#RotterdamExperiment 1 – How mixed reality will add to the live event experience in the future

To gain insights and understanding of the global trends that will shape the future of the events industry, Rotterdam Partners Convention Bureau has launched a new series of hybrid events called The Rotterdam Experiment. It comprises seven ‘experiments’ that will take place on a bi-monthly basis, with each edition covering a new topic. These experiments will help event planners explore the topics of virtual reality (VR) technology, gaming and community building, imaginations and digital disruption, event health and safety, Big Data, Internet Of Things and mobility, architecture and storytelling and artificial intelligence (AI). 

The first experiment took place on 3rd December 2020. It was entitled ‘Mixed Reality: Let’s Meet in VR!’. This experiment took place at Postillion Hotel & Convention Centre WTC Rotterdam and was moderated by Mirjam van de Kamp, Account Manager Convention Bureau at Rotterdam Partners. It offered both online and offline audiences a theoretical and practical glimpse into the world of mixed reality using VR technology.

In my previous blog article, I shared the first part of this event—highlights from a keynote delivered by Yuri van Geest, a Rotterdam-based futurist and best-selling author. In this article, I’d like to share with you the second part of the event highlights that included a VR demonstration by AltspaceVR and a Q&A with VR expert Freek Teunen, followed by a roundtable discussion with event industry leaders who shared their experiences from recent months. They discussed how they pivoted their events and daily operations into the virtual space. The panel included Marjan van der Haar, managing director of International Film Festival Rotterdam, Carola van der Hoeff, who is the Chief Operating Officer and Congress Director at International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP), Kris Stabel, who works as a Senior Educationalist and Head of Educational Advice and Training at Risbo (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Yuri van Geest and was moderated by Mirjam van de Kamp.

Introduction to VR technology for events 

It was time to experiment first hand with VR technology and learn what it can do for our events. Virtual attendees were invited to download the software to create their own avatars and explore the virtual space that was created specifically for the #RotterdamExperiment in AltspaceVR. Unfortunately, I was not able to download it on my computed due to security restrictions on my PC (which I had to deactivate, but being not particularly savvy in that space created a barrier for me to be able to complete the procedure and download the software). That issue didn’t impact my learning from the experiment because the virtual space was shared during the event, and I could see how others navigated and used their avatars and shared their testimonials, so I enjoyed it nevertheless. There is software available that is web based (rather than a download) called WebVR, but, just as a native website vs a native app on the phone, the native experience works better. The professional software is not web based.

While mingling in the VR environment, Freek Teunen gave a Q & A about VR and the opportunities for events, ‘VR offers the opportunity to host an event in the virtual world. An event is always an experience. VR is a technology that can deliver an experience. In VR, you can move around in an environment that’s branded with images from Rotterdam. There are “interactables” which could offer an interesting conversation starter. Participants can do the experience from their own home. When you do it in VR with VR goggles, you are not distracted by anything happening in your surroundings, but you feel as though you are there with other people.’

You can join a VR experience either with or without goggles, such as with Altspace VR. About 30 people joined the #RotterdamExperiment with the VR goggles, and 10 goggles were sent to a remote audience. According to Freek, ‘Joining the VR environment also without needing the goggles is something that we’ll move to in the future. Just as you can watch a movie from your phone, it works. Watching a movie in the cinema is better because it’s more immersive.’

The advantage of Altspace VR is that people can do it from their own computer, and that makes it accessible. But accessibility can also be a challenge, and that could be solved by sending VR goggles to people, accompanied with video instructions about how to enter VR. 

Talking about the difference between VR and augmented reality (AR), Freek commented, ‘VR is a technology where you experience a different place—it makes you feel like you are somewhere else. Although VR can be great to put you in a different place, AR can be highly suitable for enhancing your current physical space. For example, you can use AR during a concert to improve your perceptions and visuals and really make you feel that there’s more happening. It adds a digital layer to a live experience. The two are completely different technologies.’ 

There are various things people can do in Altspace VR. They can network, talk to each other, make selfies—there are pictures of the hashtag everywhere—and they can even create their own space. To understand best what it can do for your events, it’s necessary to experience it by yourself. 

Connecting online and offline audiences during the #RotterdamExperiment 

One of the innovative features of this experiment for me was how the organisers connected the online and onsite audience. During the break, Eveline van der Pluijm, Manager at the Rotterdam Partners Convention Bureau interviewed attendees on site about their experience using the VR goggles, and that completed the gap for me about this experience and also gave a more personal, human element to the virtual event. Below are two testimonials from attendees who tested the VR on site: 

Gijs Verbeek, Head of Events at European Association for International Education (EAIE): ‘The VR experience was exciting. I think it’s great to experiment with these kinds of tools. I think that people need to become accustomed to it to really use all the benefits it offers. You need to train and do it more often, but it was fun nonetheless. At this stage, I would not consider using VR technology at my events, but I’m sure it will take flight in the future, and I would say yes. Perhaps in two years.’ 

