The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the nexus of technology, digital innovation, and the coolest exhibit experiences west of the Mississippi. Scratch that – it boasts some of the most engaging and memorable exhibits in the galaxy. Given the aura of wonderment that envelopes awe-struck CES attendees as they explore the newest technology and gadgets on the trade show floor, how do you give people an experience they'll remember – especially when you don't actually make any consumer products? That's the challenge faced by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) every year it exhibits at CES. IEEE, a nonprofit organization that encourages technological innovation for the benefit of humanity, might not directly make electronics, but its members are the engineers and technologists that make nearly every consumer electronic product at CES possible.
While increasing membership is often a goal for such organizations, distributing literature about IEEE at a show like CES isn't going to cut it. To stand out amid the four-dimensional televisions, smart routers, next-gen wearables, and other high-tech products fighting for attention, IEEE leans on what it knows best: science. For the past three years, IEEE has tapped into trending tech topics to help shape its exhibit program and develop engaging, interactive experiences that prove to be irresistible to attendees. In 2014, an animatronic robot named Robothespian played the part of greeter in the IEEE exhibit, and for the 2015 show, attendees used electroencephalograph (aka neurological) headsets to race toy cars down a track. So whatever IEEE decided to do for CES 2016, it had to be cooler than humanoid robots and mind-controlled cars, and that's a tall order, even for a group full of world-class technology experts.
In addition to delivering an interesting experience to the CES masses, IEEE had more tangible objectives in mind: increase visibility of the IEEE brand, promote awareness of the role IEEE plays in driving technology forward, further establish itself as a thought leader and go-to resource for media members, and engage current and prospective members. "Our goal was to quickly communicate in a meaningful and personal way that IEEE impacts attendee's everyday lives," says Mickey Young, IEEE's marketing specialist. "We realized the way to do this was not to quote statistics about us, but to use relatable messaging to connect with them."
You're Invited... to Mars
Preparing for Launch
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) sent registered International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) attendees an e-blast introducing the Mars Exploration Vehicle experience.
To help achieve its goals, then, IEEE recruited exhibit house Taylor Manufacturing Industries Inc. (The Taylor Group) and its interactive and gaming exhibits division, Globacore Inc. In true engineer style, the IEEE team took a pragmatic approach to planning. "We conducted in-depth evaluations of our past presences at CES, as well as other industry events, and decided we needed to rethink the way we approach our CES campaign," Young says. "In the vast and exciting environment of CES, it is extremely difficult to not only gain attendees' attention, but also hold it for any length of time."
After conducting research about trending technology topics that would appeal to attendees and media reps at CES, IEEE's public relations agency learned that virtual reality – an activity that requires immersion, attention, and, well, time – was top of mind for its target market. It also happens to be well within IEEE's wheelhouse, as one of its fellows, Todd Richmond, is the director of advanced prototype development at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. In his role, Richmond works with VR applications made for the education, health-care, and defense industries, so he was the perfect consultant for IEEE's exhibit.
With VR on the brain, IEEE needed a theme around which to build its in-booth experience. Turns out, the planets were aligned, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars Curiosity rover was in the headlines at the time all this planning was taking place, making an out-of-this-real-world trip to the Red Planet the natural – and buzz-worthy – choice for a VR execution. So it was settled: IEEE would put CES attendees in the VR-enabled driver's seats of the Mars Exploration Vehicle (MEV) experience.
Captain on the Bridge
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) booth included The Starship Bridge, which comprised a 10-foot-wide screen that displayed space imagery, IEEE information, and the organization's Twitter feed.
With a VR-based traffic builder in mind and execution underway for programming and development of the MEV experience, Catherine McConnell, trade show specialist at IEEE, and her team turned their attention to ancillary components that added some jet fuel to the promotional fire. Confident that the lure of a virtual rover ride would be enough to attract CES attendees, pre-show promotion comprised an e-blast sent to registered attendees that featured the campaign's tagline, "Go Beyond Imagination," paired with an image of an astronaut floating in space and a rendering of the red planet. Additional text invited attendees to visit the exhibit: "Welcome to our world. Experience the IEEE CES 2016 Exhibit. Come to booth #30540 LVCC, South Hall #3."
In addition to the e-blast, the IEEE marketing team set plans in motion for another important piece of its space-centric integrated program – the exhibit. Since IEEE had an existing structure in amortization and wasn't keen on completely reinventing the wheel, The Taylor Group devised a new floor plan that would allow the MEV experience to take up the center of IEEE's existing island exhibit and become the focal point. "Using the existing structure worked well because it allowed the designers to focus new construction on the game seating, related audiovisuals, and associated electronics," says Amy Russell, an account executive at The Taylor Group. And let's be honest, who's going to look at exhibitry when you can don an Oculus Rift headset and be transported to Mars?
That said, the exhibit would contain verbiage that mimicked the e-blast, including the marketing tagline "Go Beyond Imagination" and additional messaging: "Thinking Forward" and "The Force Behind Imagination." It would also be decked out in the official IEEE colors – blue and green. So before attendees could leave Earth, they would be grounded in an IEEE-branded environment.
To create their digital avatars for the Mars Exploration Vehicle (MEV) experience, participants entered a cylindrical room where scanners quickly generated a 3-D image of their heads.
