It’s harder to think of an industry that serves as a better demonstration of the transformation society has undergone over the last two years than events and exhibitions.
At the start of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic effectively killed the industry almost overnight. Or at least, it would have done if it wasn’t for the quick speed with which the best innovators in the field were able to react and adapt. Virtual events, concerts, exhibitions, performances, and trade shows quickly became a part of everyday life during lockdowns.
However, now restrictions on getting together in person are starting to (slowly) lift, organizers are looking forward to getting back to doing what they do best – bringing people together under one roof to enjoy, celebrate or learn about the things that are important to them. It’s fair to say that there’s no real sense of “getting back to normal” - everyone’s aware that something fundamental has changed. And lessons learned during the pandemic will clearly play a big part in the industry’s future. So here’s a look at some of the technology trends shaping events and exhibitions in the real world and the virtual world.
Virtual events are here to stay
Just about every business that relies on events for marketing and to connect with customers quickly learned how to leverage virtual events during the pandemic. Although in-person events are now once again feasible in many parts of the world, businesses will continue to host virtual or hybrid events simply because they have been so successful.
Virtual event platforms like Hopin and Run The World became incredibly popular and attracted record levels of investment during the time that in-person events were off the menu. This wouldn’t have happened if they were purely seen as a stop-gap solution. Pandemic or no pandemic, running an event as a hybrid event – taking place both virtually and in-person – or offering a virtual “digital twin” of an in-person event – instantly makes it more accessible. CES, for example – the world's largest entertainment trade show – took place as both a virtual event and an in-person event in 2022, and organizers have said it's unlikely to ever return to solely being an in-person event. One thing that's clear is that we can expect virtual and hybrid events to continue to play a part in event organizers' strategies for the foreseeable future.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are blockchain tokens that have so far been primarily used for proving ownership of digital assets. However, proponents of the technology have said it has uses far beyond this and has the potential to impact every industry. This includes events and live performances where it could be used for ticketing as well as creating exclusive digital souvenirs, among other things. Could 2022 be the year when this becomes a reality? Well, the signs are there that it might be. For example, organizers of the Coachella festival, which takes place annually in California, USA, have said they will issue exclusive NFTs, which will work as lifetime passes to the event. Due to their transferable nature, if whoever owns one doesn't want to go to the festival in a particular year (or possibly ever again), they will simply be able to sell their NFT to someone else. It's also predicted that uses will be found for NFTs in ticketing due to their secure yet easily transferable nature, meaning they could act as a deterrent to counterfeiting and illegal reselling. This makes them particularly attractive in an industry where up to 12% of people who buy tickets online have reported being scammed. As trending objects of desire, NFTs are also increasingly popular as giveaways in attendee swag bags. JPMorgan gave attendees of its first Crypto Economy Forum free NFTs as an incentive to attend last year (one of which was immediately put up for sale with a price of $1.8 million, although it’s not known if anyone bought it!)
Metaverse is a term for connected, persistent online worlds where users connect, often using avatars and virtual reality, in ways that are more immersive and engaging than existing online channels such as websites and social media. Some of the most exciting early examples of this have been event-based – including music performances put on by the likes of Ariana Grande and Travis Scott in the videogame Fortnite. In 2022, Warner Music is planning on hosting performances inside the Sandbox virtual world, which will take place in its own custom-built virtual venue. Meta is also getting in on the game by inviting artists to perform in its Horizon Venues virtual reality platform. These events go beyond the virtual event formats that have exploded in popularity during the global pandemic, mainly because they take place in persistent worlds, like Fortnite or Horizon Venues, rather than within sessions that exist purely within virtual event platforms or even Zoom or Teams streams, that are simply spun down when the event finishes. Artists could also have a persistent, recognizable "look" in the metaverse – Universal, for example, has unveiled digital avatars of leading artists, including Justin Bieber, Rihanna, and Shawn Mendes. The idea is that stars will have a persistent look even as they travel between metaverse venues, just as they would look the same in real life when performing in different real-world venues.
Live Event Technology
Even though virtual events have been great when it comes to maintaining connections during the pandemic, there’s certainly a keenness among events organizers and marketers, in general, to get back to organizing in-person events. After all, until the metaverse truly reaches the stage where we can’t tell the difference between real and virtual, there’s still nothing like meeting someone face-to-face when it comes to building connections. And when it comes to concerts and performances, you still can’t beat the buzz of knowing you’re right where the action is, for real.
With live events, just as with virtual ones, technology is playing an increasingly big part in creating new, exciting, and immersive audience experiences. Take, for example, Abba's return to the stage. This year, audiences in London will get the chance to see the pop megastars performing live as they did when they were in their 1970s heyday, thanks to the magic of hologram technology. Other artists, including K-Pop stars BTS, have also experimented with on-stage holograms in recent years, allowing more people to see their idols performing in front of their eyes. Similar technology is sure to make its way into corporate events – such as Microsoft’s HoloLens-powered keynote speaker that’s able to address audiences in different languages.
