The problem with the future is that it never seems to come. All the technologies promised us – three-course meals in a pill, nuclear vacuum cleaners, flying cars – always seem just beyond our grasp. But in the last few years, the impossible has become possible with virtual reality, talking computers, and remote-piloted aircraft now as common as Fitbits and as ubiquitous as
Wi-Fi. You'll see what we mean in the first of a two-part series in which EXHIBITOR magazine looks at six of the technologies that are reshaping the exhibition and event landscape by erasing the thin line between science and magic.
What is it?
While the term virtual reality (VR) was popularized by computer pioneer Jaron Lanier in the 1980s, the technology's roots stretch back to Charles Wheatstone's 1838 stereoscopic experiments, which proved how viewing two side-by-side 2-D images created a life-like third view that mimicked the depth and texture of reality. Augmented reality (AR) is a variety of VR that blends what users see in their real surroundings with computer-generated content. The supplementary images typically add information to the actual surroundings in some way – think of the yellow "first down" line that began appearing in televised football games in 1998, or Inter Ikea Systems B.V.'s app, which allows users to overlap 3-D models of the furniture retailer's products on a live feed from their homes.
Some AR systems use a camera to capture the user's surroundings or some type of display screen that the user looks at through a headset (e.g., Microsoft Corp.'s HoloLens). Others are simply apps that work with tablets or smartphones along the lines of Converse Inc.'s Sampler iPhone app that lets shoppers pick any shoe from the company's catalog and then aim their phone toward their foot, at which point the selected item seems to appear on their appendage.
How fast is it growing?
Greenlight Insights estimates the global VR market will hit $75 billion by 2021. What's more, a ReportLinker poll found that the number of people who say they are "very familiar" with VR technology doubled from 2015 to 2016. Decreasing costs of entry have also eased VR's adoption rate. Google Inc., whose Cardboard VR viewer often sells for less than $10, has shipped more than 10 million of the headsets since 2014. Further appealing to price-conscious buyers will be new entries from Google and Oculus VR LLC in 2018 of several stand-alone, less expensive VR systems that don't require gaming-quality PCs, smartphones, or game consoles.
How are marketers using it?
Some items are simply impractical to bring to a trade show. Take cockroaches, for example. The reviled creepy-crawly creatures can sprint up to 3 miles an hour, hold their breath for 40 minutes, and survive without their heads for a week. Moreover, their accompanying trails of fecal matter and putrefying molted exoskeletons can trigger asthma attacks. To bring this insect into a trade show booth, then, might be as problematic – and as popular – as bringing ants to a picnic. So when BASF Corp. wanted to demonstrate the superiority of its cockroach-management tools at the National Pest Management Association's 2017 PestWorld show, it needed a method that would explain its products' efficacy in a memorably graphic way that printed collateral and salespersons' spiels can't match.
Aided by experiential-marketing agency Impact XM, BASF devised a way to harness the power of AR to create an indelible demo of how and why the company's nonrepellent pesticides would succeed where more typical repellents stumble. Staffers led booth visitors to a discrete area where a Microsoft surface tablet was mounted on a swivel. Guests pivoted and pointed the tablet at one of two physically labeled markers on an adjacent tabletop. When they aimed the Surface at the first marker, they suddenly glimpsed clusters of roaches writhing over the table. In this virtual vignette, the insects drew near but ultimately avoided standard roach-control bait typically sold by BASF's competitors that's often contaminated by an additional repellent spray. But this approach has a damaging side effect, causing many roaches to scatter widely. It wasn't hard for viewers to pick up on the message BASF so effectively used AR to convey: These diminutive survivors of at least 300 million years of brutal evolution wouldn't be defeated by the same-old, same-old pest-control tactic.
With the dramatic enactment of the roaches' ability to outwit their chemical opponent fresh in their minds, attendees pivoted the Surface tablet to the second designated area. There, another pack of roaches seemed to overrun the tabletop. But this time the survivors would not escape their fate for long. Visitors watched as the roaches willingly scuttled over areas of the table treated with BASF's nonrepellent pesticides, unknowingly absorbing the deadly chemical and countering the usual problem of roaches scattering or deterring fellow bugs from feeding on bait. The virtual demo let visitors see for themselves the inherent weakness of rivals' products – and the advantage of BASF's – acted out before their eyes.
