HomeTechnologyThe Rise of Virtual Events: How Live Streaming Services Are Reshaping Conferences

The Rise of Virtual Events: How Live Streaming Services Are Reshaping Conferences

One solution is the implementation of virtual events. A digital conference that takes place entirely on the internet. While this is far from a new concept, the current predicament has jumpstarted interest in this kind of solution. Market research firm Omdia has recently published a report that estimates the global worth of business-to-business virtual events will hit $18bn by 2023. This is a response to the sudden interest from companies due to the pandemic. Events can be held at any time without fear of cancellation, and participants can join from the safety and comfort of their own homes. This is an attractive strategy to companies who may have already made plans and bookings for a physical conference, giving them an alternative that doesn’t offset and delay their current agenda. An example using recent events is the cancellation of E3 and Gamescom, two major gaming industry conferences. Both of these events have been replaced by digital events that aim to provide a similar service to their traditional conferences. These reliefs for E3 and Gamescom will be used as case studies in this piece.

The current trend seems to be for conferences to simply reschedule for a later date, hoping that the global situation has improved enough to safely hold their event. However, every day that these companies can’t hold their event is another day of potential loss. And there is no guaranteeing that the situation will be any different in a few months’ time. With this in mind, many companies are seeking alternative methods to hold their conferences.

The vast majority of conferences around the world have been cancelled or postponed due to the current global pandemic. This has been a massive blow to the events industry, which is taking a big hit as a result. For many companies who rely on conferences to gain potential business or investors, this change could mean the difference between success and failure.

Advantages of Virtual Events

A virtual event can also be highly cost-effective. One of the most appealing aspects to organizations with a lack of funding is the potential to make a profit from hosting a virtual event. With minimal costs on venue, catering, travel costs, and staff to run the event (as compared to a physical event), there is potential for a large ROI. Corporate sponsors are also an important source of funding for events, and virtual events provide a less intrusive way for sponsors to have their branding and content visible to event attendees. Ads, links, and sponsored sessions can all be included in a virtual event without significant push marketing at attendees. Smaller companies and those with highly specialized markets can also find virtual events more lucrative, as they can reach a wider audience that may not have been able to attend a physical event.

Using a live streaming service for events has a wide range of advantages and is becoming increasingly attractive to organizations. The ability to access a wider audience is one of the most frequently cited reasons for holding a virtual conference or event. With environmental concerns and the difficulties in international travel post September 11th, virtual events enable people to network and share knowledge without having to travel to a central location. For people with disabilities, attending a conference or event can often be difficult, both in terms of the physical aspects of the location and in finding information and resources that are available to others. Virtual events open up new opportunities for disabled attendees and presenters and enable them to participate without having to navigate a venue that may be difficult to access. Another key benefit is that attendees can access the event from their home or office, reducing the time away from other commitments and eliminating the need to take vacation days. Finally, an archived virtual event can provide enduring access to content for people who were unable to participate in real time.

Increased Accessibility

Event adaptive system usage can sometimes be automatic. For example, specific changes to online environment accessibility settings may load upon entry of the user to the event area. Event accessibility settings can be separate from general accessibility settings in which changes only affect the online event environment. Event accessibility settings may be saved up for events that the users are regular visitors.

A virtual event can better accommodate an individual if they can have their personal preferences and requirements supported during event access and participation. Adaptive system uses and services can be provided to individuals in which changes the online environment according to an individual’s specific need or preference. This may be the case for individuals with visual or hearing impairments.

An event is more accessible to an individual if they are able to understand, navigate, and interact with the event interface. This can be accomplished through the use of universally designed web formats and applications.

The conceptual model of virtual event accessibility can be divided into four main categories: availability, accessibility, accommodation, and adaptive system. A virtual event may be more available to an individual if they are able to participate in the event activities in any location that has internet access, rather than having to travel to a specific location.

One of the greatest advantages of virtual events is that they are often more accessible to a wider range of individuals than many traditional events. This is especially true for individuals with disabilities. In many cases, virtual events are fully accessible to disabled individuals.

Due to the many different online environments and technologies used in virtual events, accessibility is a broad and complex issue. In general, increasing accessibility means making adjustments that can enable a wider range of individuals to participate in an activity. This can mean logistical changes that are expensive and time-consuming to implement or small changes that involve little effort or expense.

In making the necessary changes to make an event accessible, virtual event planners may also benefit from government tax credits and deductions for expenses incurred in accommodating disabled individuals.

