by Matt Alderton | July 06, 2016
It's just 8 inches wide and weighs only 11 ounces. Yet inside the Samsung Gear VR ($99.99) headset is a world's worth of experiences. Literally. Wearing it, you can visit the Great Pyramid of Giza, roam the Acropolis of Athens, explore the Great Barrier Reef, watch a Rolling Stones concert from the front row and even walk the surface of Mars. And because you can actively explore the three-dimensional, 360-degree environments around you, you'll feel like you're actually, physically there.

"There" could be an exotic vacation spot, a faraway historic site or a once-in-a-lifetime entertainment destination. Just as easily, it could be a serious business locale that's much closer to home -- like the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., which is one of several meeting venues the District of Columbia's convention and sports authority, Events DC, is promoting through its new virtual reality program. Launched last month, the program utilizes three Samsung Gear VR headsets through which Events DC will show an immersive sales video to prospective clients. Meeting planners who wear the headsets during sales meetings, trade shows, and special events will experience Fight Night, an annual boxing fundraiser held last year at the D.C. Armory; the Washington Auto Show, held every year at the convention center; and Color Vibe, a 5k run that takes place at D.C.'s RFK Stadium. In so doing, Events DC says, they'll see up close and personal the types of events that D.C. venues can produce. And, hopefully, feel the energy and excitement behind them.

"Events DC is taking event engagement to the next level with the unveiling of fully immersive virtual reality experiences across our… lines of business," boasts Events DC President and CEO Greg O'Dell, who says future videos are planned to showcase planned and existing venues in their "raw" form, giving planners a blank slate on which to visualize their own events. "We are committed to enhancing and delivering amazing customer experiences and this initiative… further demonstrates our monumental stride to drive technology initiatives across our venues."

In case you thought it was reserved for video games and entertainment, Events DC and other early adopters are demonstrating that virtual reality -- or VR -- can be just as powerful for business as it can be for pleasure. Especially when that business involves meetings and events, which with the arrival of VR are on the cusp of a new era in event planning, promotion, and engagement.

A New Reality
Although it's still in its nascent stages, VR has tremendous potential in the meetings industry, agrees meetings technology consultant Corbin Ball, president of Corbin Ball Associates.

"The major technology companies -- Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook -- have all invested billions of dollars into virtual reality, and we're just starting to see the benefits of their investments coming out now," Ball says. "There's going to be a lot of changes in the next two to three years as these products work their way into the consumer market. And as they become a regular part of the consumer playing field, they're going to work their way into events."

When they do, the applications for meeting planners, exhibitors, and attendees will be numerous. Among the most exciting:

Virtual site inspections: Venue previews and tours being offered by destination marketing organizations like Events DC will only become more sophisticated and immersive, saving planners time and money by allowing them to create a shortlist of venues without physically visiting them.

"When it comes to planning events, organizers can view virtual experiences of conference halls and venues to get a life-like idea of what holding their event at a specific location in a particular city will be like," says Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and co-founder of YouVisit, a provider of interactive VR experiences. "While organizers will have to actually go to a venue to completely plan the event, VR helps them narrow down the list, making for a much easier planning process and a lot of money saved."

Event marketing: In the same way that destinations and venues can use VR to market themselves to meeting planners, meeting planners can use VR to market their events to meeting attendees.

"The promotional process is where event planners can really take advantage of what VR has to offer," Mandelbaum says. "By capturing previous events in VR, organizers can better market to potential event attendees, speakers, and sponsors in a way that still photos and videos just cannot accomplish. Virtual reality puts the viewer in the middle of the event and allows them to control what and how they explore it, ensuring that they are able to see the things that matter the most to them."

The goal won't be replacing live attendance, but rather promoting it. "Virtual reality gives viewers the opportunity to experience an event or destination before committing to traveling and attending themselves. Because of this, VR is the ultimate marketing and sales tool: What better way to entice someone to come to your conference than giving them the chance to actually see what it's like to attend?" continues Mandelbaum. "Virtual reality should never be a replacement for physical reality, but rather a motivator to get the viewer to take action and actually visit a location or event."

Virtual product demonstrations: Exhibitors will be able to get in on the action, too, according to Ball, who at a recent trade show used VR goggles to remotely visit an offshore oil rig where he witnessed drilling operations against a backdrop of waves and whales.

"It puts you in places you could never be otherwise," says Ball, who envisions a future where exhibitors can use VR at trade shows to promote products and services they previously could only tease with websites and brochures. Lockheed Martin could take customers inside its latest spacecraft, for instance, while Pfizer could take them on a tour of its labs. "Instead of lugging in thousands of tons of equipment, you could do a virtual demo on the show floor using virtual reality tools. It's the closest thing we have so far to the Star Trek holodeck."

Interactive education: One piece of VR technology that Ball is watching closely is Microsoft's HoloLens, which creates a "mixed reality" experience by layering 3D holographic images on top of the physical environment. Although the technology has numerous potential applications at meetings and events, one is as a visual aid to speakers during education sessions, who could use holograms instead of PowerPoint decks to illustrate their presentations.

"HoloLens is now in the hands of the developer community, so we're going to see some opportunities emerge there for collaboration and group experiences," Ball says.

The Future, Today
Those are just a few of the ways meeting stakeholders are expected to deploy VR when the technology reaches its tipping point. Although that's still a couple of years away, experts agree, meeting planners can put themselves ahead of the curve by experimenting now.

"The biggest challenge for VR right now is that it has not yet reached mass consumer adoption. Viewing immersive experiences on advanced headsets like the Oculus Rift ($600) or HTC Vive ($799) offer the highest quality experience; however, most consumers do not yet own these devices," Mandelbaum says. "This hurdle can be easily navigated by reaching people on devices they already use. Think mobile. By putting immersive experiences on mobile applications, organizers can offer inexpensive Google Cardboard ($15) headsets to potential attendees or sponsors, providing an engaging virtual reality experience that's likely to push them over the edge into being part of their event."

The biggest hurdle to experimentation isn't distributing VR content; rather, it's creating it.

"The biggest challenge right now is content," according to Ball, who says planners can create their own VR content -- do-it-yourselfers will need a 360-degree camera like the Samsung Gear 360 ($350) or a 3D camera like the Matterport Pro 3D ($4,500) -- or hire a VR company to create it for them.

Whichever route you go, the key to success -- today and tomorrow -- is creating VR content that is simultaneously neat and needed.
 
"VR is a whole new medium, and unlike photos or video this new technology gives the creator the chance to produce the most engaging content, ultimately helping them to effectively hook viewers into participating in their event. But only if the content is interesting and interactive!" Mandelbaum says. "Event organizers first need to understand which specific aspects of their conference will intrigue viewers. Capturing a wide array of interesting experiences from the event will ensure you're giving viewers a full 360-degree view -- pun intended -- of the conference. Furthermore, interactivity is an increasingly important part of VR and organizers will want to consider layering information within their experiences to offer the most complete and informative content possible."


One thing's for sure: Whether you plan to visit the Great Wall of China or the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, getting there has never been easier.