While BASF used AR to display something most attendees wouldn't want to see, Sprint Corp. and parent company SoftBank Group Corp. used the technology to demonstrate something booth visitors couldn't see. When the telecommunications giant wanted to excite 21,000 attendees with its own vision of the future for 5G, the upcoming generation of wireless technology, at the Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) in San Francisco last year, it was faced with touting the wonders of an invisible energy – a challenge that many companies might meet with PowerPoint presentations listing a battalion of brain-numbing technical terms.
Knowing there had to be a way that wouldn't risk glazing attendees' eyes over, Sprint, working with Helios Interactive (a Freeman Company) and Fresh Wata LLC, decided to illuminate the wonders of 5G with a series of entertaining vignettes that could convey the potential of a technology that is up to 10 times as fast as its 4G predecessor and will help connect the estimated 21 billion linked devices that will comprise the Internet of Things (IoT) by 2020. To tell those stories in an engaging way, Sprint decided to use Microsoft's HoloLens, a lightweight AR headset that allows users to control and navigate replicated realities with gestures or verbal commands.
Where can you learn more?
CNET's "Augmented and Virtual Reality Industry Primer" examines the most common hardware available for VR and AR, as well as the best software to explore everything from art to astronomy. Mobile Nations LLC's "The Great Virtual Reality Buyer's Guide" takes an off-kilter approach, matching VR and AR hardware to readers based on their experiential needs, such as gaming and immersiveness. Finally, Harvard Business Review's "A Manager's Guide to Augmented Reality" explains why every organization needs an AR strategy. A good way to take VR for a spin without breaking the bank is to try Google Cardboard or one of its offshoots. (Google allows other companies to build their own branded versions of the viewer.) Several models are available in the $5 to $20 price range.
When attendees entered the 100-by-40-foot joint Sprint/SoftBank booth at the Moscone Center for MWCA, one of up to five staffers led them to a nondescript, empty white table near which five HoloLens units were available. Right after a quick primer on how to use the devices, the participants donned the headsets and entered a synthetic realm where four banners, hanging like Post-its in the sky, offered a quartet of scenarios that attendees could pick from by pointing to whichever piqued their interest: Drones, Agriculture, Autonomous Vehicles, and Improved Fan Experience. If they pointed to Drones, for example, a city rose as quietly as steam from the empty table. Spiral waves of 5G emissions rippled from cell towers, and a trio of Sprint corporate-yellow drones spun in the air over the cityscape of ethereal buildings. The disembodied voice of a narrator then began explaining how super-fast, high-bandwidth 5G will bring about a revolution in drones for building construction, maintenance, and emergency response. Once the scenario ended, the city melted away and the banners reappeared, letting users pick the next topic.
In Improved Fan Experience, a sports stadium arose from the blank tabletop, while the storyteller regaled visitors with how 5G would permit those in the crowd to access cameras and view a game from practically any angle on their mobile devices in high-definition 8K video. At its conclusion, the arena disappeared into nothingness, allowing users to then move on to, say, Autonomous Vehicles. In that scenario, a busy grid of streets appeared on which streams of self-driving cars, buses, and trucks zoomed smoothly along, with yellow "waves" over the vehicles indicating the 5G signals being sent back and forth in a coordinated ballet of data that will make traffic jams and accidents as rare as landlines.
What is it?
A "chatbot" is a software program that interacts with people, usually through messaging apps, giving users the impression that they are conversing with a human – or human-equivalent – intelligence. Alternatively known as talkbots, IM bots, interactive agents, and, more recently, virtual assistants, chatbots are nearly 50 years old. The first of their kind was Eliza, a bot that attempted to parrot human conversation well enough to pass the Turing Test, wherein humans try to discern if a conversation is being generated by a software program or by a person. While chatbots have typically been employed for customer service or information acquisition, many are now augmented with artificial intelligence (AI) and voice-recognition technologies to provide a sophisticated interface reminiscent of Lt. Commander Data of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." At present, the most widely adopted chatbots are virtual assistants such as Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri.
How fast is it growing?
