Why Conferences Should Embrace VR & Gamification Now

As COVID-19 changes the position of many, if not all, industries, it’s undeniable that conferences have been greatly impacted. 

Nearly all conferences and user groups have been canceled, postponed, or in the case of all Microsoft 1st and 2nd tier conferences, gone digital through at least July 2021. Conferences have been an essential resource for us at PixelMill for many years. We have used them for networking, extended learning, marketing, sales, and sharing our knowledge with the community. They are a great way to get to know people in your industry, build new relationships, partnerships, and expand your knowledge. But I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know; what’s important to note is that nearly everything in that list is arguably more challenging to foster online.  

 

CHALLENGES 

Networking is one of the most beneficial aspects of a conference. New friendships, partnerships, business deals, and ideas are forged in the organic landscape that a conference provides. Aimlessly wandering the expo hall and bumping into a potential product or client, plopping down next to your next big partnership opportunity by chance at lunch, or sitting next to your future business partner in a session serendipitously were all possible IRL. As we move to virtual conferences, I wonder how we can replicate this organic environment? 

Video chat offers a way to bring body language and tone to the conversation. The jury is still out on the exact numbers, but most communications researchers agree that nearly 90% of communication is non-verbal. So turning on our cameras for collaborative moments is key. Virtual happy hours, workshops, and partner chats are all made more ‘human’ via video. That being said, it’s difficult to have a side conversation in these settings, and it’s often difficult to get a word in edgewise if the meeting is too large (although the new raise hand feature in Microsoft Teams certainly helps!).  

But how do we create those serendipitous moments? Much like wandering the aisles at Target, sometimes you don’t know what you NEED—like a mini picnic table for your condiments—until it’s right in front of you. Que my crazy, or perhaps not so crazy, concept of a VR conference hall, or at the very least a digital open-world style environment like we’d experience in World of Warcraft, The Sims, or Second Life.  

 

“SOLUTIONS” 

Everyone gets a front-row seat 

Virtual Reality (VR) transports you to a new world and immerses you in it. While VR may seem intangible or impractical for the office, 34 VR work apps prove otherwise. Why on earth would you need this for conference attendance? With VR, you can tune in and experience the keynote as if you’re seated in the conference hall, but the greatest perk? Everyone gets a front-row view. This isn’t a novel concept, I know. Organizations have been using VR solutions like Engage to create virtual keynote experiences. So how can VR help make the digital conference feel more ‘real’? 

 

Practical applications 

The expo hall is filled with demonstrations, and many require hands-on experience to get the full effect. Que VR product demos so users can see models in 3D and interact with them, much like Holodeck by one of our clients NVIDIA, a Vinnovation platform that brings designers, peers, and stakeholders together from anywhere in the world to build and explore creations in a highly realistic, collaborative, and physically simulated VR environment. Perhaps SharePoint Spaces will help play a role in this space soon? 

 

Gamify the experience

Gamification is more than just a buzz word; it gets results. So how can gamification help digital conferences feel more like the real deal? The Expo Hall of a physical conference is buzzing not just because people are interested in talking shop (while it is still a big part of the experience); every sponsor is fighting for attendees’ attention. Conference planners and sponsors already gamify the experience with reward programs and prizes. So why not incorporate this into the digital experience. Tokens and badges can be applied for visiting a virtual booth, attending a sponsored session, or demo. You could further amplify this with social media integrations, sharing content and exposure beyond the conference platform itself. Again, I realize these are not novel ideas, but as a package, mixed reality can help a digital event feel more interactive and “real”. 

 

Take off your mask (no, not the fabric one!) 

But what about those happenstance encounters? How do we recreate those? Well, in an open-space virtual world, your avatar could roam the halls and bump into fellow attendees. To truly humanize this experience, however, I argue that the VR headset becomes an issue now. Here’s where I’d want to see the headset come off and video chat begin. As you can see, the reality is a mixed reality environment is likely the only solution to get close to the real deal.  

 

Humanizing the digital 

We face similar challenges in the digital workspace. How do we humanize it? We’ve adopted many practical solutions and practices that help our remote team feel connected; video chat, virtual watercoolers, and daily standups are just a few examples. Microsoft Teams has played a paramount role in this connectivity.  

Many of our clients have struggled with similar virtual challenges that the conference industry is now facing. The impromptu conversations in the break room or hallway can uncover hidden talents, or introduce you to a team member with a skill set your latest project desperately needs. We’ve seen these issues addressed with gamification of digital-workspace user-profiles and ways to search for people based on skills or ‘hidden talents’ helping recreate some of the organic knowledge sharing that occurs in the brick and mortar environment.  

 

The answer: 

I’d love to say I hold the solution to recreating those organic conversations over coffee in the conference hall, but alas, I don’t. Still, I am excited to see how our genius, innovative, and creative industry tackles this one. In the meantime, I’ll just keep updating my background in MS Teams to transport me to The Shire for my next conference call.  

Does your digital workspace need some humanizing? Are you struggling to bring your brick and mortar culture virtually? A PixelMill digital workspace champion would love to chat with you today.  

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