I love events and have spent the last several years traveling to support and speak at many different industry events. At their core, they’re all about creating memorable experiences and bringing together communities to learn, network, and build relationships.
Over the last few months, with work-from-home orders preventing in-person collaboration, we’re all more hungry for connection than ever. Webinar attendance has spiked around the globe, and systems have crashed trying to handle the throngs of online attendees to first-time virtual events.
With so many events going virtual and Zoom fatigue becoming the norm, we’re now seeing event organizers push past traditional 2D platforms such as On24, Microsoft Teams and Zoom in an effort to provide fuller immersion and engagement. The tools they’re using fit into two categories. I call them 2.5D and 3D.
The 2.5D platforms provide interfaces that mimic real-world environments complete with stock people or avatars. They are a step above the Zoom’s of the world but ultimately fail to pay off the promise of an immersive environment. They aren’t avatar driven and are simply a more interesting looking skin for 2D content. Some examples of these types of platforms include vFairs and MeetYoo.
Surprisingly, these platforms tend to be more expensive than the newer, 3D platforms that are currently emerging within the virtual event software space. vFairs starts at $8K per event and goes up from there, and many 2D and 2.5D platforms don’t offer “one and done” pricing; instead you need to enter into an annual contract in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Not your mother’s 3D
3D platforms on the other hand, offer true immersive spaces. They are created from 3D building blocks and allow for free movement within a virtual space. You can access many of these platforms not just with a VR headset but also via multiple devices, including smartphones and laptops, allowing for differing levels of immersion within the same event or experience. This helps make your virtual event strategy future-proof as more and more users move toward VR solutions for at-home work and productivity. 3D event platforms include MootUp, Breakroom, LearnBrite, VirBELA, Engage, AltSpace, and a handful of others.
Most of these platforms offer a monthly subscription rate, instead of an annual contract, as they are eager to onboard users. Breakroom’s monthly rate starts at $500 for 50 seats and increases based on the number of attendees. VirBELA offers an entire virtual campus that can accommodate 25,000 or more users starting at $2,500 per month. LearnBrite offers subscriptions starting at $99 per month that are VR ready and include voice and video conferencing and a full library of 3D assets, no coding required.
3D gaining momentum
By all reports, these up and coming 3D virtual event platforms have seen a sizable increase in demand since the outbreak of COVID-19. According to Alex Howland, President and Co-founder of VirBELA, the platform “has seen more than a 653% increase in virtual events and 12x increase in monthly active users.” The CEOs of MootUp, LearnBrite, and Breakroom also say they’ve experienced at least a 100% increase in demand since March.
VirBELA recently hosted the Laval Virtual World annual event on its platform, registering over 11,000 attendees from 150 nations and featuring six simultaneous session tracks with over 3,000 meetings. (See video of the experience above.) These numbers dispel the myth that VR-ready 3D virtual events can only support a small number of users. In fact, these newer 3D platforms are cloud-native, as opposed to some long-standing enterprise tech companies that still house everything on-prem. Relying on cloud giants like AWS and Google Cloud means scaling is “not an issue,” according to Breakroom CEO, Rohan Freeman. The ability to scale has gotten quite a bit of attention since the SAP’s system crashed during its virtual annual customer event last month. According to Freeman, his 3D platform recently supported millions of concurrent users during a national TV campaign rolled out across India.
3D makes memorable experiences
So why 3D? It’s all about creating those memorable experiences. Recent research has shown that users in virtual and 3D environments have improved learning outcomes and increased memory retention due to spatial presence. Embodying an avatar and engaging in a 3D world ignites areas of the brain typically reserved for physical encounters. It also allows for more self-expression through the ability to customize and animate avatars and peer-to-peer interaction.
If you are trying to recreate the benefits of in-person networking and create 1:1 connection during your virtual event, then 3D is a great option. I hosted a virtual “end-of-term” party for my University of Oregon students in LearnBrite as a small consolation for not being allowed to meet in-person. The event was a huge success, with students sitting around a virtual fire pit, enjoying virtual champagne and chatting well past the event had technically ended.
These spaces can be decked out with pre-built or custom 3D content. No need to meet in a standard office when you can meet virtually by a stream, on a beach, or even on the surface of Mars. 3D platforms are also offering integrations with the standard 2D event platforms. LearnBrite and MootUp are Zoom clients, allowing speakers to login and present in Zoom while the presentation seamlessly livestreams into the 3D environment. I recently attended a full-day, Data and Analytics Summit where a dozen back-to-back speakers seamlessly presented their slides and webcam from Zoom into a full, 3D auditorium.
You can also import and share product specific, 3D content. Complex machinery, consumer electronics, automotive, and other models can be imported into the 3D virtual space allowing for remote collaboration and discussion. With no more show floors housing the latest physical product, 3D event spaces are a real alternative allowing customers to interact with a product at home.
Headset vs. no headset
While each 3D event platform has varying levels of support across multiple devices, most do boast support for VR headsets. The number of users accessing these platforms via a headset are small at the moment, but it remains an important point of differentiation from the 2.5D and 2D event platforms that don’t offer any VR support.
For most virtual events, consuming the 3D, avatar-driven environment on a 2D device like a laptop or tablet, may be preferable, as VR headsets can be heavy, cumbersome, and too uncomfortable to wear for hours at a time. There needs to be an extremely compelling reason to use a VR or MR headset, like collaborating on 3D content or watching a 360-degree film or livestream.
Platforms like MootUp, LearnBrite, and Breakroom have been designed specifically with accessibility in mind and support a wide array of devices. Social VR platforms like AltSpaceVR and Engage were built for VR headsets and offer a more robust, VR-first experience, with limited capabilities on laptops and smartphones. Understanding the needs of your audience and how they plan on accessing the event is an essential first step to choosing the right 3D event platform.
A call for creativity
With Zoom fatigue setting in, now is the time to innovate and think creatively about building customer-centric, memorable virtual experiences. The tools and technology are only limited by our lack of imagination and fear of trying something new. Be bold. Be part of the XR revolution. There’s no turning back.
Lisa Peyton is an immersive media strategist and media psychologist focusing on the business applications of new technologies.