Why to choose 3D for your next virtual event

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.

Above: This vFairs screenshot is an example of 2.5D, a static, representation of a 3D space that houses 2D content. It provides no mobility, avatar control or other 3D functionality.

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.

Above: The Opal Group is hosting a series of Data Analytics events in the 3D event space, MootUp. The events are fully integrated with Zoom and accessible via smartphone, laptop or any VR device on the market.

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.

Above: Dell’s Virtual Reality Classroom of the Future experience allowed potential customers to engage with 3D models of their products within a virtual classroom.

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.

Above: Breakroom initially developed low-poly objects, pictured above, that could load across almost any PC, smartphone or tablet. They are now in the process of updating their graphics, pictured below, as bandwidth and streaming capabilities have improved.

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.

The AR/VR ecosystem — Are we there yet?

http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/venturebeat/SZYF/~3/F_rQcfvuDnI/

Digi-Capital’s virtual and augmented reality forecast is for global revenue to grow from over $13 billion this year to more than $67 billion by 2024. Yet today’s market is still evolving beyond its early stage of offering related point solutions to specific problems, to becoming a fully functioning ecosystem in its own right. Different parts of the market are moving at different rates, with many shifting pieces to the puzzle.

Let’s look at where we are today with consumer AR/VR markets, not enterprise.

Active users

For platforms to be platforms, they need active users. Lots of them. Table stakes are tens of millions, and hundreds of millions are better — but billions are the ultimate goal. For comparison, most of us are active users of the biggest consumer platform on the planet: mobile. According to Ericsson, mobile now has as many subscriptions as there are people on the planet.

Mobile AR can now claim to be a consumer platform, with Digi-Capital forecasting over 1 billion active installed base across messaging-based, OS-based, and web-based mobile AR platforms in 2020. For example, ByteDance’s TikTok use grew 130% in the first week of March for a weekly total over 3 billion hours due to both higher user numbers and average time per session. This was a significant factor in TikTok owner ByteDance (also owner of Chinese messaging platform Douyin) being reported by Reuters to have 130% revenue growth to $5.6 billion in Q1 2020. However, ByteDance is now dealing with different challenges across several fronts.

Looking to the long-term, Digi-Capital forecasts messaging-based mobile AR’s active installed base to top 1.5 billion by 2024, OS based mobile AR over 1 billion by 2024, followed by web-based mobile AR (at a much higher growth rate). This could see all mobile AR platforms combined active installed base over 2.7 billion in 5 years’ time. (Note: total figures for active installed base types inherently involve double counting, exaggerating total figures due to users active on more than one platform. However, this enables direct comparison between different platform types and platforms.) 

VR has different user dynamics, partly because of a lack of plurality, but mainly due to user attrition. One of the challenges for VR is a primary entertainment focus (games, video), which despite its immersion can be done more easily and cheaply on existing devices. Also the social side of VR hasn’t scaled – even Facebook announced it was starting again from scratch with a totally new social VR platform late last year. When describing ambitions for Facebook Horizon, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “Horizon is going to have this property where it just expands and gets better.” Yet scale remains a question. While there is a dedicated core of active VR users, there aren’t enough casual users to scale VR as a platform yet.

If Apple launches smartphone-tethered smartglasses as an iPhone peripheral in late 2022, as Digi-Capital forecasts, we’ll get a better idea of what consumer smartglasses Daily Active Users (DAU) could look like. But as we’ve said many times, only Tim Cook and his inner circle really know if and when Apple’s going to enter. Magic Leap pivoted away from the consumer market, with former CEO Rony Abovitz saying, “While our leadership team, board, and investors still believe in the long-term potential of our IP, the near-term revenue opportunities are currently concentrated on the enterprise side”. It’s also early days for consumer smartglasses startups like nReal, despite CEO Chi Xu describing it as a “cell phone companion” taking a different approach to Google Glass, HoloLens and Magic Leap. Similarly, Snap Spectacles (not smartglasses) and Google Glass highlighted some of the consumer challenges for high tech goggles.

