Dave Thorpe
Head of Business Growth
10 min read

Augmented and Virtual Reality in Event Spaces

The aim of this piece is to explore some technologies which are having an increasing effect on a number of areas but have seen impressive levels of adoption in the event space. Many of us will now have been to an industry conference and seen some of this cool technology on display to entice visitors to a stand or to help explain or visualise a complicated piece of machinery or concept.

In fact the event space is one of the ideal uses for these technologies as the most limiting factor is often the space you have to work with on the floor or the limitations of what you can bring into that space. By adopting either VR or AR technologies you can often increase the effective area you have to work with or show potential clients things they’d normally be unable to see in a 3m by 3m space.

Augmented and virtual reality games and experiences are nothing new. In fact Virtual Reality has been around in some form since the late 1970s, though mostly only accessible to those who worked at NASA or MIT, and by the early 90s companies like Virtuality were releasing some pretty crude and clunky consumer headsets. Augmented reality powers popular games like Pokemon Go but has been around in its current guise basically since the first smartphones implemented gyroscopes. You might remember pointing your phone at the sky to identify stars or to see flight paths as early examples of AR mobile apps.

To get an idea of just how quickly these areas are growing it’s a good idea to look at some statistics around their take up. The global augmented reality and virtual reality market size for 2020 is predicted to be around 18.8 billion US dollars but this isn’t taking into account the number of businesses who are essentially turning to these tools to improve communication in light of the coronavirus emergency. Behind gaming and training, the events sector makes up the third largest sector in terms of investment in the AR and VR marketplace.

VR

Virtual reality essentially means immersing yourself in the digital content. So, if you see people wearing VR goggles that they put on their faces and the context around them has been removed from them so they can immerse themselves inside the digital world that the developers have created; you’re looking at a virtual reality experience. Often these experiences, even at professional events, use consumer grade VR headsets such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or Valve Index and powerful gaming PCs or laptops. This is a testament to how far consumer VR has come in the past ten years; from something of a joke to replacing professional VR equipment for the most part by hitting a sweet spot between cost and performance.

Some great examples of using virtual reality in event spaces come from the likes of Intel, Coca Cola and NRMA Insurance. NRMA notably used virtual reality to simulate car crashes at various speeds in order to promote their insurance policies and road safety. This works so well because when you’re inside a VR headset you are completely immersed in the world around you.

Covid-19 has potentially created a new type of event entirely, the virtual event! Due to ongoing social distancing it is becoming more likely that companies will eschew the traditional event space in order to meet in a virtual space instead. With virtual reality available even on low-mid end smartphones now the barrier to entry may well be low enough for users to be enticed into a virtual space. As early as 2014 Google built a usable headset out of cardboard and an Android phone which they gave away to attendees at their I/O conference. In 2018 the New York Times even sent the Google Cardboard VR headsets to all of their over 1 million subscribers through the post so they could easily access their VR content.

AR

Augmented reality is essentially creating a digital window by taking a mobile device like a tablet or a mobile phone and using it as the window that you look through in order to experience digital content. You see the digital content overlaid on the physical surroundings you’re standing in. This can work incredibly well in a number of ways in the event space. It gives you the option to have users interact with your physical space in new and interesting ways or even to expand or accessorise it.

There are a couple of different ways in which you can achieve this. You can allow a user to download an app which you have made specially for the event and is compatible with both Android and iOS devices. Alternatively you can provide a specified device with your app preloaded to guests at your stand. Both have advantages and disadvantages but are equally valid ways to approach AR in an event stand.

If you choose to bring a device which is already set up you may see reduced costs in the development of your app as you remove the need to support an increasingly fragmented marketplace.

By, for example, designing your app from the ground up to run only on an iPad Pro you are removing the requirement of supporting alternative devices with odd resolutions, different operating systems or insufficient specifications to run the app optimally or possibly even to run the app in the first place.

Using an iPad or other tablet can also make these experiences more immersive as the user’s window into the digital content is larger and more tactile. If you’re dealing with older, less tech savvy generations these devices can be far more user friendly with larger keyboards and forms for taking contact information. It also means that each user of the application will speak to a member of your staff at the stand; providing an all-important contact.

If you design an app which can then be distributed at the event you are allowing the user to use their own device which they’re comfortable with and are not limited to the number of devices you’ve brought to the event. You can potentially design an app which will use up a much greater space than just the floorspace you have to allow you to virtually extend your borders to create an impact as you’re no longer limited by keeping your expensive iPads in sight of a staff member at all times. By utilising cross-platform development tools you can reduce development times and costs to some extent while supporting a wide variety of devices. This option can work really well if you’re not attempting to display super high resolution content and are comfortable with the fact that each user’s experience may differ slightly due to their device.

With both options it’s a great idea to lock your content behind a contact form or very short survey to grab user details or to have a quick user survey at the end of the experience in order to filter potential leads effectively. If your content is social media friendly you could even have them share the output of their AR experience via LinkedIn or Twitter for a free marketing campaign.

MR

Though currently less frequently used Mixed Reality (MR) is also worth mentioning as it combines both virtual and augmented reality. Here the user is wearing a headset device again but while users are being immersed in the digital content they are still aware of their physical surroundings so that they can interact with both physical and digital objects at the same time.  This is commonly achieved using the same consumer-grade headsets as the VR rundown above but unfortunately is difficult to pull off using the mobile VR options due to camera differences. The front mounted camera on the user’s headset allows the VR headset to display the world around them while incorporating digital elements.

This is often a more expensive solution than the more affordable VR or AR solutions as it does require some high end kit to pull off well but it is likely to be the next area explored in the event space. The results can be truly breathtaking whilst being less intimidating to new users of VR as they can still see the “real world”. Some specialist MR devices do exist but so far have seen limited takeup (is anybody wearing Google Glass any more?) and are designed more around day to day wear.

In Conclusion

Now they’re passed their early technical limitations AR, VR and MR are here to stay. We may not have reached the tipping point of mass adoption in the home (certainly in the case of virtual reality headsets) but we have reached the point where creating affordable but impressive experiences at events is not only a possibility but increasingly a requirement.

Here at Indiespring we’ve worked with these technologies in the past for clients like Manchester Digital in order to improve engagement at events and have years of experience in creating incredible apps. If you’d like to find out more or have any questions regarding using these technologies yourself do feel free to reach out or subscribe to our Insights to see more relevant content.