Big Ideas

5 Next-Gen Technologies That Already Are Changing Meetings

Here's how wearables, 3D projection mapping, second-screen technology, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are transforming the industry.

Feeling overwhelmed by technology is a common sentiment expressed by meeting-professional respondents to Convene surveys, who say that they struggle with the fast pace of change, the latest tech tools and up-to-the-minute applications, and the shiniest new things. What should they pay attention to?


1. Artificial Intelligence

It’s generally not a good idea for a hotel concierge to stand on top of a counter while interacting with guests — but an exception can be made for Connie, a chunky, two-foot-tall robot. Since March, Connie has been answering questions about the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, in McLean, Virginia, as well as about where to eat and what to do in the Washington, D.C., area.

Named after Conrad Hilton, the founder of the Hilton hotel chain, the robot was created by IBM and WayBlazer, a tech startup chaired by Terry Jones, the founder of Travelocity and Kayak. Connie is powered by IBM Watson — the cognitive computing platform that famously beat its human opponents at “Jeopardy!” — and programmed with information about the hotel and surrounding restaurants and attractions.

Guests can ask Connie for advice in the same way they might ask a human concierge, because Watson “is very, very good at what’s called natural language search,” Jones said. “You don’t have to put in a set of keywords like you do in Google.” And unlike traditional computing platforms, Watson draws insights from unstructured data, including articles, blogs, and user-generated reviews, so it can offer feedback culled from experience, not just listings. “We’ve had an explosion of information [on the Web], particularly in user-generated content — there’s just acres and acres of it,” Jones said. Plowing through and evaluating all of it can be exhausting for people, but not for Connie, which — thanks to Watson — relies on a vast amount of information to make personalized recommendations.

“The cool part of it is — obviously the robot is insanely cool — but this technology can be deployed in a phone, in a smart TV, on the hotel’s website, almost anywhere,” Jones said. Connie “is a way to get people to say, ‘Wow, look what this technology can do.’”

In addition to the McLean Hilton, the technology is being used globally by The Leading Hotels of the World, a membership organization with more than 375 hotels. DMOs including the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau also have begun using Watson-enabled technology to help leisure and business travelers cut through the online clutter.

“The mobile device gets smarter and smarter,” Jones said. “It knows what time it is, and pretty soon it’s going to know the altitude and the temperature. It knows a lot about you and it knows where you are, and therefore, it can pretty powerfully help — when assisted by this technology — in providing you with good recommendations.”

Specifically, “at hotels,” Jones said, “where we think this is going is real-time recommendations based on what you know about a person from the data that you already have in their frequent guest files.” And at meetings, the technology could be embedded in a mobile app not only to answer questions like “Where’s my next session?” but also to recommend personalized learning tracks.

And AI could smooth out life’s little inconveniences by taking care of mundane tasks like snagging an open table for dinner in a city crowded with other meeting attendees. “I’m a public speaker,” Jones said. “Whenever I’m at a convention and think maybe I’d like to go out to dinner, by the time I get around to [making a reservation], everything’s booked…. I’d like to have a machine say, ‘The only thing left is 6 p.m. at the sushi joint.’”

Barbara Palmer

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2. Virtual Reality

After too many false starts to count, it seems that mass-consumption virtual reality has finally arrived. Twenty-three years after a VR headset for the Sega Genesis gaming console debuted at CES in 1993 (only to disappear), 21 years after the short-lived Fox TV show “VR.5” and the ridiculous Keanu Reeves cyberpunk movie “Johnny Mnemonic,” and 13 years after the launch of Second Life, products like Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR are making immersive technology affordable and accessible.

Everyone is jumping on the computer-simulated, fully interactive bandwagon, including the destination-marketing and hospitality industries. Destinations have been early, obvious adopters, offering VR tours of attractions and venues for meeting planners and tourists alike. Ditto hotel companies such as Marriott International, whose Marriott Teleporter offers an “immersive 4D virtual-reality travel experience.” “If ever there was a technology made for travel, it’s virtual reality,” said Marc Battaglia, creative director for Marriott, speaking at the Collision technology conference in New Orleans in April. “It completely immerses you in an experience.”

What about meeting organizers themselves? Some are testing the virtual waters, but the technology’s potential to provide attendees with more than a novel experience is still largely untapped. Even the Virtual Reality Los Angeles (VRLA) show — which started as a Meetup event for about 150 people two years ago, and in August will host about 6,000 people at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the VRLA Summer Expo — has yet to offer a VR experience for attendees, said Cosmo Scharf, co-founder of VRLA as well as a startup called Visionary VR. “The funny thing is, when I was first starting the VR Meetup, people were like, ‘Oh, is it in VR?’” Scharf said with a laugh. “We’re like, ‘No, in real life.’”

