As the world struggles with COVID-19, every public or private event is getting canceled or postponed. Many live events are slowly being replaced or augmented by virtual wants, which make us wonder if these tough times will set a precedent for the industry to think of new ways to network, communicate and engage at events in the future. Certain technologies like 5G, Augmented Reality and Holographic Speaker claim to be on a path to support needs of “anytime anywhere” event experience. 

Brandt Kruger is the go-to-expert to help event planners make educated decisions when it comes to event technology. Brandt is the owner of event technology consulting and has over 20 years of experience in hundreds of productions under his belt. He also takes classes on event production at Event Leadership Institute. Let’s get his authentic perspective on the role that wireless connectivity plays in planning events and unwrap some realistic possibilities and challenges in adopting technologies such 5G and Augmented Reality to improve the conference and event experience. Hopefully together we will separate some facts from fiction.

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WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE INDUSTRY AFTER COVID-19 HAS HIT?

We’re going to be looking even harder at these technologies in the next few weeks. As land rush is better than a gold rush to try and get our meetings and events online, Bandwidth is going to be more important than ever.

WHERE DO YOU SEE THE GAP IS IN THE INDUSTRY OVERALL IN ADOPTING FORWARD LOOKING TECHNOLOGIES WHERE IT ALLOWS THEM TO CONNECT WITH THE AUDIENCE WHETHER IN PERSON OR REMOTELY?

There’s a couple of different factors and one of which is that the meetings and events business is inherently a conservative, small industry in that we pretend to look at technology very carefully before implementing it. Very few events allow you to just go nuts and do whatever bleeding edge but most people need everything to work. You need the audio, the lights or the video to work right. You need to be able to hear everyone on their microphones and to see them well. The same thing goes for the live streaming and the online technology.You are just needed to work right, because much like weddings, theatre or something like that, in the events business, you only really get one shot. And so if you really screwed the pooch and mess something up on your event, it’s not like theatre, where we can fix that between the next night and it’ll be fixed by tomorrow. So you know, there’s a lot more pressure on meeting and event planners to make it work. It has to be bulletproof. And so technology really does tend to lag in our industry when it comes to adoption of even the simplest things, like an app for your event. So, we’ve had event apps for a long time now, and it’s really only been within the last three years or so that it’s expected that you would have an app to go along with your conference where you click in, you can check your agenda and all kinds of stuff. And even then, you still see the agenda printed on the back of the badge because you need backups upon backups in our world. As a result, that filters through the entire industry. So when we talk about things like, the future of bandwidth, the future of 5G, the future of WiFi six, all of these types of technologies, is it gonna work? And if so, how is it going to work? Is it going to work well or is it going to be flaky? These are some of the concerns that I have when I start looking at 5G.

WHAT ROLE DOES WIRELESS CONNECTIVITY PLAY IN EVENT PLANNING?

It’s fascinating to watch that evolve over the course of the last five years or so. When event apps first came out there was a lot of questioning about what happens when it disconnects. What happens when you get sketchy connectivity? Is it cashing things locally? Is it having to check the servers all the time? That became less and less of an issue as connectivity became more and more omnipresent in our venues, hotels, convention centers etc. So the expectations of being able to always have access to the Internet have never been higher. I think it needs to be infrastructure at this point, you don’t charge your attendees more similar to that you don’t charge how many times they’re using the bathrooms down outside the convention center. So I think we need to start thinking as an industry and as venues less about WiFi and connectivity being a profit center and more about it being a good infrastructure. It’s something that we need to provide, just like water and electricity. 

WHAT DOES ‘GOOD CONNECTIVITY’ MEAN IN EVENT INDUSTRY?