The global chatbot market is expected to reach $1.23 billion by 2025, expanding at an annual clip of 24.3 percent a year, per Grand View Research Inc. Key factors for this growth spurt are faster hardware and improved natural-language processing algorithms that allow computers to understand human conversation in real time. Some surveys suggest that roughly 45 percent of end users prefer chatbots as their primary mode of communication when making customer-service inquiries. Consequently, Gartner Inc. projects that in excess of 85 percent of customer-service interactions will occur without a human on the service end as soon as 2020.
How are marketers using it?
Talking computers have suffered a bad rap ever since HAL 9000 informed its human boss, "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that," before ejecting the aforementioned astronaut into the deadly cold of outer space. But chatbots like IBM Corp.'s Watson Session Expert are quickly showing that such technology can be a tool instead of a terror. Based on the Watson super computer system capable of answering questions asked in natural language (and which trounced human competitors on a now-legendary special edition of "Jeopardy"), the Watson Session Expert chatbot was introduced at the IBM World of Watson in 2016. There, at its coming-out party, Watson Session Expert was used to inform attendees on all curriculum-related matters, like a kind of digital majordomo. Its success quickly made it a standard fixture of the technology giant's global conferences, including IBM InterConnect 2017, the company's largest marketing event.
At InterConnect 2017, which drew more than 20,000 attendees, Watson Session Expert handled a flood of questions and comments on more than 2,000 sessions, a volume that would have required employing and training a sizable staff. Knowing from experience when attendees' questions would start cresting, IBM activated the chatbot six weeks prior to the event and kept it going for one week after. Attendees accessed it on IBM's online agenda builder and through the event's mobile app. Available around the clock during that span, the Watson Session Expert fielded a barrage of 14,746 inquiries, answering each one without any of the usual human lag time.
Roughly 46 percent of the inquiries concerned educational sessions, with the rest divided among topics including speakers, exhibitors, receptions, and meals. While most people accessed Watson by typing, they could also connect with it through voice on their phone or computer. Even with that astonishing volume of questions, the chatbot performed as if it was doing nothing more than adding two plus two. In a post-conference survey of attendees, Watson received a 4.15 average rating on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, and more than 80 percent of respondents rated the chatbot as either "Awesome" or "Good."
The Watson Session Expert's success was evidenced by the sheer smoothness of its operation and the way it juggled thousands of queries with an ease that bordered more on sorcery than silicon. But if fire is the test of gold, then adversity is the true test of technology. BizBash Media Inc. discovered that when the organization staged its 2017 BizBash Live Florida. The New York-based company put a chatbot through its own flame-based trial and showed how the technology can save money and human resources, improve the customer experience, and even come to the rescue like a cybernetic 911 dispatcher.
While preparing for the one-day trade show with workshops and multiple social activities, BizBash aspired to provide easier access to the event agenda and better communicate answers to frequently asked questions. Moreover, the company desired a detailed statistical analysis of incoming queries and the ability to modify outgoing replies on the fly in a uniform manner that would convey the same info to everyone every time.
To execute a wish list of this scope, the company would have required dozens of additional human staffers working nonstop, constantly pooling the questions they received and conferring to standardize their responses. So much like IBM's remedy, BizBash's solution was not to bring in an armada of humans to fulfill these needs, but a single chatbot.
Where can you learn more?
To learn more about incorporating chatbots into your exhibit or event, download the "Ultimate Guide to Chatbots for Business." Another helpful resource is BotList, which lists thousands of examples of bots, from ones specializing in customer service to others concentrating on cryptocurrency, along with contact info for their makers. ChatBots magazine curated its trove of 1,000 articles into "The Complete Beginner's Guide to Chatbots," an anthology of its 100 most popular articles on the topic. DIY types may find "Chatbots for eCommerce: Learn How to Build a Virtual Shopping Assistant," by Amit Kothari, Rania Zyane, and Joshua Hoover, as well as "Designing Bots: Creating Conversational Experiences," by Amir Shevat, just the spur they need to construct their own interactive agents.
Working with Draper, UT-based Sciensio LLC, which specializes in messaging software and chatbots, BizBash developed "Betty the EventBot," a kind of "cyberconcierge" that would deliver key event information to attendees and be fully integrated with the BizBash web-based registration system to provide ongoing messaging and updates regarding the show. Betty was programed to respond to 90 categories of questions, creating up to 3 million different types of responses for those areas, mixing and matching information depending on the particulars of the queries. Available on the BizBash event website, Facebook Messenger, and SMS, Betty went live about nine days before BizBash Live Florida opened and was used by 58 percent of attendees, which was about 20 percent more than the company expected. Over the course of the event, Betty ultimately fielded approximately 1,300 questions on everything from workshops and session times to recreation.
