‘An immediate sense of co-presence’: Firms turn to VR as bridge for in-person connections at conferences, events

Illustration of a virtual conference waiting room.

I’m standing on the ground floor at a conference when I spot a delegate who I wish to talk to on the balcony above. So I press the trigger on my hand controller and a green laser beam instantly flies me to her side.

You can’t do that on a Zoom call. Neither can you teleport yourself from one conference space to another like an intergalactic traveller. One moment I was in a luxurious high-rise meeting space overlooking the coastline of Miami Beach, the next I had zapped myself to a sun-kissed outdoor space to catch a presentation that leaped out of a giant screen in 3D.

These are among the joys of attending a conference in virtual reality. There’s no walking to the venue in the rain, no queuing for a crowded lift, and no missing a keynote because the room was full. More pertinently in a pandemic that has forced conferences from CES to Davos to go digital, VR offers a more engaging experience than the outside-looking-in feel of being one of hundreds of faces in a video link.

After years of largely failing to deliver on its promise, VR’s time might have come. VR is being used in podcast production because it captures “subtleties, gestures and warmth” that are lost in distanced interaction, says Karolina Komarnicka, of The Leadership Network’s The Real Place podcast. The technology is bringing “a sense of material presence” to art installations during lockdown, says Louis Jebb, arts commentator and CEO of VR company Immersivly.

“When you put on a headset you have complete attention,” says Andrew Hawken, CEO of Mesmerise, a technology company which creates conferences in VR. “It’s like physically going to an event, you dedicate time and go, as opposed to vaguely paying attention to a screen while doing your emails or shopping.”

I’m speaking to Hawken’s avatar as he takes me on a virtual tour. It’s like Obi-Wan Kenobi training a Jedi apprentice as we flit around the venue by firing beams at the floor. The intention is not to create an otherworldly experience but “an immediate sense of co-presence,” something that’s missing from the remote working culture of 2021. “VR offers a unique way to be in the same environment together,” he says.

We use our lasers to “snap on” to armchairs, turning to face each other as you would at real life conferences. Spacial audio ensures you only hear voices of delegates nearby. Avatars come with names so that delegates can connect with people they know but also make new contacts, including sponsors and speakers.

Early in the pandemic, Mesmerise produced a VR-based investment conference for Morningstar, the financial services giant. It replicated the McCormick Place Convention Center in Morningstar’s hometown, Chicago, and delegates were able to take part in “Morningstar Sustainable City”, a VR game that demonstrated the impact of ethical investment choices on the world around them.

“We noticed attendees were highly engaged and appreciated the added flexibility VR gave them when it came to choosing which talks and presentations to attend,” says Leslie Marshall, Morningstar’s head of experiential marketing. Mesmerise is organizing a 500-delegate Morningstar conference in VR later this year.

Logistical issues, however, present a barrier to VR’s growth in events. If “Zoom anxiety” is already a source of stress for some workers, the thought of using a VR headset could be even more intimidating. Mesmerise offers to train delegates in using the technology, which Hawken says has gone from “a big cumbersome thing”, costing thousands of dollars, to a lightweight wireless headset, priced $299 for Facebook’s Oculus Quest model. 

VR conferences offer savings in hotel costs, flights, travel time and venue rental but future events may take a hybrid path to offer physical and VR versions, allowing delegates to choose whether to travel.

A former BBC producer, Hawken joined Microsoft (he was editor-in-chief of MSN U.S.) in 1996 at “the birth of the consumer Internet.” He sees similar potential in VR. “I’m seeing a lot of the same things play out; the power of the device is going up, the price is dropping, it’s becoming portable.”

Mesmerise is planning a VR conference for a global accountancy firm in September and Hawken says the technology can be used for more regular engagements, such as business meetings, board meetings and one-on-ones. 

VR’s success in business depends not on novelty, but on creating the best environments for conference delegates to absorb information and for business meetings to achieve desired outcomes. Avatar data can gauge the success of a presentation by identifying delegate emotions, from happiness to surprise, and measuring signals of affirmation and attentiveness made by VR audiences. “We are picking up nodding heads,” says Michael Fagan, Mesmerise chief data scientist.

We teleport to a boardroom — with panoramic views of a city or natural wonder of your choice — and onto a vast aircraft hangar of an exhibition hall (with minimal infrastructure costs). “There are absolutely no constraints on what you can do in VR,” says Hawken.

I take off my headset and am left with the strong impression that we have spent the past hour in the same building.

3 Questions with Paddy Affleck, Havas Media U.K. CEO

How are you preparing for hybrid working after the pandemic?
We’re exploring what the ideal hybrid working set up might look like, which includes how we reimagine our current office space so that it’s a more free-flowing environment designed for better collaboration and team working. And so it’s inspiring and productive for those moments when we are together in the office.

We’re are also thinking about individual circumstances and how we can prioritize workloads in a different way, so that instead of someone being involved throughout a project, for example, they’re only brought in when they’re needed, creating more fluid taskforces of sorts. Companies need to take people’s personal circumstances much more into account. The challenge is how do you scale that across an entire organization? This is the right time to be thinking about all those things. 

How easy was it to join a new business remotely? 
During my first few months, I met with my leadership team regularly to discuss various strategic imperatives, and trust was quickly established. I also made a concerted effort to meet with all of the client leaders and capability heads during my first few weeks to understand more about the work of their teams and to make myself more accessible to them. 

A significant challenge has been new business. The process of running pitches has remained the same but the circumstances in which you have had to do it have fundamentally changed. Trying to build chemistry with prospective clients hasn’t been easy — particularly when you’re met with a person’s initials vs. a friendly face —but we’ve found some great new ways to engage with prospects in a virtual setting.

How is the business adapting to keep pace with shifting advertiser needs?
We’re stripping away our own operating complexities to mobilize and enable teams that are smaller, faster and more diverse, to devise more creative and effective solutions to the challenges our clients face. Given the various headwinds businesses face coming out of the pandemic, their needs and requirements will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate. We therefore need a more fluid adaptation to the existing scope of work, where we constantly reassess things based on clients’ shifting needs. For example, we have a range of brand, digital transformation, comms and media strategists, but a client might need different strategists at different parts of a project. In this instance, a bank of strategy hours versus retained time of a named individual makes more sense. 

Most importantly is the need for all parties to be 100% aligned around the right KPIs to deliver against a client’s business goals. This will allow for more progressive fee models like value-based compensation, which will enable the agency to switch in and out different expertise along the way in the pursuit of better outcomes. — Seb Joseph, senior news editor, Digiday

Numbers don’t lie

  • 49% of 1,000 U.S workers have said they are likely to leave their current job if they’re unhappy or frustrated with the technology they use at work.
    [Source of data: Adobe/Workfront State of Work 2021 study.]
  • 62% of 2,000 U.S. remote workers said they want to relocate to another country, while two thirds of the 38% who want to remain in the U.S., plan to move to another city.
    [Source of data: Simform’s Remote Work Survey 2021.]
  • The average working hours between January 2020 and January 2021 drifted from 8:24 a.m. to 5:31 p.m, to 7:46 a.m to 6:12 p.m. The busiest time was 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
    [Source of data: Prodoscore Research Council’s Shifting Work Day Patterns report, which analyzed 900,000 data points from nearly 7,000 employees.]

What else we’ve covered

A good read

  • As reported by Liz Flora, of Digiday’s sister site Glossy, the gig economy touches a wide range of industries; Now the worlds of beauty, fashion marketing and PR are the latest to get their own platform for freelance work.

This newsletter is edited by Jessica Davies, managing editor, Future of Work, Digiday.


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