Published: March 31, 2020


Will technology industry conferences and travel practices be permanently reshaped, or will they ultimately revert to the volume and velocity of the tried and tired from the BC age (Before Coronavirus)? With many tech vendor events now transitioning from physical to virtual conferences, this has to be the use case VR has been looking for.

The 451 Take

If enabling delegates to be at a virtual location mentally while physically at their computer is a goal, then virtual reality may have a role. VR is ideal for giving a sense of being somewhere else and having an experience, and virtual worlds represent the next level. Augmented reality (AR) brings digital content, including other people, into a delegate's physical space. However, considerable technological challenges remain: In addition to an upgrade of the user experience and the social norms for interaction, headsets remain expensive and clunky, and there are significant personal comfort and security limitations. Companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Apple are spending billions on this, at the same time creating a high barrier to entry for aspirants, although many startups are also making headway. Virtual worlds can be engaged without complex headsets, too, making the laptop or tablet experience more of a focus to demonstrate the value of this form of interaction.


Virtual-world events are by no means a new idea. Enterprises and brands flocked to Linden Lab's Second Life in 2006 and large-scale creative-led events prevailed, with IBM and Cisco among significant contributors to the field. Second Life, and its open source compatriot OpenSimulator, has not gone away, although the accompanying press may have subsided. Events such as the (Virtual World Best Practices in Education) are held on these platforms, and many more virtual environments have come to light, such as Rec Room on VR headsets and smartphones. Blending quirky and playful user-created environments offers a whole range of new opportunities for human interaction online. A virtual environment renders proximity, space and location of other people very differently from the batch of video conferencing that people are starting to explore, and technically uses way less bandwidth. Having meetings and presentations in a virtual world also offers a degree of differentiation from the same meetings in the same home office. The visual cues and sense of presence act as mental bookmarks to recall conversations at specific locations and times.

Some of the expressions in user-generated content can seem to be contrary to the normal serious nature of business, but as many are finding right now with video meetings, the topic of what's on the shelves behind them – meant to be interesting or memorable – is important. Avatars and virtual worlds provide a whole host of extra expressions.

Virtual worlds also offer a much-needed alternative to bandwidth-hogging video applications. Game technology typically only sends small updates or mathematical descriptions of content, generating a rich visual and animated experience using what is already stored on the user's device with both text chat and voice (at the same time), and virtual worlds are built on game technology.

While not everyone is going to be able to get ahold of VR headsets just yet, those that have will have had memorable experiences in both games and educational material. A generation has already grown up engaged in worlds like Minecraft, and this is already used in schools today. We have already seen a teacher showing trigonometry classes drawn by hand on whiteboards in a virtual world environment of the game Half Life: Alyx. The Rec Room virtual world operates across all headsets and runs as an app on a phone; it is one of many of the new generation of virtual environments.

AR is not only the user interface for IoT – where digital meets the physical, enabling engineers to see live instrumentation from machinery to a hands-free headset – it also offers the ability to bring people virtually to your office or to virtually gather around designs, ideas and even presentations.

Environments vary as to how many people can simultaneously be in one place at one time for a large event, but it is equally possibly to have the same event cloned (sharded) into multiple instances of the same event, just with different people (similar to a broadcast live event to homes or cinemas, but much more interactive).

Both AR and VR offer a multitude of other affordances – if your desk cannot cope with a second, third or fourth screen in a traditional desktop setting, they can add as many as you need. Your product may be so large as to not be easily portable to a physical event, such as a new building or giant printing press, but scale and size are irrelevant in virtual environments. We can engage with the microscopic or the universe in equal measures.

VR and AR are suitable tools for human interaction and engagement with data and visualization; they can provide clarity or just simply wow and entertain. Many more use cases of AR and VR can be found in our long-form report on the subject.

In the near term, we expect virtual conference organizers to seek online platforms that will allow for interaction between event participants – including attendee-to-speaker communications in keynotes and sessions, attendee-to-attendee in 'virtual hallway' tracks, and attendee-to-sponsor in a virtual sponsor showcase.

Aside from an attendee's experience of virtual conferences and events like these, and where VR could play a role, a key to their success will be what the exhibiting vendors feel like their return on investment is. The chief concern will be whether conference organizers and their customers (the exhibiting vendors) are able to guarantee the lead flow or deal propulsion that they are used to getting from physical events.
Senior Analyst, Internet of Things

Ian Hughes is a Senior Analyst for the Internet of Things practice at 451 Research. He has 30 years of experience in emerging technology as a developer, architect and consultant through key technology trends.

William Fellows
Founder & Research Vice President

William Fellows is a cofounder of The 451 Group. As VP of Research, he is responsible for the Cloud Transformation Channel at 451 Research. William has also created 451 Research's Digital Economics unit. This is currently focused on helping end users, vendors and investors understand complex and confusing cloud pricing mechanisms in order to compare the cost of services (hosted, hybrid and on-premises), the cost of entry and price of participation in new markets. 

Scott Crawford
Research Vice President, Security

Scott Crawford is Research Vice President for the Information Security Channel at 451 Research, where he leads coverage of emerging trends, innovation and disruption in the information security market. Scott is also a member of 451 Research’s Center of Excellence for Quantum Technologies.

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