As remote-friendly conferences, shows, and events have become commonplace in the wake of COVID-19, few organizers have taken a truly digital-first approach, redefining what’s possible from the (virtual) ground up. Yet there is a clear opportunity: the number of organizations planning virtual events doubled in 2020, and the market is expected to grow tenfold to a projected $774B by 2030. At that size, virtual and physical events can easily coexist post-lockdown. Virtual events will offer unique selling points as either standalone offerings or supplements to their physical counterparts.
Leading the way thus far are games and platforms with large, highly social user bases, such as Fortnite and Roblox, that are able to connect important demographics to virtual concerts, movie screenings, and even business meetings. These early forays into virtual events have proven beneficial to all parties: performers and content creators gain exposure to valuable audiences, platform operators drive additional engagement (and potentially open new revenue streams), and players get access to interesting content and new ways to “play” their favorite games. As you can see in the chart below, these events are occurring at an impressive and growing scale.
However, this only scratches the surface of what’s possible. We believe that virtual events can drive deeper, more meaningful engagement for operators, turning straightforward games into some of the important social platforms of the future: synthetic realities where players connect to creators (and to each other) in live, personalized, and hyper-realistic settings.
To realize this vision, operators should invest in three key areas of opportunity:
- Enhanced Interactivity
- Improved Immersion
- Strengthened Social Connections
Today’s virtual events largely seek to emulate in-person gatherings, using videoconferencing and digital avatars as facsimiles of face-to-face interactions. Simply put, they’re not envisioned as virtual-first from an interactivity standpoint. Yet when social distancing ends, virtual events will need to find ways to differentiate from their real world counterparts in order to stay relevant. Organizers are already beginning to realize this with certain virtual concerts making the most of the hosting medium – for example, being able to integrate live attendee reactions into a virtual space. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s starting to become clear that true innovation in virtual events lies in creating inimitable experiences, interactive in ways that physical events can never be.
In the same way that Cameo bridges the gap between creators and fans via personalized videos, virtual events may soon also cater to the tastes of individuals and small groups. Attendees will influence outcomes, interact with or even modulate unique surroundings, and communicate directly with performers in personalized ways that only virtual settings can enable. Our portfolio company RedpillVR has already made great strides in this area, creating immersive concert experiences that let viewers visualize and manipulate live music in virtual reality.
Virtual event-goers will also be able to interface with fellow audience members as much or as little as they please, forming breakout groups with ease or conversely shutting out the rest of the crowd entirely for a more intimate viewing experience. In the near future, it’s not hard to imagine small groups of like-minded fans booking their own virtual superstars, like Hatsune Miku or FN Meka, for personal shows in their own private digital arenas–perhaps even joining them on stage to perform together.
Just as virtual events must surpass the limitations of physical interaction, they must also achieve greater immersion to overcome their own constraints. They must be truly live, spontaneous, and believable, but in authentic ways that don’t always necessitate crossing the Uncanny Valley. This starts with improved technology, such as the volumetric video tools of Arcturus or the photogrammetry offerings of Capturing Reality. Next gen spatial audio also holds great promise, as we have seen first-hand via our portfolio company Spatial. Combine all this improved technology with advanced haptics, and virtual events will eventually feature levels of immersion that not only compete with reality but also offer unique advantages. Digital sports broadcasts already allow viewers to choose their own camera angle; with further technological advances, attendees will be able to create entirely unique perspectives, navigating virtual space in real time to participate wherever and however they like.
Strengthened Social Connections
For many, distance, cost, and exclusivity make real world events inaccessible. Virtual events can democratize access to a much larger audience than their analog counterparts. 34% of event planners share this view, citing this as the “most positive result of pivoting to virtual.” Increased attendance also means greater inclusivity, bringing together more diverse voices and opinions.
Recent virtual events have focused on self-expression as a means of socializing. For example, events can provide attendees with skins and emotes or inspire them to remix their experiences into entirely new creations. One such example on TikTok drew 2M views on its own and generated an additional 1.3B views (~650x increase) of related user-generated content. Yet virtual events of the future will go further, becoming true digital gathering places unconstrained by distance, sound, or reality. Firms like Hopin and Gather have already begun to make strides in this area, drawing inspiration from games for a variety of business and social applications.
Key Hurdles to Overcome
Despite the promise of virtual events, obstacles remain. Existing platforms have limitations: VR headsets restrict movement and aren’t widely adopted, while mobile devices suffer from smaller form factors and limited processing power. Concurrency is also an issue, with many recent events being fragmented into smaller groups to meet demand and preserve fidelity. Additionally, meaningful privacy and security concerns exist regarding custody of event data. Finally, the inevitable return to normalcy as vaccines spread and lockdowns ease may temporarily dampen industry growth.
These are solvable problems, and the long-term upside of virtual events remains vast. We are excited by the recent advancements made in the key opportunity areas outlined above–both within our own portfolio and across the broader industry–and we are eager to hear from founders who share our vision for the future of virtual events.
We at BITKRAFT look forward to helping shape this new synthetic reality.