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Trade events lean on VR, as COVID-19 impact lingers

The coronavirus pandemic's unprecedented impact on industry conferences and events offers a unique opportunity for virtual reality companies.

Most recent trade shows, press conferences and summits have been postponed or canceled altogether due to travel bans and work-from-home policies resulting from the pandemic. However, some major events opted for digital-only formats this year, including the Collision tech summit, Facebook Inc.'s F8 developers conference and Microsoft Corp.'s Build conference.

Although digital events do allow enterprises to achieve certain goals such as connecting with partners and customers and unveiling new products, livestreams and video conferences have obvious limitations on the level of immersion they can provide to virtual attendees. VR could help fill some of those gaps, experts said, though some factors still stand in the way of the tech's widespread adoption.

VR alternative

"If enabling delegates to be at a virtual location mentally while physically at their computer is a goal, then virtual reality may have a role," said Ian Hughes, a senior analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence's 451 Research unit.

There are still limitations to what can be achieved through VR, Hughes acknowledged, but he said the technology offers a far more immersive experience than other online communication platforms. Meetings and presentations in a virtual world offer a "degree of differentiation" from other meetings held in a home office, he said, as "the visual cues and sense of presence act as mental bookmarks to recall conversations at specific locations and times."

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Virtual worlds also offer an alternative to video applications that hog a significant amount of bandwidth since they are built on game technology that only sends small updates or mathematical descriptions of content while generating a rich visual and animated experience using what is already stored on the user's device, Hughes said.

Events

Taiwanese consumer electronics company HTC Corp. recently held a tech conference that took place entirely in VR, using Engage, a collaborative training and education application that works with a variety of VR devices. The event drew 2,000 registrants from more than 55 countries.

Another upcoming event that will utilize VR for some of its content is the Augmented World Expo, or AWE, produced by AugmentedReality.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing AR tech. AWE will take place May 26 to May 29 and will allow attendees to view, interact and network with more than 200 speakers, 200 exhibitors and thousands of professionals working in AR and VR.

The event moved to an online format after it became clear in early March that the coronavirus would spread in the U.S.

"While many events are pushing their dates to the fall, there is no guarantee that things will return to a time where in-person meetings are viable, and hectic fall schedules are sure to prevent everyone from attending all the events they want to attend," Ori Inbar, co-founder and CEO of AugmentedReality.org and founder of AWE, told S&P Global Market Intelligence. "Given the current environment, an online event where anyone can join from the safety of their home seems to be the best option."

Notably, the digital format is attracting exhibitors, attendees and members of the press who were unable to attend before due to geographical, time or cost concerns. The digital format also will allow participants to attend certain sessions using a VR headset, a first for AWE.

Industry's future

According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence's Kagan unit, VR pulled in about $600 million in global consumer software revenue in 2019 and is expected to grow 72.5% to $1.04 billion in 2020. The VR industry is also forecast to maintain double-digit growth rates in the coming years, reaching $3.62 billion in 2024.

While VR and AR tech is seeing "huge" demand amid the COVID-19 crisis, production delays and belt tightening at corporations have nevertheless posed challenges during the pandemic, Inbar said.

"Fundraising, the lifeblood of crucial and innovative startups, has also stalled, as investors are fully focused on helping their portfolio companies survive, leaving little bandwidth for new deals," he said.

Still, once users experience VR alternatives to attending in-person events, Inbar thinks people will be much more comfortable utilizing the tech. However, like other businesses, he noted AR and VR companies will be navigating a post-virus global economy and feeling its impact for some time.

As consumers and companies try to cut costs, headset pricing may present even more of an obstacle in the wake of the pandemic. Even with recent technological advancements, 451's Hughes noted the hardware remains "expensive and clunky." Headsets from major manufacturers can range from $199 to $999 or more.

Headsets can also be uncomfortable to wear and, like other technologies, present security concerns, Hughes said.

"The chief concern, however, will be whether conference organizers and their customers are able to guarantee the lead flow or deal propulsion that they are used to getting from physical events," he said.

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