oculus VR — a start-up that was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion —with its Rift headset. Both are well advanced as prototypes — the Rift is slated to go on sale during 2015 — and both are primarily aimed at gamers, whether console or PC.
Oculus Rift is already available as a kit for developers, to create content ready for a general release. The same is true of another path to adopting the technology, as an add-on to mobile devices.
The break-out here is the Samsung Gear VR, which is a collaboration between Oculus and the Korean electronics giant, designed as an accessory for the Galaxy Note 4. The mobile phone clips into the headset, which then allows the user to play games or watch movies as an immersive, 3D, virtual reality experience.
Gear VR went on sale in December 2014, but like the Rift is an ‘innovator edition’ aimed at developers — although it is being made quite widely available for sale in the United States, so provides a practical and cost-effective route to exploring the use of VR. The headset is priced at $199, on top of a Galaxy Note 4 at around $800 — so about $1,000 for a functioning VR system.
Samsung has also demonstrated a 360-degree 3D camera, developed as ‘Project Beyond’, although there are no indications of a release date or cost at the time of writing. How effectively this can be combined into an interactive VR presentation will depend on the support industry that emerges for the technology, and the software packages available to create content. Given the corporate muscle behind the concepts, this should only be a matter of time.
The business opportunity
The full potential of virtual reality as an add-on for exhibition stands most likely lies in systems designed for use with gaming consoles or PCs, where the external hardware provides the processing power and the tethered headset provides the user interface.
Sony’s Project Morpheus is designed to be fully functional with the Sony PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. While Sony is reluctant to give a release date, gamers who have tested the prototype rated the experience as very ‘real’, and a 2015 launch seems likely.
The best initial package for exhibitions will most likely be the Oculus Rift, which is currently in development as an accessory for PC gaming (although console-ready versions may follow), and so will be the most practical in terms of building a complete VR system for commercial applications. While it’s widely expected to hit the consumer market during 2015, Oculus is already selling ‘developer kits’ to create content.
Are we there yet?
So, is now the time to rush into virtual reality? Probably not, but it is time to start thinking about the possibilities and moving cautiously towards those that might be suitable for your business.
The potential to enhance a product demonstration at an exhibition with VR is particularly significant. For those businesses that might struggle to show their wares properly within the traditional confines of a trade stand, virtual reality could offer an extremely valuable enhancement.
Overall, what does seem very likely is that virtual reality is close to the point where it becomes part of the way people experience entertainment and communicate with each other. Virtual reality will affect the events industry — the only questions are exactly how, and when.