Niels Fundter, Director Operations at Congress by design: ‘It was my first time experiencing VR goggles in a live setting and talking with each other in VR. I was looking and finding my way around in the VR space, so I didn’t connect with other attendees in VR, but of course in real life, it’s nice to connect again. It’s an effective way to interact and see each other live and also in VR. I would consider using VR for client events to showcase to the clients what the possibilities in VR are, next to the online platform, which we have as a professional congress organiser (PCO).’

Table talk: Does mixed reality add to the experience of live events in the future?

After concluding the VR experiment, the next session was a table talk with Marjan van der Haar, managing director of International Film Festival Rotterdam, Carola van der Hoeff, who is the Chief Operating Officer and Congress Director at International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) and Kris Stabel, who works as a Senior Educationalist and Head of Educational Advice and Training at Risbo (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Yuri van Geest, a futurist and best-selling author. The session was moderated by Mirjam van de Kamp, Account Manager Convention Bureau at Rotterdam Partners.

To launch the discussion, everyone shared their experience transitioning this year from live to online. 

According to Carola, ‘We didn’t know what to expect. We had little experience with digital events, but we started right away with our digital events as of May, and we had 3–4 every week, the majority of which were related to the pandemic. But then, we had to think about what to do with our global conference that we have around September and that attracts around 3,000 participants. I’ve been asked by my board to prepare scenarios—to postpone or cancel. But of course, it’s a big decision because one of our highest income streams, next to our membership income, is our congresses. So, eventually, the board decided to postpone the congress in Seville, Spain, for another year. And instead, we offered to our delegates a virtual event in September. It went well, but the free webinars were more attractive than the virtual paid conference. So for us, it’s a big learning experience.’ 

‘We are still offering 2–3 virtual events per week, and we’ve learned a lot from the global virtual conference. We’ve been supported by our corporate partners, so we are working very closely together with them to offer digital events on specific topics. I’m coming from the international pharmaceutical federation, so vaccination is a hot topic, and we are in the middle of it—it looks like we are ending next year quite well.’

Commenting on the VR experiment, Carola shared, ‘I haven’t experienced this before, it looks interesting, but I had some difficulties to connect and to find my way, and I’m not sure it will be good for big audiences. I do believe that for smaller groups, the younger generations, it will be interesting to do something like this.’ 

For Marjan van der Haar, managing director of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), the challenge with shifting online is first coming this year. They’ve been transforming the IFFR in the past months and in 2021 will celebrate the 50th year anniversary of the festival. Marjan commented, ‘At the time, we thought that maybe we would be able to go back to normal, but it has now become clear that we will have to change and think differently.’

‘First of all, the team adapted to the digital workspace (e.g. Slack) to keep our team inspired and connected. We began to give our team assignments to work across teams on solutions and ideas that could help the upcoming festival. We also began working with our colleague festivals in the Netherlands on how we can make the transformation to an online festival but, at the same time, we’ll also have a live event. We looked at how we can enable people to buy a ticket, to be at the Q&A, to see a film and participate at a talk, and how to offer that on a website because it didn’t exist in a way we wanted it.’

‘As a festival, we bring new film talent to the international floor but also to the national audience. That’s why we couldn’t (and didn’t want to) postpone our festival. So, in the end, we made a decision to segment it. We’ll start in February 2021 and through to June, we’ll bring in targeted audience events, and then we’ll be back again in June with a compact part of the festival. We spread our risks and chances to reach our audiences. This approach has required a lot of creativity. It’s very important to speak with your stakeholders (filmmakers, industry audience, regular audience); we did a lot of surveys, discussed the festival with them and did panels to discuss new ways of bringing this festival because you bring it for them.’ 

For Kris Stabel, Senior Educationalist and Head of Educational Advice and Training at Risbo (Erasmus University Rotterdam), COVID-19 impacted the daily business, not just one event. Students and lecturers had to adapt very quickly. According to Kris, ‘At university, we endeavour to support our teachers as much as we can in making that shift to online. This is a shift that began in March that suddenly, from one day to the other, people had to change their idea of what education is. What we’ve learned has completely redefined what education is—not a general lecture format and an exam in the end, but start with chunks, flexibility and modularity and much more interaction than probably was possible before the corona crisis.’ 

Commenting on VR technology for education, Kris shared, ‘We are not experiencing VR at that point. The medical faculty have some VR applications where people can learn some specific medical skills but, in general, VR is not that popular yet, although it’s very promising.’