High frequency users

The most important economic lesson from mobile is “Frequency ∝ Revenue” (“∝” means “proportional to”). In other words, high user frequency = money. For example, top 1% grossing mobile apps deliver 35 times the sessions per day of top 5% apps. And going back to active users, lifetime value of top 1% grossing apps is 20 times that of the top 5%. While it’s obvious, you need to hold on to users and give them something they want to do every day to make money. There are big differences between AR/VR and mobile, but this remains a crucial dynamic.

Mobile AR has shown what is possible for major AR enabled messaging platforms, with Facebook Messenger, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat as standouts. While each has a different approach to user engagement, usage frequency for AR lenses/filters is high, with Snapchat reporting AR features used by three quarters of its users on a daily basis. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said, “There’s a lot of demand right now from businesses to think about different ways to try things on. People have been excited about the potential for this for a long time.”

Mobile AR is a big part of why messaging platforms are so valuable, driving massive user generated content consumption against which to sell advertising. It’s worth noting that a lot of this ad spend is going toward traditional ad units viewed around user generated mobile AR content (i.e., filters and lenses on messaging platforms), rather than just mobile AR ad units. This does not mean that sponsored mobile AR filters and lenses are not a significant part of the mix going forward. Pokémon Go has also delivered high usage frequency.

Many VR headsets get used by consumers less than once a day, with a significant proportion every few days, weekly, or even monthly. Our User Strategy team’s product/market fit reviews for startups have consistently shown this dynamic even when users love their VR apps. The words “evenings”, “weekends” and “holidays” come up frequently, particular for under-34 Snapchat demographic users. Not great for frequency.

Again with smartglasses it is too early to tell, but app developers might need a mental model closer to mobile than enterprise to get frequency to work. Lightweight, short duration apps that are opened tens to hundreds of times a day could keep smartglasses on peoples’ faces when they’re ready for prime time. No pressure there, then.

Critical use cases

We think about use cases for new technology platforms in terms of valuable versus critical. Valuable use cases might be cool and technically hard to do, but either don’t fundamentally transform user experience or aren’t important to users. Critical use cases enable lots of users to do something they really care about, and that couldn’t be done in any other way. Critical is interesting, but valuable? Not so much.

One critical use case has emerged for mobile AR – AR filters/lenses in mobile messaging apps. Snap said in June that “170 million Snapchatters engage with AR daily – nearly 30 times every day”, so it’s easy to see how mobile AR has become part of the core user loop for a significant proportion of messaging users. Pokémon Go is also notable, but might be considered an outlier due to its singular scale in the mobile AR games space.

VR is cool, technically hard to do, and can take you to other worlds. But critical? VR’s entertainment focus effectively makes it a subset of the games market for consumers, as evidenced by the majority of top VR apps on Steam, Facebook/Oculus and Sony app stores (as well as enterprise use cases promoted by HTC and others). Beyond games, a critical consumer use case hasn’t emerged for VR since Facebook acquired Oculus 6 years ago. For comparison, Uber launched three years after the iPhone.

As smartglasses are largely enterprise-focused today, again it’s early for critical consumer use cases. The first could evolve from mobile AR, but they are more likely to come from native smartglasses use cases that only work for that form-factor.

Critical apps

(Source: Digi-Capital AR/VR Analytics Platform)

Mobile consumers spend an average of 90% of their phone time in apps (versus 10% for web), tend to use just 10 mobile apps regularly, and spend over three quarters of that time in their top three apps. A majority of users download zero apps per month too. This means critical use cases are not enough. They need to be features of critical apps we use all the time already, or something so insanely great that we might actually download it.

This dynamic has proven to be mobile AR’s secret weapon, with messaging as the critical app for mobile AR. The huge success of Pokémon Go came from a specific set of circumstances that are hard to replicate, and Live View in Google Maps remains a promising AR functionality. Houzz CEO Adi Tatarko has discussed how its mobile AR features drive an extraordinary 11-times sales uplift for ecommerce as a feature of an already successful app, saying that “we’re very proud as a technology company that we can always be in front of the best technologies and apply them very deeply into our own industry.” So mobile incumbents might have a disproportionate impact on mobile AR’s ecosystem compared to startup insurgents.

