I don’t normally cover the “Virtual Events” space as defined by the few vendors that offer products and services in this area. The concept encompasses much more than my particular focus of webinars and webcasts. The idea is to create an online analog of a physical large-venue conference or trade show. The online environment typically has representations of buildings, rooms, even outdoor spaces. Visitors are represented by avatars (I guess that word no longer needs explanation) and you can have online interactions with other guests, sales and marketing representatives, press, and support personnel.
One of the big names in this space is Unisfair, which today announced Version 9 of their Virtual Engagement Platform. I got a demo of the latest version from their Senior Director of Marketing, Joerg Rathenberg. Joerg told me that they are trying to move away from the concept of creating a single event for a company, such as a three-day user group meeting. Instead, they are encouraging clients to create “always open” virtual venues where people can come and go within the construct of the digital location and request information or see provided content at their own convenience.
Recorded and live webcasts are a part of the content offerings that visitors might want to take in. Joerg explained that within these kinds of virtual environments, it is unusual for companies to stage truly live webinars. Because of the large audience reach and the overall time, effort, and expense that is involved in setting up, promoting, and running a virtual space, companies usually prefer to create their content ahead of time. This lets them do retakes if necessary, add multimedia, and generally ensure the most professional impression they can offer. But that can mean additional production expenses, involvement of outside video production services, and intermediary video formats that have to be imported and integrated into the virtual environment.
To help clients make the process easier, Unisfair has included a “Webcasting Studio” as a component of Version 9. It is part of the main venue builder software console and lets companies produce their webcasts as a self-service function. They can load up slides, video clips, and other multimedia content. They can hook up webcams (unlikely) or professional video cameras and capture the video feed of one or many presenters. They can switch between slide decks and presenters during the course of the presentation.
Once the content is created, there are two ways it can be used within the online venue. You can schedule a live session at a particular time and in a particular “room” just as you would at a physical conference. Attendees arrive and find themselves in the online analog of an auditorium room where they can watch the presentation. But they also have the ability to interact with the presentation staff in the ways we are all familiar with by now… Answer polling questions, respond to surveys, and type questions for the presenters. Behind the scenes, the presentation staff has the ability to chat with each other in private and prioritize audience questions for answering.
The second way to let people see the content is through on-demand access. This eliminates live interaction and response from the presenters, but allows the content to have ongoing reach and effectiveness.
Joerg told me that Unisfair has no interest in competing against standalone webcasting providers such as Stream57 or Streamlogics. Unisfair webcasts are meant to live purely within the confines of their own virtual venue and require the facilities of the virtual engagement platform to support playback, tracking, and interaction. But by adding the same kind of functionality to their environment that the standalone vendors offer, it gives companies an all-in-one content creation and delivery mechanism. It makes sense to me.
While I did not have a chance to see a live webcast session (or “simu-live” if you prefer), I watched an on-demand playback and it operated smoothly and problem free. The surrounding cosmetic features to give it the feel of an auditorium presentation did provide a little psychological familiarity and made the playback seem like less of a cold, impersonal internet console. Joerg says that as with all serious webcasting solutions, scalability is a priority, and they regularly do automated stress testing with many thousands of simulated viewers to ensure proper operation under heavy loads. They have also supported events with a few thousand real attendees, so the scalability is not just theoretical.
I’m happy (but not at all surprised) to see that webcasts are deemed important enough as information delivery and audience interaction vehicles to be included as part of an overall virtual engagement strategy. The next time you see a virtual event or venue advertised by a company, check it out. It’s a fascinating experience.