Pepper’s Ghost, Star Wars, Twitter and Facebook

Stephen Armstrong sees “ghostly” images that aren’t really in the room and explains that this is the future of business events

The future is just like the past, only more so according to futurist Faith Popcorn. That’s true of the use of cutting-edge technology in the constantly evolving events industry – only, as Faith would say, more so.

Take the latest 3D holographic presentation effects from Musion Systems. At first sight, it’s as if Star Wars visuals have materialised on a conference stage. Just as Princess Leia fed a standing, talking holograph of herself pleading for aid into the circuits of tin can droid R2D2, so Musion can beam a fully interactive live presentation from an expert panellist into the room to present, discuss and answer questions even if the actual speaker is on the other side of the planet. Amazing. But it begins with a trick called Pepper’s Ghost, devised for Victorian theatres.

Musion’s holographs – as seen when the legendary but dead rapper Tupac Shakur appeared on stage with Snoop Dogg and Dre Dre earlier this year – were created by company founder Uwe Maass using a version of the light refraction technique that allowed actors images to appear on sheets of glass in ghostly form, scaring the corsets off London audiences. His Eyeliner projection system pushed Pepper’s Ghost into the 20th century. Musion’s TelePresence adds the third dimension.

It’s tempting to imagine how the British Academic Conference on Otolaryngology (BACO) would use TelePresence. This year, the BACO’s conference in Glasgow’s SECC linked footage of surgery happening at an ear, nose and throat clinic in Beziers, France, so delegates could watch images from three cameras, including an HD microscope. As the operation unfolded, a professor in Utrecht provided commentary. There’s a missed 3D opportunity.

“This is the essence of hybrid events where technology, new media and events are working together to create a new-look marketing mix which places content and experience at its core,” argues Kate Disley, group marketing manager at International Confex, who is employing TelePresence at the industry expo in March next year. “We’re seeing a huge amount of innovative technology entering the events market and it’s changing everything about the way these experiences look, feel and operate,” she says.

“The Olympic and Paralympic Games spurred this change – not just the games themselves, but all the hundreds of business and brand events outside of the parks and stadia. The most successful ones are the ones enriching the experience of the delegate or the guest, or that reach new visitors outside of the room.”

Jane Baker, business development director at CWT Meetings & Events, agrees. “Events are no longer solely a face-to-face marketing tool,” she says. “Live webcasts, online event TV, Twitter walls and Facebook groups can all offer one-to-one audience engagement without spiraling costs.

“TED, for example, does this really well. Around 1,800 people attend the live event in California, a live simulcast of the conference sessions goes to a worldwide audience, 2.3 million people follow the Facebook page and the TED video website has had more than 500 million views. The content works live in the room, live online and on-demand for the future – the hybrid event format allows huge amplification of the message.”

Technology, new media and events are working together to create a new-look marketing mix

Laura Moody’s company Blondefish specialises in boosting the impact of consumer and business events to a potentially huge audience using high street technology. She says: “We threw a party for Smirnoff where consumers check in via Facebook as soon as they arrive in the party with hosts, who use iPads to register them.

“With another touch of the screen, they can pick their favourite Smirnoff cocktail – and that’s a ‘Like’ on their Facebook page. The 1,000-odd people at the party had an average of 500 friends on their page, so you’re marketing to half a million people with that one party.”

Ms Moody expects near field communication (NFC) technology to accelerate this. NFC tech means mobile phones carry ID and even bank account information that can allow check-in with a simple swipe of the handset.

Julia Hartz, co-founder and president of Silicon Valley pioneer Eventbrite, sees this extending still further. “I can see a time where there’s no queue, no tickets, no registration – you just arrive at a concert or a conference and walk right in,” she says.

Eventbrite has been offering online ticketing services for smaller event organisers since 2006 – initially online. It let grassroots music movements, such as the US Jam Band scene, run their own gate, and the advent of mobile, social media and big data means the site is effectively an indie “Ticketmaster” as well as mainstream conference support tool.

With event spectacle, ticketing, audience registration and session coverage all heading high tech, what does this mean for the real reason people attend events – to meet other people? Martin Loat, chief executive of the Propeller Group, has an app for that called Event Engine.

This creates an interactive show guide with social network attached. Visitors to events, such as The Specialist Media Show, can take advice on which sessions suit their needs and tastes as well as rate sessions and message each other on their smartphones. “Organisers can track the success of individual events on booking, on the day and in real time when the session is on,” Mr Loat adds.