Marjan shared their new experiential idea—‘Tiger on the Loose’—which will give the general public the opportunity to discover interactive AR art installations mapped across the city of Rotterdam. According to Marjan, because the festival reaches 50 in 2021, and it’s a celebration year, they wanted to give something to the audience in a situation where they perhaps cannot enter the cinema due to restrictions. The project uses web-based AR, where people can point their phone at a green object that will begin one of the film clips that has a tiger in it. Users can also photograph themselves and interact with the green object. The installations are small; hence, it doesn’t call for crowds but to experience it with 1–2 people and also give something to the city and engage with the audience, even if they are not regular film lovers, offering something fun and experiential. 

According to Kris, ‘I think if we are talking about VR for learning, there are some aspects that need to be fulfilled before you can have a successful learning experience, and bonding is one of them. We also do believe that good communication, and the value of interaction, is increasingly important in the learning experience. Furthermore, the value of expectation and instruction/ guidance about what to do is very important for any experience we are designing. If you want people to start communicating in an online environment, and if you wish to create a sense of authenticity, there needs to be some way or some form of instruction.’ 

Yuri added, ‘Technology such as AI can be used to match people, and that’s a valuable addition to events.’ 

How can event organisers ensure that the online audience during a hybrid event has an experience that brings the same value as for the onsite audience? 

According to Marjan, ‘I don’t think you can always offer the same. You have to think about what people are experiencing at home and how you can also bring them the best level of engagement. It doesn’t work if you try to combine it. Rather, we have to reinvent it; so, it needs trial and error. We require research and further developments to see what works and what doesn’t.’ Yuri added, ‘For an online audience, you solve different problems, and you have different benefits. Offline is more about intimacy, vulnerability and deeper connection.’

The path ahead 

Closing the discussion with recommendations, the panel commented. 

Carola shared, ‘We’ve learned this year what can happen during a pandemic. You need to take your learnings so that you are much better prepared for 2021. I believe that when there’s the right moment, we can go back to live events, but I think that people will be more selective.’

According to Kris, ‘People are going to look back to this event and will be analysing things that went well and what didn’t. I would advise people if they are going to analyse the new situation to also be critical about the old situation, which was also not 100 percent perfect. When we begin designing events in university, we always start with a purpose statement and ensure that we know why we are doing this and what we want to achieve. Performing a thorough target-group analysis (Who are these people, how do they learn, how they connect, how do they want to bond?) is also essential. After that, you create your goals and design your event. As the next step, you begin thinking about the advantages online and offline events can bring to the table to the goals you want to achieve. Don’t begin by thinking about VR or online, but use them as a tool to create the purpose you want to achieve from the beginning.’ 

Marjan added, ‘Look at your objectives and goals, reach out to your stakeholders, and don’t use your old blueprint and make bold choices. We need time to research and develop—which also involves time and money—and give space to reinvent ourselves, and then we can make something new. I don’t think that we’ll go back to the old situation.’ 

Yuri concluded, ‘Find your purpose as an individual or organisation. Build an eco-system aligned with collective purpose and set pilots, small experiments; see where you have traction, and amplify and scale it. Furthermore, consider the imagination—we need to rethink everything from the ground up.’ 

Experimenting creates new possibilities 

What we’ve learned from this first experiment is the importance of experimenting with new technology, this time with VR, and look at how to integrate it into events. Before implementing VR technology successfully, it requires goal setting and preparation to let the audience completely understand its full potential. VR technology has many benefits and can be used alongside another virtual event platform chosen by the organisers. It’s important to think about the accessibility aspect by providing participants with VR goggles and good instructions regarding how to join and use the technology. Many people are still not particularly familiar with the VR technology; so, more education and experimentation is required to gain that experience. Multiple usages might be necessary to get the right VR experience, so don’t give up. Thank you Rotterdam Partners Convention Bureau for providing us with this opportunity. 

Mirjam concluded, ‘It’s a matter of doing. Without trying, nothing happens. Let’s keep moving together, and then we can make it happen. Join the transformation, learn and adapt.’

The next #RotterdamExperiment will take place on 18 February 2021 and is entitled Gaming and Community Building. In gaming, we can find good examples that we can use in creating events. Games create community and experiences together.

More information and a link to sign up will be available on the #RotterdamExperiment website. This website is updated regularly with past event insights, speakers and programme. So, make sure to revisit it often. I’ll also be attending the second experiment and, therefore, ensure that you follow me on social media—Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn—where I’ll share further insights. You can also follow Rotterdam Partners on Twitter and LinkedIn for more information about MICE destination Rotterdam and the #RotterdamExperiment.

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