Measures to increase event accessibility can also greatly benefit non-disabled individuals. An event that is more accessible to individuals with disabilities is also more accessible to families with children. Measures taken by conference organizers to arrange services such as sign language interpreters can also benefit non-native speakers of the conference languages.

High noise, large crowds, and inadequate lighting: Many individuals with disabilities will find these common conference conditions to be uncomfortable or unbearable.

Lack of Services of Food and Beverages or Sign Language Interpreters: These services are vital to many individuals with disabilities and are often not available at conference and event sites.

Location: For an individual with a disability, it can be very difficult and expensive to travel to an out-of-town event.

Cost of Accommodations: The cost of making hotel rooms handicapped accessible is usually quite high. Many disabled individuals cannot afford the extra expense of a wheelchair-accessible room.

Venue Inaccessibility: Many conference venues are in old buildings that are not up to modern disability access codes. This may prevent individuals with physical disabilities from attending.

Accessibility enables a wide range of attendees to participate in an event by eliminating the barriers that may prohibit attendance. To grasp the concept of virtual event accessibility, it is important to understand just how inaccessible many physical events are.

Cost Savings

Next, another added bonus of contending with less printing and shipping is a reduced impact on the environment. However, there are extra cost savings identified with the lessened requirement for a physical location. Client Second Life managed to save nearly 900,000 USD on an event by holding it in a virtual area instead of a physical one. Dodging a real-world location also disposes of the necessity to fly in speakers and staff. With the capability to broadcast from their own home, a virtual event can have the same content with less expense as the budget didn’t need to pay for transportation and hotels for all involved parties.

To begin with, one of the most conspicuous advantages of present-day online communication is that it is intensely more affordable to participate in than flying out to a face-to-face meeting. Today, online software and storage of documents have dispensed with the requirement for a lot of papers and files. By not needing to deliver any promotional material, organizers can guide potential participants to a site and show them around there. Just about every part of virtual events can be computerized, from reminding attendees about upcoming sessions to directing them to a sponsor’s virtual booth. In comparison to before when staff members were required to physically hang banners and posters, a virtual event permits them to make and change any promotional material with just a few clicks of the mouse. Staff also save money on dress and travel with the versatility to complete their work from home. With the worldwide scope of virtual events, costs could be saved by leading a series of smaller events in diverse regions rather than one substantial worldwide meeting.

Challenges and Limitations

Technology has a mind of its own, and that alone is self-explanatory as to why virtual events may present an entirely new set of technical issues. Although event organizers are no strangers to troubleshooting AV equipment, utilizing an entirely internet-based platform means that your event is 100% dependent on the internet being operational. This may prove the most difficult for companies who intend to reach a global audience; what is primetime for one country may be the dead of night in another. Time zone differences combined with an internet event may leave turnouts lower than expected. Another technical issue lies in data security. Companies may be wary of information leaks while utilizing a third-party hosting service. Vendors may also find issue in promoting themselves within the virtual event, as spamming the event’s homepage with ads is simply not an option. Also, unlike a live event, once the virtual event has ended, all data is gone. No recorded event, no post-event networking, nothing. Though this may be preferred by the vendor, long-term data preservation capability could prove useful in the future.

Technical Issues

The success or failure of virtual events heavily relies on technology. Despite the rapid growth and advancement of technology, many companies and employees are still working with outdated hardware and software, while others do not possess the technical knowledge to fully support virtual events. Where pre-defined conference applications need to be installed, employees may face opposition from their IT department, or installation may require administrative rights. Streaming video and audio, and other forms of media, require a high bandwidth connection and can be impeded by slow connections. Real-time video conferencing, which is often desired for virtual events, has yet to become a stable and reliable technology. During the 2009 Home Office Summit, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s speech to civil servants via video conference was delayed due to technical difficulties, forcing him to resort to a telephone conference. Video conference systems are often plagued by connection faults, low-quality audio and video, and incompatibility between systems. High cost may also be a prohibiting factor, with many organizations and individuals not willing to invest in a camera and equipment for something that will not be frequently used.

Lack of Networking Opportunities

In the real world, an attendee can easily speak to the person next to them, make eye contact or join a group in a discussion. Virtual conferences tend to be more passive, with information being received rather than an interactive exchange. Content may be delivered as streaming audio, video or a slide show and there is often a time delay in discussion panels because participants are geographically separated. Text-based chat or discussion boards can be asynchronous as well, taking away the spontaneity of real-time discussion. This asynchronous and passive interaction can be seen as isolating, as noted in a study on online faculty development. The researchers found that participants missed the social aspects of the face-to-face workshops, the friendship and emotional support from colleagues, and the real-time discussions. Though there was no formal planned networking at these workshops, it was an integral part of the experience. This is a sentiment echoed in a study of Scottish HE principals where it was found that the “most enduring” value of conferences is informal contact with others in the sector.