While the majority of VRLA Summer Expo exhibitors are entertainment focused — producers of video games and 360-degree video content — Scharf said other types of companies exhibit as well. Not surprisingly, he sees VR having broad applications beyond the gaming industry — including among meeting organizers themselves to improve their planning process, which is now largely two-dimensional. “If we were able to essentially pre-visualize an entire event before actually doing it, that would be tremendously useful,” he said, “because we’d be able to design the show [in virtual reality] and then move the different booths around and get multiple perspectives on it, so you could fly out from a bird’s-eye perspective or make it go down to human scale. We could walk around the whole event. We could add in thousands of people and visualize and measure the flow of people throughout the day.”

For exhibitors, there’s the growing potential to offer product demos in VR. For remote attendees, there might be an increasingly robust online experience. And for in-person attendees at conferences in specific industries and professions — not just the tech sector — the potential to create one-of-a-kind learning experiences is promising. For example, Montreal-based MinorityVR is collaborating with the medical industry to develop VR content that helps surgeons sharpen their skills for complex medical procedures.

“I’m just thinking about the trajectory of where it might go,” Scharf said. “Right now, [a meeting] is pretty much all in person. Then we’re going to have livestreaming 360 video cameras at the event, so you could put on your headset and check out that camera’s perspective. Then after that we might have something where there’s a totally digital replica of the actual event in VR.”

But as with any emerging technology, you have to ask not just how but why. “Not everything should be VR,” Battaglia told the audience at Collision. “There has to be a rationale, there has to be a purpose behind it…. What can you develop [in VR] that you otherwise would never have access to?”

Christopher Durso



Photo of female hand touching screen generic design smart watch. Film effects, blurred background

3. Wearables

Picture this: As an attendee wanders through your trade show, a notification appears on her Apple Watch that walking toward her is someone who shares her interest in, say, clinical nuclear cardiology. They greet each other, exchange cards, and within a few weeks have scheduled a meeting.

This hypothetical situation is just one of the promises that wearables — smart devices worn on the body — hold for meetings: the chance to connect attendees with the people or businesses that might benefit them the most. “[Wearables] can keep a record of who you met and how long you talked with them,” said Corbin Ball, CSP, CMP, DES, an event-technology analyst and frequent speaker. “One good contact at an event can sometimes pay for the entire event.”

Although the technology to connect likeminded people is still evolving, Meeting U. President Jim Spellos, CMP, agrees it will be one of the primary uses of wearables at meetings. “Customization is where [wearables] are going, where I can put into my event app the meetings I want to have, the booths I want to see, the people I want to meet,” Spellos said. “Then the wearable can alert me, ‘So-and-so is 50 feet away.’ Those kinds of tools are not in the distant future.”

More common at events right now are wearable beacons like the one Ball was given at the Exhibit & Event Marketers Association’s (E2MA) 2016 Red Diamond Congress in Orlando in April, which was used to track crowd movement via heat mapping. “It was the size of two quarters,” Ball said. Although planners might need to spend $3-plus for each wearable beacon for their attendees, the devices offer a trove of functions and information — automated check-ins, wayfinding, location-dependent polling, real-time heat maps, and even push notifications activated by a meter or less of proximity to, say, an exhibitor booth.

Ball warns that such tracking only works if it’s widely accepted — and it’s only accepted if it also benefits the wearer. “Finding out where the rooms are overflowing, or about crowd flow — I personally think that if that’s the only thing [wearables] are offering, that’s not enough for people,” Ball said. “They can’t be perceived as a spamming device or tracking device. There has to be value for attendees.”

While people might be comfortable with their Fitbits and Apple Watches, they may harbor somewhat surreal memories of Google Glass. “It came out way before people were ready,” Spellos said of the head-mounted display that offered hands-free data but also spurred privacy concerns. “What we see as the future isn’t always ready to be adopted instantaneously by people in all walks of life. But I can see the value of those kinds of glasses to the virtual attendee.”

What Google Glass hinted at — how augmented reality could enhance face-to-face experiences — is now coming to fruition in devices such as Oculus Rift, virtual-reality headgear meant for gaming that debuted last month. Destination BC already uses a virtual-reality device to conduct virtual site inspections. “You can take people to completely different places,” Ball said. “[VR] can bring in a whole new level of hybrid meetings or virtual meetings.”

So, too, can bracelets that measure body temperature — to gauge crowd excitement — earbuds that speak directions, and smart badges that assess whether the wearer is male or female. Creepy? Maybe to some people, which is why Ball thinks attendees should always be given the chance to opt out. “Privacy is a personal decision,” he said. “People have a right to determine what they want to give out about themselves.”

Spellos thinks the meetings industry lags behind in wearables adoption, but understands why. “Everyone takes a wait-and-see approach about the cost of implementation without an absolute certainty of success,” he said. “It’s risk management. The danger of playing on the slopeside of the curve for technology is that some of the things you try are going to fail. But I’d say that’s what makes your organization not a legacy organization, but one that is pushing that curve. Because if you’re not out there taking risks, then you’re probably having the same meeting that you were having in 1995. The problem is, all of this disruption is not going to stop. It’s not going to pause for three years and wait for everybody else to catch up.”