When the doors of the Las Vegas Convention Center opened for CES in January and attendees made their way to the IEEE booth, they started lining up for the MEV experience straight away. The island exhibit meant that attendees entered from all sides, greeted by booth staffers who conducted brief surveys to determine their knowledge of and familiarity with IEEE and VR. Following the short qualification, staffers led interested attendees to three areas before inviting them to take the wheel of the MEV. The activities, each with its own spin on the Mars theme, included The Starship Bridge, a VR/augmented reality (AR) apps station, and a 3-D head scanner (the results of which would be used during the MEV experience).
At The Starship Bridge, attendees satisfied their inner Captain Kirk and viewed a 10-foot-wide screen that displayed imagery of space with a slowly rotating planet in the foreground. Meant to resemble a cockpit window's view into deep space, the monitor (comprising nine, 46-inch flatscreens) also featured information on IEEE, the organization's Twitter feed, and a 3-D digital avatar dressed in a futuristic spacesuit floating in zero gravity. Staffers chatted with interested attendees about IEEE and its objectives, while those eager for further space exploration moonwalked to the next station.
Visitors remained in the booth for an average of 15 minutes.
As attendees made their way past the bridge, they entered the VR apps area, where staffers gave them branded cardboard VR viewers in return for taking a survey about the future of VR and AR. Visitors could then play six VR/AR games and apps, including FOV2GO Trip to Mars, in which they explored the rocky surface of Mars and navigated across the massive Gale Crater, and Space Walk, a VR simulation that allowed players to make a virtual space walk to the International Space Station. All of the apps were designed by Richmond and his team at USC.
Once they had their fill of the games and apps – and downloaded up to three of them for free – participants then entered the 3-D head scanner, which is exactly what it sounds like. Here, staffers instructed attendees to enter a cylindrical room that resembled the USS Enterprise's matter transporter on "Star Trek." One at a time, visitors walked into the small enclosure and took a seat in the center. The door closed, a scan of the person's head was taken (in about two seconds), and that 3-D image was used to create a digital avatar the attendee could use for the main attraction: the MEV experience.
In groups of three, attendees took their individual seats at a stylized command console featuring joystick controls and Oculus Rift headsets. The fourth seat was occupied by the captain – in this case, a booth staffer that provided real-time prompts to guide players through the activity. Once the players put on the headsets and mic-equipped headphones, they saw the cockpit of the exploration vehicle and the 3-D digital avatars of themselves and the other players. The mission: Navigate the MEV across a Martian landscape to the safety of the IEEE Starship while outrunning a dangerous sandstorm in the process.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) wowed CES attendees with a Mars-themed virtual-reality experience.
After a brief training module in which players got accustomed to the controls and working together to manipulate the vehicle, the real game began. Each player followed a prompt on his or her VR headset that contained directions to be given to the other players, while simultaneously following the instructions read to them. The kicker was none of the players knew who controlled what actions, and they had to figure it out on the fly. Adding to the anxiety, missed or slowly executed commands affected the vehicle's speed and lengthened the mission's overall time, leading to a low final score. That's enough to make even Mission Control in Houston more than a little nervous, and the result was a veritable Mars melee as players struggled to properly execute commands. "At times, people were almost yelling over one another to keep the vehicle moving forward," McConnell says. "It was quite entertaining." Compounding the frenzy, a prominently displayed leader board tracked the high scores, allowing competitors to return to the booth throughout the four-day show to see how their stats compared to their fellow Mars explorers.
Once immersed in the MEV experience, players worked as a team to operate the rover across rugged Martian terrain.
After the mission was completed (or failed, as it were), attendees walked away champions on the leader board or with an A for effort and a nifty, branded cardboard viewer. Either way, they had a better idea of IEEE's mission after talking to staffers and reading about the organization on The Starship Bridge. They also had a memorable experience they couldn't get anywhere else on the CES show floor. While many exhibitors created VR experiences, there were none like the MEV. It merged VR with physical gaming controllers that manipulated the virtual world in a multiplayer cooperative mission. That level of integration wowed Sizzle Awards judges, who called the exhibit's concept and execution "exceptional." According to one judge, "Every single element was impressive and perfectly suited for IEEE's target audience."
Booth visitors also received combo pen-stylus-highlighters, branded notebooks, portable phone chargers, luggage tags, flashlights, and USB flash drives– all of which would come in handy back at the office. Furthermore, MEV players received a post-show email featuring their 3-D avatars and thanking them for accepting the mission to Mars. The emails encouraged recipients to share their avatars via social media using the hashtag #cesIEEE.
1,862 attendees accepted the challenge to explore Mars.
As the last attendees unplugged from the MEV experience and the rover was docked, one thing was clear: IEEE's interplanetary integrated program had generated earth-shattering results. Originally, IEEE wanted to get at least 1,100 people to participate in its MEV experience, but 1,862 accepted the challenge, with visitors remaining in the booth an average of 15 minutes. The organization also obtained survey results from 1,536 attendees, besting its goal by 50 percent. IEEE used the information gathered via the surveys to inform its post-show press release about the future of VR/AR, which was picked up by the International Business Times, Reuters, and Yahoo, for a potential reach of nearly 90 million people – roughly the population of Egypt. That act alone helped to reinforce IEEE as a thought leader in the realm of electronics and technology.
In addition to the Martian action happening within the booth, IEEE posted about the MEV and other activities on numerous social-media platforms, including Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. That outreach generated an impressive 376,107 interactions, nearly four times the 100,000 IEEE had initially hoped for. Not bad for a $375,887 investment. So while the jury is still out on whether there's life on Mars, IEEE proved that it's definitely worth a visit. E
Four players took the controls of the command center, which featured Oculus Rift headsets, game controllers, joysticks, and headphones.