Who Needs a Holodeck?

Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves in the digital dreams business. We fantasize so extravagantly about the future shape of a technology that we miss some of its more relevant and mundane uses here and now. Take virtual worlds. Environments such as Second Life promised online immersion where realistic avatars moved through 3D space and ultimately enhanced everything from the media viewing experience to shopping. This was a new notion both of digital community and even online interface. A year and a half after that next big thing, the real hit in the community space turned out to be butt-ugly social networks—2D, low-tech profile pages that fueled phenomenal growth at MySpace and Facebook.

While the fanciful notion of 3D avatars traipsing about in cyber communities clearly has fallen short of expectations, the more modest and practical use of virtual space for business purposes has not. After all, what is a webinar but a virtualized panel discussion or classroom? A well-produced event with strong supporting web software allows for presentations, document sharing, and live Q&A. In just the last year, the webinar format has become a lucrative piece of the trade publishing world as sponsors underwrite expert panels in all fields, and the publisher generates leads that are both engaged and educated. There is nothing especially fancy or technologically advanced about webinars, but they represent rudimentary virtualized worlds. They make sense to us because they impose on familiar web-based technology a real-world metaphor.

This same halfway virtuality also holds true for the emerging platform of online trade shows. Some, such as Ziff Davis, have been in this business for a while, and longtime entrant Unisfair claims to have hosted more than 400 live, conferencelike events online. However, it is only in the last 6 months that the category gained serious traction with a range of publishers. Small publishers looking to get into the event space cheaply (as little as $20,000) are interested, and the larger multititle publishers see it as a way to complement live events with more narrowly focused niche shows.

What is interesting about the technology and interfaces to these shows is their bare-bones virtuality. I use ON24’s new Virtual Show product as an example, but others have similar attributes. ON24 is one of the major webcast producers for publishing partners, and it just released a virtual show platform. Event entrants come into a 2D representation of a 3D-like convention center lobby. You can point and click into doorways for the exhibit hall or a resource center of downloadable assets or an auditorium for panels and keynotes. At the same time, a 2D overlay menu at the bottom gives you more traditional access to the virtual space as well as tools such as a briefcase of saved articles, contacts, booth links, etc. The social networking dimension lets you create an avatar and profile with which to interact with vendors or fellow participants. There is just enough verisimilitude here to suggest the familiar setting of a live conference, but it relies heavily on the conventions and efficiencies of a 2D menu-driven interface.

Likewise, in the exhibit hall a standard vendor booth has a screen for presentations and even avatar representations of staffers. You can engage in online chats with a representative or even start group chats with others currently in the booth. Visually, the booth doesn’t try to immerse you, but it gives you and the person with whom you’re speaking a sense of simultaneous presence. The metaphor of a trade show is communicated in a kind of minimalist way, by picking carefully the elements that communicate the experience. Users who want to engage in social networking can do so in a communications center. Group chats, message boards, and people search all drive a virtual version of the networking function all trade shows provide.

I am not a big believer in 3D virtual worlds, largely because I don’t think they add very much to social exchanges. These less flamboyant virtual trade shows are more likely winners because they promise less and may deliver more. The virtual elements are here to impose a metaphor that helps organize the experience, not define it. According to ON24’s initial research into this category, between 800 and 1,000 people attend these virtual shows, compared to 250 or so for webcasts and webinars, and show attendees stay, on average, 45 minutes. Virtually virtual reality may be a smarter and easier sell than a snazzy but ineffective holodeck.