Corin Hirsch


4. 3D Projection Mapping

Pentair Aquatic Solutions wanted to make a splash on the show floor at the 2015 International Pool|Spa|Patio Expo (PSP) in Las Vegas last November. The pool-technology company was offering a sneak peek at IllumaVision, an underwater video- and image-projection system designed to produce cutting-edge optics — meaning the rollout would itself need some cutting-edge optics.

Blue Flame Thinking, Pentair’s ad agency, partnered with 3D Projection Agency and Digital Media Etc. (DME) on a solution. “What they couldn’t figure out is how to showcase this in a really big enough or unique way that’s going to give them the PR value that they’re looking for,” said Paul Whitney, DME’s founder and chief operating officer. “The idea we came up with was a 3D-projection booth.”

You’ve probably seen 3D projection mapping in action at a conference or trade show before. The technology creates a template of every distinct geometric shape within a specific area — from walls, ceilings, and pillars, to entire buildings — then seamlessly projects imagery onto it. 3D projection is often used for product launches and gala dinners — as eye candy that turns almost any venue into a dynamic landscape.

But DME suggested that Pentair go deeper. And darker. They created a completely enclosed black room in the exhibit hall at PSP 2015, and turned the traditionally outside-in perspective of 3D projection inside-out. “We built a 3D immersive projection booth,” Whitney said, “where the back wall becomes the back yard and we could project the swimming pool on the floor of this booth. It makes you feel like you’re standing in the back yard of somebody’s house.”

PSP attendees who stepped off the bright show floor and into Pentair’s dark room found themselves silhouetted against the sharp-etched profile of a large stone house, looking down into a shimmering pool. There they watched what was essentially a product video for IllumaVision, which displays photos and other images on the bottom of a pool. It was like a hall of mirrors — a high-tech projection system being used to demonstrate a high-tech projection system.

The result was something more than eye candy. It was wow factor as content. “You’re able to utilize this technology in ways that people have not used it before,” Whitney said, “and the most important way is really to use it as an educational tool, so people understand and learn about your brand in a positive way, and talk about it [both] there and thereafter.”

Indeed, for Whitney and his partners at 3D Projection Agency, the measure of success is the number of people who feel compelled to record something like Pentair’s IllumaVision exhibit and share it on social media. “It has unlimited legs,” said John Vicino, director of business development for 3D Projection. “You can spend, say, $100,000 for a full-page color ad in your Sunday newspaper, and that’s basically garbage by Monday morning. Tuesday it’s outdated. But these are alive. The legs keep going, the branding keeps going.”

Christopher Durso


5. Second-Screen Technology

At the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ (SPE) 2015 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Houston last September, tech companies presented groundbreaking ideas in the oil, gas, and energy sectors during an interactive exhibit competition. Attendees provided real-time feedback on both the presentations and the ideas themselves, while SPE simultaneously tracked audience engagement.

At the American Society of Landscape Architects’ (ASLA) 2015 Annual Meeting & Expo in Chicago in November, attendees communicated with speakers via instantaneous polling on their devices, synchronized to their presentations. Nearly half of users voted on at least one question posed during the annual meeting — higher participation than ASLA had seen at previous meetings.

Those levels of engagement at both events were enabled by Freeman’s FXP | touch second-screen platform. “We’ve seen probably 80-percent to 90-percent engagement when we offer it during a session,” said Wilson Tang, FreemanXP’s vice president of digital experience.

In addition to real-time polling and Q&A applications, second-screen technology enhances attendees’ experiences by streaming slides to their devices and enabling them to participate in chat streams that integrate with social media. And the ways in which the technology benefits both attendees and organizers keep evolving. In fact, Freeman acquired events-based second-screen technology developer this past January to enable the company to keep “doing more” with the technology, according to Richard Maranville, Freeman’s executive vice president and chief digital officer.

PSAV also offers a second-screen platform, which has been widely embraced by one of its medical-association clients in particular, said Brent Rogers, PSAV’s vice president of digital services. The association uses the technology at its four meetings a year — from its largest annual meeting of 20,000 attendees to smaller events that focus on recertification, where it’s used for practice exams. “The second-screen application is useful for that,” Rogers said, “because they present images that the doctors use to help make a diagnosis.” The images from the main screen at the front of the room — the first screen — are streamed to individual iPads assigned to physician attendees, so they can see them up close, and pinch and zoom as needed to answer questions.

Second-screen technology’s benefits extend beyond the event itself, because attendees can save everything they’ve worked on during their sessions and email it to themselves. “When you leave the conference, it’s all waiting for you in your inbox,” Rogers said. “You’ve got the slides, you’ve got your notes, you’ve got your test results all right there, and you can continue your education well beyond the meeting space.” Similarly, Freeman sends an email to FXP | touch users with their own “personal website [which has] all of the content they consumed during the show,” Maranville said.

As for organizers, once the event concludes, they have “a rich analytics set” to analyze attendee engagement, said Ken Holsinger, Freeman’s vice president of digital solutions. Added Maranville: “A lot of companies are talking about data. This provides data to judge how the session went, how the presenter did, and there’s a lot of under-the-covers data that we can use as well, that’s tied to engagement and can help make a better presentation and better event.”

Michelle Russell

Convene Editors