A significant feature of the traditional conference is the ability for participants to interact with one another. Key motives for many participants in attending conferences are gaining contacts and networking. The interactive characteristics of conferences are more difficult to reproduce in the virtual environment, so this is an area where there may be perceived problems and a resistance to the use of VES for conferences.

Engagement and Attention Span

As well as this, we have attention span as a separate issue from engagement, which relates to the limited amount of time that someone can be focused while watching a presentation on a screen as opposed to a live speaker. It is clear to see how any technical difficulties during a presentation could result in the attendees simply giving up and walking away from the computer. It is, of course, difficult to quantify exactly what the attention span of a given audience is, but there is evidence to suggest that older and more experienced learners have a shorter attention span for online learning.

These both relate to the inability of attendees to stay focused and engaged in the learning material. However, they can also be seen as separate limitations. There are concerns that attendees can be easily distracted while away from the computer, and this is particularly true for anyone working from home, who would be unlikely to multitask while attending a virtual event. With the sheer amount of distractions available at home and the ease of slipping away from the event, a lack of engagement can result in a very poor learning experience.

Future Trends and Innovations

“Participants at virtual events want and expect to be engaged,” says Deborah Sexton, PCMA’s president and CEO. “They want customized experiences and they want to learn in ways that are more compelling and relevant to them.”

Rules of engagement, in the meantime, will have only hardened with suppliers enlisted to produce events that engage and captivate their intended audiences. To do this, they will need to understand who the audience is and tailor the experience to their various needs and preferences.

The advancing technology infrastructure and increased demand in virtual events have led to various trends and innovations in virtual events. Trending ideas such as interactive virtual reality experiences are said to be the next big thing for virtual events. Imagine walking into a virtual symposium or tradeshow and being able to interact with people and “pick up” documentation. With VR becoming more affordable, it is the natural progression for it to be utilized for an immersive experience at events. Imagine walking into a virtual symposium or tradeshow and being able to interact with people and “pick up” documentation.

Interactive Virtual Reality Experiences

Now, how does this relate to virtual events? It is not unlikely that virtual event attendees of the future would seek to participate in VR entertainment like this while still attending the event in the virtual world. An event host may need to provide extra incentive for attendees to stay at the event rather than experiencing the VR content in their own time. This could lead to the integration of VR content into the event itself, for example, a virtual music festival within a virtual conference.

VR could provide a form of entertainment with a much higher stake in the mind of the user than traditional video content. It isn’t hard to see that a VR simulation of a tropical holiday would have a much more immersive effect on someone than passively watching a documentary about tropical destinations. The user would feel as though they had really experienced something, and as the technology evolves to provide ever more realistic simulations, the possibilities for VR content are endless.

Virtual reality (VR) provides the ultimate immersive experience, and as it develops, this form of entertainment could become a staple activity for millions of people. An example of just how significant VR could become in our lives is the most purchased headsets to date: the Sony Playstation VR and Samsung’s Gear VR. So far, they have only sold several million units combined. There is already a vast amount of research into how VR can present new forms of media content to the user, ranging from VR news reports to TV shows and films.

Artificial Intelligence in Virtual Events

Currently, virtual events are often structured around video – webcasts of slide presentations, interviews, or panel discussions. Technology is fast reaching the point where machines can process large volumes of video and build indexes for what was said and shown, providing a basic level of searchability. In the future, we hope to use this technology in conjunction with data gathered from our attendees to make session content easier to find and increase accessibility. An AI could recommend sessions in much the same way as Amazon or Netflix recommends products or shows, predicting what might interest a particular attendee based on their history or the history of people like them. AI could also be used to generate useful information about sessions and their contents from the indexed data. This could be presented as a short preview video or a text summary or used to answer questions from attendees about session content.”

“In the future, AI as a tool for conferring smarter than it is now will make decisions about what content to show attendees and what content they might like, based on a variety of inputs. For example, the AI might recommend to a health and safety professional attending our event that they could benefit from attending a live demonstration happening in another part of the venue or suggest to an academic that they attend a particular session based on the subject’s relevance to their past research.”

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