While the virtual world Second Life has gained widespread attention among consumers, there is also a growing market for virtual trade shows that come complete with a grand entranceway, a conference hall for keynotes, exhibition booths and professional networking lounges.
"The only thing we can't do is serve cocktails," said Brent Arslaner, vice-president of marketing at Unisfair, a Californian company that specialises in virtual events.
Unisfair plans to unveil its Virtual Events for the Enterprise software on April 16. This provides multiple venues, rich media interaction and networking for companies to use when hosting their own virtual events. Unisfair has hosted more than 200 virtual events for companies including IBM and HP with the software, which it now will sell as a packaged tool.
"We look at this as a pragmatic version of what Second Life is doing for consumers," Arslaner said. "It basically emulates every aspect of a physical event."
The tool is aimed at fostering real-time interactivity among attendees, presenters, panellists and exhibitors through rich multimedia technologies such as text, audio, video and voice. Attendees do not need any special software except for a Flash player to participate.
For example, they can ask questions during a panellist session just as they would at a live event - and hear an answer via voice. Attendees can also chat online with one another in a networking lounge. When attendees approach a booth in the exhibition hall - which looks remarkably like the setup of most vendors' booths at a live event - they can choose to see a demonstration, obtain additional information or chat live with a vendor representative. In addition, many events can offer content on demand for up to 90 days after the live event to provide attendees with more flexibility, Arslaner said.
The tool is attractive to companies that want an event that includes representatives from multiple countries in a very short time and those that want to avoid the high costs associated with physical conferences, such as buying food and renting space, he said.
"C-level executives attend our events at a very high rate because...they don't have much time," he said. "You could spend three hours in our environment instead of losing two days of your life with travelling."
Gartner analyst, Jeffrey Mann, said the rich user experience offered by virtual environments can create compelling online events. While the virtual world was familiar to many consumers, he said, many enterprises looking to take advantage of these environments were seeking improved security, branding and enterprise-level support.
But those who may have indulged in sleeping in or lounging by the pool at an exotic conference locale instead of attending a session or two should take note: The system tracks every session and keynote an online participant attends and notes all other interactions, including chatting with someone at a vendor's booth. This mechanism provided valuable information to exhibitors and other sponsors of the show looking for sales leads, Arslaner said.