Virtual Reality

“I can have an even better event experience without visiting your venue thanks to virtual reality!”

That’s what you’re afraid to hear: People are going to sit at home and enjoy the content of events that would have typically taken place at your venue, without spending on your concessions, luxury suites, and foam fingers. Maybe you’ll still host the event…but with nearly empty seats as the fans have jacked in remotely and are receiving an even better, potentially hyper-normal or unimaginably intimate, experience.

This is not your future.

Technological innovation has long frightened myriad professionals and been deemed a threat to the very existence of some traditional businesses. But consider that even groups of introverts who spend much of their lives online and physically isolated still crave IRL, face-to-face encounters. Think of gaming fanatics that come together for conventions or eSports competitions (top events boast more than 100,000 live attendees and millions of viewers online). It’s clear that venues should actively embrace virtual reality (VR) and relish in the blue ocean of opportunity rather than unplug, retreat, and hold sacred the quivering status quo.

“People fear change, but technology moves fast. It’s easy to forget that the first iPhone was launched in June 2007. In less than 10 years, it created a massive shift in consumer behavior,” said Tom Impallomeni, CEO of Virtually Live. “Be under no illusions: VR and AR (augmented reality) will have a huge impact on day-to-day life. The headsets people see today will be replaced by sleeker, easier-to-manage, more portable equivalents. We are at the start of a technological paradigm shift and one I expect people to embrace as the value proposition offered by VR becomes clearer to everyday customers.”

As the remnants of the 170,000 attendees to the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) roamed exhibit halls throughout Las Vegas during the event’s closing days, a modest gathering of enthusiasts and creators were experiencing the real future over at a small (by Vegas standards) meeting room at the Palms Casino Resort one mile west of The Strip. This was VR Fest, and Virtually Live was the only exhibiting company demonstrating its product with the not-yet-released consumer version of the Oculus Rift.

Virtually Live tracks live performers and transposes them in a virtual replica of your venue in real time through which guests can take in the action and interact with other VR visitors. By creating digital renditions of your venues and allowing consumers access to events without actually visiting your venues, Virtually Live is arguably the best example by which to highlight the perceived threat expressed by those in the venue management world.

Impallomeni said VR sports experiences, such as those offered by Virtually Live—which went live in April 2016—capture the magic of live events and make similar experiences accessible to fans unable to attend, which is the majority. Yet, he readily admits that it can’t fully replicate the live event experience.

“Live will still trump all other mediums,” he said.

Extend and Enrich

Several months after CES, VR education was delivered at South by Southwest (SXSW) via a dedicated session track for the first time in the event’s history. Dan White, director of technology for Sydney, Australia-based Rapid VR, which has produced 360-degree, immersive experiences for clients including Qantas, Samsung, and Lexus, was on the panel for “Virtual Tourism: VR, 360 and the Travel Industry,” during which panelists refuted the notion of VR cannibalizing the business of real-world experiences.

“With the advent of any new medium or technological innovation, there is often a general attitude of fear expressed by those with significant interests invested in the existing mediums or those who don’t fully understand the new medium,” said White, following SXSW. “Just like radio didn’t replace books, and film and TV didn’t replace radio, VR isn’t going to replace anything, it’s going to sit alongside these mediums, and in many cases extend and enrich what we already know and love.

“I might be able to put a VR headset on and watch a basketball game from courtside, or watch a band from up on the stage—something very cool which I generally can’t do in real life—but I’m still missing something,” he continued. “I’m missing the full experience of being there; the excitement and anticipation of travelling to the event, the physicality and roar of the crowd, the food and smells, the dancing or mosh pit at the music concert, and above all, the human interaction and human element, whether you’re interacting with your friends or with strangers you’ve just met. These are all integral elements to any live event experience, yet they’re things that are generally missing from today’s VR experiences.”

Because of that disconnect, there’s little support behind the argument that VR will hurt ticket sales and venue revenue. Even though White and Impallomeni are both invested in the growth of VR, they don’t envision a future in which VR will hinder on-site business or live event attendance.

“If anything, [VR] may be able to help revitalize these industries by providing an immersive and tantalizing teaser that leads to people buying tickets to the real thing,” White said. “A good VR experience of a sports or music event is the ultimate sales tool for selling tickets to future events, because once someone has experienced that taste in VR, they want to go and experience the real deal in the real world.”

The impactfulness of VR, White said, makes it a much more effective sales platform than still images or flat video, “because in VR everything becomes an immersive and emotional experience, which stays in people’s memories much longer.”

There’s opportunity for revenue from licensing a venue for inclusion in VR experiences as well as selling “tickets” to those VR experiences.

“The main and obvious way to use VR during a live event is by live-streaming 360-degree video, which can be experienced in an interactive, immersive way through a VR headset, and can essentially transport people to the event and make them feel like they’re there,” White said. “This could be made available to customers for free, to promote the event or concert, and allow fans from all over the world to connect and experience it live at the same time, but there are also interesting monetization possibilities here. Tickets could be sold to the virtual experience, perhaps at a discount to the full real-life physical tickets, and just like different seating areas at real venues have different ticket prices depending on the seat’s views, different 360-degree camera angles could command similarly tiered ticketing prices.”

Global Reach

Many professional sports leagues and teams talk about reaching their global fan base and, as Impallomeni sees it, VR will help bring together fans from around the world.

“Within five years, there may be 100 to 200 million VR headset owners (tethered and mobile),” he said. “If a significant portion of those is watching live sports in VR that should drive a sizable uptick in stadium attendances, as VR essentially sells the stadium experience to fans. Ten years out? Expect VR to be bigger than TV. I think this will be a good thing for live sports attendances.”

The crux of the matter, according to Impallomeni: “If you can meet people face to face, that is the best option, but not everyone can do this all the time. VR removes geographic and cost frictions. Giving the majority unprecedented access can only be a good thing for everyone (including the teams, leagues, and arenas).”

That expansion of access was also brought up by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, speaking through a telepresence Beam robot on the CES trade show floor.

“People talk about VR in the context of playing games but think about it in terms of a remote office. What if you could commute to work without having to sit in traffic? What if you got tired of looking out your window at the gray apartment building next door and could instead see the beach—wherever you look, wherever you gaze, you see the best part of the experience,” Snowden said. “What if you could sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas party, a New Year’s Eve party, with all your friends—the people you care the most about—even though you’re far away because you’re on business travel or you’re in the hospital or you have limited mobility… These technologies [are] providing mobility, they’re providing reach. And this is something that has previously had a significant commercial cost… What’s happening is that technology is allowing us to defeat the tyranny of [that exclusivity]—that’s a really exciting thing.”

VR is as much of a threat to attendance and onsite revenue as a property renovation but without all the mess and downtime. The result: More avenues through which people will experience your venues and your brands.

“Given the significant investment in VR by almost all of the major consumer electronics and tech companies, and the hungry demand for consumer VR devices launching this year, I think it’s safe to say that VR is coming,” White said. “It’s up to venue managers and event organizers to find ways to innovate and incorporate VR and AR into their businesses in ways that complement, expand, and enrich their live sporting, music and event experiences.” FM

(Image: TED Conference/Creative Commons)