March 8, 2023
Virtual reality (VR) is only one in a long line of disruptive technologies that have gone through the Gartner Hype Cycle. By Gartner’s own analysis, VR has passed the “peak of inflated expectations” and is well into the inevitable “trough of disillusionment.” But others, especially those with a vested interest (Meta) or members of the gaming community, would have you believe that VR is everything the virtual meeting and training community needs. In response to this, most business leaders are showing justifiable caution.
While VR simulations are effective in situations involving potential danger, its use in most training situations is limited, due to the expense of equipment, and a small percentage of participants are not able to do it due to issues with motion sickness. But this doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea of a virtual meeting environment that approximates a physical location.
Human beings generally do better when in a visually familiar environment. Actual event venues, like hotels and conference centers, create mental cues that prepare us to experience new information. So, even a digital approximation of physical space has advantages over viewing only a series of PowerPoint presentations and talking head videos. It can also help streamline complex virtual training events.
To put our theory into practice, we worked with one of our partners, vConferenceOnline, to develop a robust, flexible solution. Our goal was to create not only a familiar visual interface but also one that would work seamlessly with many common virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, Adobe© Connect™ Pro, Webex, and others to help us better manage events with multiple registration types as well as the need to break participants out into different meeting or webinar rooms.
By the latter, I mean, attendees may only be allowed to attend certain sessions based on their role, geography, or sales force alignment. In the real world, this has always been handled using color-coded badges, capable staff, and printed or mobile program guides. But in the virtual environment, attendees can easily get lost, show up at the wrong time, or enter the wrong “room.” A complex event may also require multiple breakout session levels, something beyond the capability of typical event platforms.
Before now, this complexity had to be managed by issuing multiple URLs for each type of attendee, and either making sure that each attendee received only the URLs that matched their registration type or sending a participant guide that contained the URLs and trusting they would only enter the rooms they were supposed to enter. This not only created confusion for many users but also was vulnerable to last-minute changes. If a session was delayed, for example, the affected users would have to be notified, possibly issued an updated URL, or asked not to log in until the new time. In our experience, this put additional burdens on our already busy virtual event producers and multiplied the potential for user frustration and dissatisfaction.
The Virtual Venue uses a single URL for all attendees. Once a registered user logs in, they enter a customizable “Conference Lobby,” containing a welcome video (#1 on the first screen) and an array of navigation controls (#2), which can also be modified or omitted.
When the user enters the “sessions lobby” (second screen), their registration type is recognized by the system, so that they have access only to the sessions they are qualified or aligned to attend. Each session is summarized and includes the scheduled start time. If an event is delayed, the start time can be adjusted by the event producer, and an explanatory video message added if the user enters prematurely.
Unlike other platforms, the Virtual Venue does not have its own, multi-user virtual meeting interface, although it does allow the livestreaming of keynotes and plenary sessions. Instead, each interactive session is handled in Zoom, Teams, or whatever platform is desired (see Session Room Below). A single meeting could even use multiple platforms within the same event. Users can participate in platform-specific breakout sessions, but if more complex events are involved, they can return to the conference lobby and enter another session.
Other optional features of the Virtual Venue include an exhibit hall or pre-work area, where sponsors and others can present demonstrations, educational opportunities, and initiate requests for follow-up meetings. (This will be discussed in more detail in Part 2.) As with the other meeting components, these screens are highly customizable and responsive to tablet and mobile screens.
In Part 2, we will review some of the best practices involved in selecting a platform for complex events, but a brief overview is important here. There are indeed other platforms we work with that provide a more game-like experience, including user avatars or a video street view-like experience. These typically involve greater expense and computing power by each user’s device. Some also require the installation of a special app on the user’s device, which entails a lengthy IT review for security purposes.
While this solution may not win any gaming awards, it does reflect the state of virtual training for large, complex corporate environments. By providing a familiar visual experience, a simplified URL strategy, and user management, and by leveraging existing virtual event platforms, we are confident that it is well on the way toward Gartner’s “plateau of productivity.”
Lee Deaner is President of Leading Edge Training Solutions, a leading producer of virtual and hybrid events, informational meetings, and training programs since 2009. He is also co-author of The Virtual Events Playbook, available on Amazon and from Amplify Publishing.