Why Virtual Conferences May Be Here to Stay Digital networking and conferences offer plenty of benefits that may appeal to entrepreneurs long after quarantine.

By Irina logra

This story appears in the July 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Engage

I am in Los Angeles. My new friend Grégory is…somewhere in France, I think? But together, our avatars are exploring a business conference on a virtual island. The day just ended, so we stroll to the beach and await a tour by motorboat. Then we realize no boat is necessary; the water is walkable. So off we go, two digital avatars wading into the digital blue.

As our professional lives become more digital, it's worth wondering: Is this the future? Can human connection thrive in pixels? Virtual conference spaces seem to offer some insight, because while they were niche before COVID-19, they're now in high demand. VirBela, which creates the virtual space I'm in, recorded a 600 percent increase in sales since March. VR platform Hubs by Mozilla says it's doubling users every few weeks. Augmented reality startup Spatial reported 1,000 percent growth.

Related: 5 Ways to Lead Effective Virtual Meetings With Your Remote Teams

Skeptics might say, "Virtual spaces aren't like real life!" That's true — though in my experience, some things are strangely the same. A conference room still looks like a conference room, and a panel still features a lineup of experts in chairs. (Their avatars can be just as boring as in real life, too.) At one session, other avatars' heads even kept blocking my view — so realistic! But there were many digital upgrades too: People's bios and LinkedIn profiles are a click away, I could find anyone immediately without wandering around, and I never worried about forgetting someone's name; it's glowing over their head.

But reality isn't what these spaces are really going for anyway. "Trying to fully replicate the offline experience in a digital world is like taking a horse carriage and replacing the horse with an engine," says Andrey Lunev, who produces virtual events with the company XR Crowd. Instead, developers seem to start with a different question: How can this new experience feel safely familiar? VirBela's environments look a little like Fortnite, and company president Alex Howland says that's on purpose. More realistic graphics require powerful hardware, and he wants people to have access regardless of whether they're using an Oculus or an old PC.

In any case, users say the space isn't what's valuable. It's the real people who inhabit it.

That's how Ashley Huffman felt. She lives in Toronto and leads marketing for the tech company Nano Magnetics, and recently attended the virtual version of a conference that's usually held in China. She was surprised at how human it felt. "When you're inside an event 10 feet away from the chairman of HTC, Cher Wang," Huffman says, "it feels like she's talking with you." Moscow-based VR developer Alina Mikhaleva loves to hear that; she's the founder of Less Media Group and hopes more people will now try the new technology. "The crisis allows us to take a break, reflect on our old habits, and rethink what we want to build in the future," she says.

Related: 5 Ways to Beat Zoom Fatigue

But once COVID-19 is contained, will we abandon virtual spaces and return to the real world? It may not be that simple. The education industry offers a case study: Completion rates for online courses were averaging in the single digits, so a few years ago, some institutions adopted virtual spaces. Stanford University began using VirBela for parts of an executive online program called LEAD and saw great results. "We could bring the community together in a way that you can't do in a videoconference," says Peter DeMarzo, the program's director. He plans to keep going.

Perhaps, then, the future will be a hybrid. For example, the event I attended was called Laval Virtual 2020; it's the digital version of an annual event held in Laval, France. Organizers want people to come in person, but they loved that the digital version drew 6,600 people — many of whom may never get to France. So now they're exploring how to offer both versions at once, like a gathering of humans with two planes of existence: the real and virtual worlds, both of which have their benefits.

Irina Logra is a marketing strategist and award-winning photographer who developed promotional campaigns and visual content for Jaguar Land Rover, Cirque du Soleil, Kaspersky Lab, Mitsubishi, UCLA, and others.

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