Written by Nitin Karandikar

What do you get when you combine WebEx with Second Life, with a dash of LinkedIn thrown in?

The answer might very well be a new product that will be unveiled by Unisfair at the Web 2.0 Expo conference next week, called Virtual Events for Enterprise (that's a mouthful, I wish they'd just call it VEE) - billed as "the industry's first B2B virtual event solution".

What does it do?

Unisfair, based in Menlo Park, CA, has already been hosting online events for a few years. Focusing largely on media and publishing trade shows, they've hosted over 200 such events; now they're targeting their virtual events at the Enterprise.

The new Virtual Events product models an Enterprise-level conference (or some other Corporate event, such as a large sales meeting or training session), in a 3D world, in the same vein as Second Life. It features interactive, on-demand events, with persistence; the event stays around for up to 90 days, providing a rich destination for prospects, partners and employees. This virtual world supports multiple "conference tracks", simultaneous sessions, polls and surveys; it also enables Live interactions among attendees, presenters and exhibitors, providing rich professional networking opportunities. Finally, it provides strong support for data capture and reporting, creating a business intelligence gold mine for the marketers who host the conference.

The User Experience

I got a sneak peek at this product before next week's launch, and I have to say that I'm impressed. The good news was that it needed no special client downloads (although it required Flash and RealPlayer). I was able to log in and start playing with the product pretty quickly, and to paraphrase a famous line from a Tom Cruise movie, they had me at first contact! Immediately on login, I was immersed in the beautifully rendered setting of a business-oriented virtual world, standing in what was clearly recognizable as the lobby of a conference center. With simple, intuitive movements of the mouse, I was able to navigate into and interact with a fully-functional presentation area, exhibition floor and "resources" area. I could seamlessly view presentations, interact with the booth presenters and communicate with other attendees, with little effort.

The fact that this 3D virtual world is closely modeled after the real-life elements of a corporate event, makes it extremely easy to use - there are no new concepts to understand, no new metaphors to be learnt. I imagine that even relatively non-tech-savvy users will be able to learn to use this application and become comfortable with it in no time.

I had expected network speed to be an issue, but found the application to be very responsive. The pre-loading of different modules and presentations took a little bit of time, but there were no annoying pauses or gaps once each section was running - similar to levels in an online game.

Highlights

I like this product for several reasons, summarized below:

  • The Cool factor: 3D immersion, navigation, beautiful scapes - that should count for something, at least among the techies
  • Ease of use: This product requires no special downloads and models existing concepts, making it really easy to participate
  • Rich interaction: In terms of the interactivity among participants, the user experience is significantly better than a "Webinar". The interactions are bi-directional, richer in context and multi-level (e.g. "multiple tracks" at a virtual conference), and provide more control to the user - such as, attending multiple sessions that happen to be live at the same time.
  • Cheaper: At the same time, this solution is a lot cheaper for the marketing department than a physical conference, while arguably providing the same (or larger) opportunity for lead generation and brand management activities
  • Bridges geographical divides: The conference presenters are only present virtually, and could be widely distributed geographically in the real world
  • Time zones and localization: Virtual Events supports a ‚Äúfollow the sun‚Ä? concept where a live event can take place in different locations in the same day, with localization of presentation content
  • Persistence: The virtual world is preserved for a period of time after the live event, providing a rich resource for prospects and partners to participate and learn
  • Business intelligence: Since the event is virtual, it goes without saying that marketers get a tremendous opportunity to track user behavior, participant interactions and levels of engagement; the data can later be analyzed in detail
  • Discovery: A virtual event provides great networking opportunities for participants - they can find presentations and resources on topics of interest; locate friends and others with shared interests; and in general, communicate, collaborate and interact with a wide variety of people

Concerns

Of course, no product is perfect, and I have several concerns about this one. The main ones are listed below:

  • Speed: This is, of course, potentially a big issue. A requirement for high-speed access is a given, but there is no stated requirement for any special level of connectivity. As the number of users increase, however, if the application were to slow down, it would significantly degrade the user experience.
  • Hardware requirements: Nothing special, it only needs a browser, with Flash and RealPlayer (or some audio player). The application is supposed to check your system for required downloads, initially when you register.
  • Unfamiliarity with 3D worlds: Not everyone is a Second Life user, so the paradigm may be new, especially for many corporate users. But the interface is intuitive enough that even non-tech-savvy people should be able to use it without much trouble
  • Creation and Design: There is likely to be significant effort required for the initial set up of your virtual event. Unisfair provides training, "booth creation wizards" and templates to help streamline the process; however, I would guess that it's likely to require a web/flash designer to make this process work well (Note: I did not get a chance to play with the designing or reporting parts of this application, so I'm guessing somewhat on those parts.)
  • Expense: Since this product is likely to be targeted initially at large enterprises, with the attendant long sales cycles, I'm guessing that the cost factor is likely to keep smaller and mid-level players locked out for the time being

Conclusion

It will be interesting to see how quickly (and how much) corporate events move into the virtual world. One possibility is that the choice of physical vs virtual does not have to be exclusive; it's quite possible that some conferences in the future could combine a physical presence for local attendees with a concurrent virtual conference for remote attendees (as is already happening ); further, attendees could potentially interact across this barrier.

Overall, I think virtual conferences are poised to take off - the advantages to participants, of rich interaction coupled with freedom from geography, time and physical limitations, are just too hard to ignore. Marketers, of course, love this approach - because every facet of a virtual conference can be instrumented and analyzed at length for extracting business intelligence, and it's much cheaper than a physical conference. If this space explodes, the new Virtual Events product puts Unisfair into a great position to leverage that growth!