Other novelties designed to create live experiences that rival the entertainment possibilities of virtual experiences include 3D cubes that project images at the visitor from every direction to create immersive new booth experiences. We will also see AR used more frequently, such as one innovative system that lets visitors to exhibitions project directional arrows and offer real-time recommendations on which booths and stands they should visit next. This trading of ideas between real and virtual events mirrors the developments we’ve seen in retail, as bricks ‘n’ mortar stores seek to adopt functionality from e-commerce to drive increased customer engagement.
The shifting of events into the virtual world and even to the metaverse could put an end to one of the fundamental rules of events – that they happen at a set time! According to Adam Parry of Event Industry News, the fact that events will happen virtually and attendees - as well as guests, sponsors, speakers, and stars – can join in from anywhere in the world means that eventually, they will be able to join from any time, too. With chatbots, AI-powered avatars, and metaverse venues that never need to close, why limit attendees from visiting and enjoying events to a restricted set of hours? Different content can be put on for attendees in different time zones, or everything can be entirely on-demand and accessible whenever it’s convenient for attendees. It’s also been suggested that this could be the answer to challenges around synchronizing online and in-person content delivery for hybrid events. While this is mostly just theoretical at the moment, and we can expect the majority of events that take place in the next few years to have defined start and end times, the concept of an “event that never ends” is something we’re likely to see brands and organizers start to give serious thought to.
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Joining me for a conversation recently, he told me, "The way I think about it is there's a little bit of a timing mismatch between the frenzy and the reality … the internet first came out in the late 60s, but it wasn't until the world wide web came along … in 91 or 92 … that we actually had the ‘killer app’ for the internet. Email was great, but it wasn’t the game-changer.”
If you've been following the hype and excitement that has built up around the concept of a decentralized, autonomous web3, it's possible you might suggest that NFTs – non-fungible tokens – as the "killer app." After all, they are sold to us based on their potential to let digital assets have qualities like scarcity and uniqueness. This certainly sounds like it could be a game-changer in a world where the metaverse – digital realities where we live our lives in immersive environments – are apparently just around the corner. In such a world, in order for anything – from a house to a pair of shoes – to have value, wouldn’t it need to be unique, so it couldn’t just be copied and pasted to create an infinite amount of duplicates?
Well, it’s a possibility, but O’Reilly isn’t necessarily convinced: “I’m a little bit more interested in DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) – because I do think there’s something really potentially interesting there.
A DAO is a concept that's been described as an "internet community with a shared bank." They act similarly to companies or statutory organizations in the sense that members are bound to follow a set of rules and regulations. The difference is that the rules are governed by blockchain-based smart contracts that can automatically execute functions – such as making payments – when terms are fulfilled.
“But it’s still so early … here we are at the very beginning … if you think back to the first search engine, Web Crawler was 1994 – and you started to have this thing called CGI where you could have a dynamic website rather than a static site at around the same time, we’re kind of at that stage – so we have the late-stage bubble five years too early. There are huge fortunes being made, long before the technology is really developed or the winning players have emerged.
“If we match up the timelines … the ‘crypto Google’ is still not here. It may not be here for another five years, and yet … companies are being valued as if they’re already in this dominant, working future.”
What’s missing is the way to generate real value – which often means money. With the first iteration of the internet, it can be said that this didn’t happen until the invention of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, as pioneered by Google during the early 00s. Before that, businesses jumped onto various bandwagons, starting with the concept of commercial websites and later moving onto banner advertising. While both filled their purpose of allowing commercial organizations to establish a presence on the nascent world-wide-web and begin developing a digital footprint, it didn't bring about mainstream acceptance of the internet as a channel for business and marketing and delivering new customer experiences.
O'Reilly tells me, "There are so many areas where somebody's going to invent a totally new way to do something, in the same way, that PPC advertising was utterly transformative of the advertising business – and that’s where things like DAOs are interesting … it's got some different elements that make it more powerful, so people can come together and they can finance a project collectively … but they haven't actually figured out all the ways that it works, the governance, how do you actually buy real-world assets and control them … but guess what – that was how the web worked in the early days!”
It's certainly very early days for everything involved with the web3 concept right now. While everyone may seem to be focused on what seems to be the quick and easy route to making piles of money offered by NFTs or cryptocurrency, we have no way of knowing what real innovation might be just around the corner. If web3 and all the concepts it encompasses – from DAOs to cryptocurrency – really can solve problems, like the enormous infrastructure requirements of running existing organizational and financial systems, and the reliance on trust to pin it all together, then it could kickstart the revolution we’ve been told is coming. But there’s a lot more that needs to be worked out before we get to that point, and possibly a bumpy ride for some of the companies and individuals that are already pouring money into it!