The challenges for critical VR use cases apply to critical VR apps too. It’s hard to describe a VR app you couldn’t live without, even if you love Facebook’s Beat Saber. It’s too early to tell with smartglasses again, but their critical use cases might need to be more than ports from breakout mobile AR successes.

Cloud/data

Many people in the augmented reality industry are excited about AR Cloud, a persistent 3D real-world data layer for shared AR apps. Apple, Google, Niantic and others are positioning for the future of the technology, and it could become a key enabler for the ecosystem for both mobile AR and smartglasses. Yet critical use cases and monetization remain open questions, and even Niantic CEO John Hanke has been quoted as saying that, “AR in and of itself is not a magic bullet for a hit…there are some real drawbacks to it.” Google and Uber are proof that platform economics can take time to hit their stride, so the excitement may yet be warranted. High Fidelity CEO Philip Rosedale explored blockchain early on as a “generalized digital asset registry”, but the company pivoted away from its original social VR platform before that approach caught on.

Installed base

For the Consumer AR/VR Ecosystem to succeed, massive installed bases for underlying hardware and software platforms are required. While this does not guarantee users downloading or using AR/VR apps, without them there’s little chance of success.

As above, mobile AR has solved this problem due in no small part to high mobile messaging app usage. So while mobile AR has many challenges to solve to go broader than messaging and games, installed base appears to be a done deal. VR might only top 10 million installed base by 2023, so again looks like a subset of the games market for consumers (as well as some enterprise users). Smartglasses could produce tens of millions installed base by 2024 (again if and when Apple enters), and result in a combined AR/VR headset installed base over 50 million in 5 years (or around 2% of mobile AR).

Critical hardware

Today’s critical hardware is the smartphone. It’s the first, most frequent, and last thing most of us look at every day. So mobile AR has critical hardware already. And if we’re right about Apple adding rear-facing depth sensors to the iPhone this year, functionality could get better for a broader set of users. Fast Company recently reported a “source with knowledge” as confirming our thinking, so we’ll all know whether or not this happens later in the year.

VR hardware is valuable, but its usage patterns don’t make it look critical yet. So despite the relative success of Facebook’s Oculus Quest and Sony’s PSVR, VR seems to have found a deep niche audience without going mass-market.

Smartglasses need an Apple quality device (whether made by Apple or somebody else) to be critical. They could start out as mobile peripherals, but a device capable of replacing your phone might be what’s needed to truly scale. However there are major technical issues to solve first, so this could take a few years.

Investment

The ecosystem’s future could depend more on internal corporate investment than startups raising cash from venture capitalists. For example, Apple, Facebook, ByteDance, and Snap’s internal augmented reality investments over recent years might prove greater than the largest augmented and virtual reality investment by VCs. So while attention has focused on monster rounds for Magic Leap and others, a recent decline in VC virtual and augmented reality investment back to pre-Facebook/Oculus levels (as reported in VentureBeat) means that the corporate world could prove more important for fueling market growth.

Leaders

Mobile AR’s consumer leaders are primarily major messaging platform holders like Facebook, ByteDance, and Snap, as well as OS based mobile AR holders Apple and Google. Niantic is also a mobile AR market leader, but has yet to evolve at scale beyond hit game Pokémon Go. Consumer VR has the usual suspects of Facebook, Sony, HTC, and Valve, but their leadership is limited by VR market scale so far. Apple stands out as a potential consumer smartglasses hero, but the company hasn’t talked about product, let alone launched anything yet.

Are we there yet?

Mobile AR is AR/VR’s fully functioning ecosystem today, albeit in a specific vertical built on mobile messaging platforms (again, Pokémon Go looks more like an outlier so far). It will be fascinating to see how messaging incumbents build out from their beachheads, and how effectively they layer ecommerce on top of today’s largely ad-driven business model.

VR appears challenged at the ecosystem level at this stage of the market, with no clear catalyst on the horizon despite steady growth. And while the consumer smartglasses market doesn’t really exist yet, Cook and friends could change everything if and when they decide it’s time for one more thing. It’s not like they haven’t done it before.