Regardless of how well Betty or any chatbot is programed, there will always be glitches when it runs into the unexpected. When Betty didn't know the answer to something, it either referred the questioner to a general support line or offered the attendee a private communication channel so that staffers could provide personalized support directly. Thus, BizBash staff noticed right away when the chatbot passed on inquiries about certain dietary matters, a potential problem area all too familiar to many event planners. While Betty recognized and responded appropriately to general queries, it was momentarily stymied on more specific nutritional matters. Staffers quickly reprogrammed Betty to provide relevant responses to anyone using 25 terms such as "celiac" and "shellfish," a fix that required about 15 minutes to enact.
When it first launched, the BizBash scenario essentially paralleled IBM's. However, the technology revealed an unanticipated but welcome fringe benefit. Just days before to the event, BizBash suffered an internet outage that took down its website. The site may have crashed, but Betty was up and available during the quagmire to field questions that otherwise might have gone unanswered.
As if the outage wasn't inconvenient enough, someone set off the convention center's fire alarm during the event. After confirming it was a false alarm, BizBash used Betty to contact all attendees by sending an everything-is-OK message within 60 seconds, a potentially panic-quelling act, especially in light of the recent tragedy in Las Vegas. While humans could have sent the same message, using Betty avoided the problem of nonstandard responses, which can easily give way to misinformation and rumors. In its postmortem of the event, BizBash found Betty not only answered more than 93 percent of all users' questions correctly the first time, but also provided emergency utility when things went awry.
What is it?
Defined as the measurement and study of unique physical or behavioral traits, biometrics began in earnest when Alphonse Bertillon developed "Bertillonage," or anthropometry, in 1879, which was a system comprising body measurements and physical descriptions to identify criminals. As technology in general progressed, so did biometrics, with facial-, signature-, and iris-recognition systems appearing in 1964, 1965, and 1994. Now its frontiers encompass tools not only for law enforcement and personal security, but also for marketing. Thus, facial-expression analysis, heart-rate monitoring, and palm-, ear-, vein-, and face-identification have begun to insinuate themselves into everyday life. Today the most widely encountered biometric tech for U.S. adults is digital fingerprinting and voice recognition.
How fast is it growing?
Propelled by advances in technology, as well as escalating applications in commercial and government sectors, the biometric market is expected to reach $50 billion by 2024, according to Global Market Insights Inc. Supplying the thrust behind its growth are the law enforcement, government, health-care, and marketing sectors, all of which desire ways to efficiently identify individuals in person and via their electronic devices.
As a consequence of these myriad market forces and needs, 3.4 billion users will have biometric authentication features on their devices – such as Apple Inc.'s home-button fingerprint sensor and its Face ID, which uses infrared technology to construct a 3-D map of users' faces. Additionally, 60 percent of companies now use some form of biometrics, mostly for security.
More relevant to exhibitors, marketers are now beginning to employ biometrics to tailor their products and services to customers. The Walt Disney Co., for example, used facial-expression analysis to gauge viewers' reactions to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," while the marketing communications company Omnicom Group Inc. wielded similar technology to figure out which Super Bowl ads viewers enjoyed the most.
How are marketers using it?
From the Neolithic period, when the first reflective surfaces of obsidian were handcrafted almost 9,000 years ago, mirrors have gripped human imagination. Whether it's Snow White's queen demanding to know who was the fairest of them all or Alice leaping into Wonderland, mirrors have long held a tantalizing promise of knowledge and wonder. So when Optimum Nutrition Inc. chose to use biometrics to promote its products, it created a magic mirror that was the stuff of fact, not fable.
In early 2016, the Downers Grove, IL, company and Sparks Marketing Group Inc. began a mobile-marketing venture that would tour parts of the United States promoting Optimum Nutrition's whey protein powder and other nutritional products to fitness enthusiasts. Dubbed the Gold Standard Zone, the road show consisted of a towed mobile trailer that stopped at events the company felt were especially rich with its target audience, such as the New York City Marathon. The Gold Standard Zone comprised four areas: a Fuel station where visitors could calculate their own nutritional goals using interactive screens; a Supplementation station featuring samples of sports-nutrition products; a Lift Yourself, Lift Others station where participants could earn money for charity by doing pull-ups; and, finally, the Fitness station, where the magic mirror taught visitors about proper exercise form and technique.
