Coronavirus was a distant, abstract problem for most in the tech community until recently, a calamity disassociated from their daily consciousness and merely another in a never-ending string of crises befalling a world full of them.
Then, amidst daily escalations in infections and deaths in China - home to Huawei, ZTE, China Mobile, Xiaomi and scores of less-known telecom equipment and mobile device manufacturers - and simmering angst amongst exhibitors and attendees, the GSMA canceled the fast-approaching Mobile World Congress in Barcelona less than two weeks before it was set to begin.
Suddenly, more than 100,000 mobile equipment customers, manufacturers, service providers, reporters and analysts were scrambling to cancel airline tickets and hotel reservations, reschedule briefings and product launches and reassess marketing and sales plans contingent on schmoozing with potential buyers and business partners. Only then did the remote epidemic, which had already quarantined millions, become real to the technorati.
MWC was the first and, so far, largest cancellation, but the new virus continues to wreak havoc with events expected to draw multitudes of international travelers. EmTech Asia in Singapore was postponed, the Venice Carnival was cut short and major companies like AT&T, IBM and Verizon pulled out of this week’s RSA security event, while Facebook, Sony and Oculus pulled out of next month’s Game Developer’s Conference, both in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, factory closures and travel restrictions are severely disrupting supply chains, placing many product plans and launch timelines in jeopardy. The growing potential for significant economic damage was finally too much for financial markets, which gave up the ghost this week with U.S. US stock indices down more than 6 percent over two days.
Despite cynical cries of media-induced mass hysteria, the caution is warranted given the many unknowns around the pathogen including its incubation period, transmissibility (including from asymptotic individuals), optimal treatment regimen, long-term effects, overall and demographic-specific fatality rate and whether it can mutate, or perhaps already has.
However, business must go on, and in our globalized world of disaggregated supply chains, multinational corporations, international product launches and relatively cheap airfares, thousands of companies rely on the ability to personally meet with customers and suppliers, no matter how far flung. While many have decried the inefficiency and obsolescence of big tech events, where one can spend a couple of days in travel to and fro only to hear a few canned speeches (that can be easily viewed online) and have some PR-moderated meetings with spokespeople never deviating from company-approved talking points, they remain a popular custom for socializing, building business contacts and having serendipitous edifying conversations with people sharing common interests.
While there’s nothing like face-to-face, honest and open dialog for sharing information and ideas, the time- and financial-inefficiency of big events, paired with the occasional risk of novel contagions or identity theft, make virtual alternatives much more attractive. Web conferences have been around for a while and thanks to Zoom, Apple FaceTime and yes, Google, where I’ve recently had great results with Hangouts-based meetings, small, ad hoc video conferences are now a viable option to phone calls.
However, what’s missing is a way to combine the intimacy of video conferencing, the scalability of video streaming and the serendipitous interactivity of live events. Several companies are trying to crack this nut and the coronavirus outbreak might be the catalyst that creates a robust market for virtual event software and services.
Virtual events: Time for a reboot
6Connex is a SaaS platform that can be adapted to various meeting formats, including webinars, town halls, classrooms/training and even trade shows. Its design environment includes templates for several trade show and educational formats such as mass presentations (keynotes), classrooms, exposition floor booths, informal networking lounges and an event help desk. Show vendors can customize the look and branding of their booth and present demos and videos and includes reporting and analytics that summarize how visitors interact with the event, engagement with and leads generated by different pieces of content and the number and value of any online transactions.
vFairs is similar to 6Connex in that it supports a variety of large and small event formats like trade shows, job fairs, group networking and open houses. Like 6Connex, vFairs provides design templates, content management, real-time voice-video-chat and event analytics.
Source: vFairs; Interface showing a conference lobby and user portal.
Teooh, a startup that recently emerged from stealth, uses an avatar-based interface to augment conventional teleconferencing systems like Zoom with an environment resembling a virtual meeting room. It currently supports three scenarios along a spectrum from pure presentation to small group interaction:
- Virtual Meetups to share content and presentations with up to 100 attendees.
- Virtual Mastermind Groups for round table discussions and sidebar conversations in groups of up to 24.
- Virtual Fireside Chats in an AMA format with up to 100 attendees.
None of these provide the scale required to virtually replace a large tech conference, but rather the individual presentations and ad hoc discussion groups that make up such events. Teooh currently targets newsletter writers/bloggers, motivational speakers, podcasters and others with online followings, Discord communities and non-profits. While the product is quite immature - its mobile apps aren’t yet available - it shows potential, particularly if its customizable, Avatar-based UI can induce event participants into interactive discussions instead of the passive consumption typical of Web streaming products.
Gartner expects usage of what it calls online meeting solutions to rapidly increase over the next four years. Indeed it estimates that by 2024, only a quarter of enterprise meetings will take place in person, less than half the 60 percent expected in 2019. Such routine business meetings can be accommodated by conventional video conferencing and webinar providers like BlueJeans, GlobalMeet, Google, WebEx (Cisco) and Zoom that provide subsets of the overall event experience, typically mass-streamed presentations, smaller multi-party meetings and sidebar text chats.
Should demand increase for more versatile virtual events and trade shows, I see the best of these like Zoom being expanded by adding other formats like expo floors and an interface that allows combining various venues into a virtual event.
The few vendors addressing the diverse requirements of virtual events and conferences show that the market and available products are quite immature, with clunky UIs, muddled use cases and marketing messages and opaque pricing models.
Should the coronavirus turmoil stoke customer demand, the product situation would rapidly improve as customer and VC money pours into the market, thereby attracting innovative developers and eventually, the larger firms that dominate video conference services as they look for technology and talent via acquisition. Indeed, the more dire situation in Asia has already created a boomlet in one Japanese video conferencing company, with V-Cube stock up almost 20 percent after the Japanese Prime Minister encouraged companies to let employees work from home.
Aside from minimizing travel during epidemics, early enterprise users will eventually find other benefits to virtual events, notably the flexibility inherent in online communications in which attendees can view presentations on their schedule, greater convenience when interacting with peers in distant time zones and the ability to leave events open for extended periods of asynchronous participation.
Also, by allowing participants to save and archive materials means events become an information resource for customers and clients that are gathering content and research about particular products or topics. In several years, today’s formative products will seem crude, however as one of my Twitter correspondents notes, as alternatives to canceled events and lost appointments, they’re better than nothing.