After guests had visited the first three stations, staffers led them to the magic mirror that was, in actuality, a 60-inch monitor employing Kinect, the motion-sensing input device used in Microsoft Xbox 360 and Xbox One video-game consoles, as well as Windows-based PCs. Staffers first directed participants to select one of six strength-building exercises they wanted to learn to perform better from the monitor's onscreen menu.
Once participants chose the exercise that interested them, they watched footage of it performed to perfection by a pro athlete for 30 seconds. Then it was the attendees' turn to put into practice what they'd just seen. While they acted out, for example, a bent-over barbell row, the biometric mirror watched them perform and displayed a representation of their bodies. Whenever its software could tell attendees were not correctly exercising their key joints or muscles, the mirror placed a red orb over that area to alert the participants, who could then correct their performance. As soon as the attendees began doing the exercise correctly, the mirror switched the orb's hue from crimson to gold to indicate the successful alteration. Taking only 45 to 60 seconds per person, the magic mirror allowed hundreds of visitors to take part in an exercise with the kind of feedback even in-person trainers would be hard-pressed to provide.
Avocados From Mexico (AFM) also used biometric technology to shape behavior. Ever since the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted an 83-year ban on importing Mexican avocados in 1997, the berry has gone from the pejoratively nicknamed "alligator pear" to a much-loved casual snack. The fruit owes much of its success to marketing by groups such as AFM, whose efforts have made the on-trend edibles a staple of that most American of occasions, the Super Bowl.
Where can you learn more?
"Biometrics for Dummies," by Peter Gregory and Michael Simon, packs a relaxed but detailed overview of the emerging technology in its pages, from biometrics' history to its drawbacks. The book also contains an implementation guide for those planning to apply the technology to their businesses. Meanwhile, the "Biometrics for Dummies Cheat Sheet," created by the same publisher and authors as the book of the same name, supplies an expeditious breakdown of physiological and behavioral biometrics, along with the pluses and minuses of various biometric technologies. The blog-like entries on SecureIDNews' Biometrics channel convey the breadth of biometrics' continuing adoption by industry and government entities, such as United States Customs and Border Protection and Tesla Inc.
So it was no surprise the Irving, TX-headquartered AFM would market avocados at another quintessentially American event: the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Conference and Festival in Austin, TX, where brands try to create a tipping point for their products in front of 600,000 attendees who are seen as powerful cultural influencers. AFM worked with Next Now Inc. and IMW Agency to create what it called the #Avohappiness Experience, cementing even further the idea that avocados equal delight.
The #Avohappiness Experience was centered on SXSW's SouthBites Trailer Park, which featured a variety of food trucks. It utilized an 8-by-20-foot standard shipping container called the Avo-matic, a structure AFM purported to be a futuristic, automated food experience where robots inside would whip up meals "Jetsons" style. More importantly, it would also use biometric technology to persuade attendees to associate smiling with avocados.
Visitors waited in line in front of the Avo-matic's four 32-inch touchscreens to select, depending on the time of day, a made-to-order breakfast or lunch provided by AFM. Once it was their turn, onscreen prompts asked users to enter their email addresses and customize their choices of entrees with different sauces and toppings.
As they waited for the food (which was, in reality, produced by human labor inside the container and not automatons), the visitors were cued by more on-screen messages to smile and thereby drive a "happiness meter" on the screen as high as it could go. For a period of about 25 seconds, a high-def camera and proprietary emotion-tracking software connected to the screens analyzed 34 separate facial points to determine when the visitors had attained what its algorithm determined was a sincere smile. (If participants, who could view a live video capture of their faces, stopped smiling, the dial on the happiness meter fell and did not rise until they began grinning again.) The camera then snapped a photo and sent it to the supplied email address. At almost exactly the same time, the meal-prep staff inside delivered the ordered food via pass-through slots. Meanwhile, a robot appeared on the screen urging the participants to share their photos on Facebook or Twitter in exchange for avocado hacks, recipes, and a chance to win a $5,000 grand prize. E