It’s something that you need to look at in the design process. So you do have to know your audience perhaps a little better than we have in the past. You can at least try and have some idea if they just check email on Facebook or do they need teleconferencing? Do they need to step out into the hallway and take a zoom call? Also, the number of devices, right? A lot of times these access points are limited on the number of devices that each one can handle, and so you might have six or eight of them in the ballroom, each capable of handling 200 people. But if you’ve got 1000 or 2000 people in the room and most of them have a phone and a tablet or a phone and a computer. So it is important to have enough capacity not only for the sheer number of people that you are planning on having, but also the potential number of devices that they’re gonna have. And then the other thing that frequently gets forgotten about is access points. What if all of a sudden 1000 people try to hit an access point that’s only designed to take care of 200?

HAS 4G NOT BEEN ABLE TO SOLVE THAT PROBLEM?

I vividly remember barely being able to hit 4G signals in midtown Manhattan, to the point where you could literally watch your battery going down because it was trying to hit that 4G signal. I travelled a fair amount being deep in the bowels of convention centers and not being able to hit cellular signals of any kind. But I can’t think of the last time that I’ve been in a major venue and not had it work. So I think it’s easy to forget that it’s actually much better than it used to be. Obviously, it makes a big difference if you’re in cities versus rural areas. But as far as my industry goes, I think the blanket coverage is generally pretty good, at least as far as I’ve seen.

HOW DO YOU PLAN CONNECTIVITY AND 5G IN AN EVENT FOR DIFFERENT PARTIES INVOLVED?

One of the things that we frequently talk about in the audio-visual and technical side is about what things are mission critical. When you start thinking about mission critical portions of your event, we’re talking about things like registration. As a general rule we don’t want to put those on WiFi but on a hard line Internet connection. Same thing with anything that’s going to be on stage where we’re doing some kind of live Internet demo famously, if you go back and watch the Apple Key Notes with Jobs where he literally is telling people to shut down their personal hotspots in the room because there was so much wireless interference that he couldn’t get the iPhone or the iPad, which one it was to connect to their WiFi. So, anytime you’ve got these mission critical sections of your event, registration, on-stage demos or the live stream, you want to make sure that that’s going out on a hard line Internet connection, that you’re not sharing that connection with the 3000 other people in the room. The problem is that the hard line goes and connects into a switch that the WiFi access points are also connected to and it all slams together. Venues have a responsibility to try and keep those kinds of mission critical lines open for their attendees and have their infrastructure planned out in a way so that it’s not all going to slam into the same dusty switch in the back closet. 

Now, how does 5G start to play into a point? The high speed, high bandwidth, 5G might not work deep down in the convention center. You might still be able to use it out of the convention center. So in addition to having the copper or fiber lines coming out of the event venue, this might be another kind of redundant service being able to get those really high speed point to point connections. If in case the fiber is out, then you’ve still got the 5G. Maybe the 5G is the primary and the copper or the fiber is the secondary. 5G starts to be able to help as a kind of more of a point to point in that instance. Beyond that, I suspect that the overall changes won’t be large to the least in the venue side. WiFi is still gonna be WiFi. Venues are reluctant to put in things like cellular amplifiers because they want to sell you the WiFi. We’ll continue to have decent but maybe spotty 4G and 5G coverage, because there’s not gonna be a lot of incentive for venues to put, to make it accessible immediately to the attendee. But there is this possibility of maybe using it as a way of providing access for the entire facility.

HAVE YOU SEEN EVENT PLANNERS EVEN TALK ABOUT 5G OR IT IS JUST A FOREIGN WORD TO THEM?

I think people are worried. Obviously, now they’ve got bigger things to worry about. But, a couple months ago everything was 5G. It is in every advertisement. It’s in every marketing thing. And so, people are legitimately just wondering, “Hey, is this something I need to be paying attention to? Is this something I need to know about? Do I need to be asking my venues are you 5G compatible?” I’ve been spending a fair amount of time just trying to get the information out there like, “Hey, this is the basics of how the technology works. It’s not something that’s going to just revolutionize everything tomorrow. This is gonna take some time. What I’ve been trying to tell people, it’s just to relax. It’s gonna be okay because any time you’re increasing the bandwidth within the capacity, we don’t know what’s gonna come out of this. Nobody could have predicted years ago, how much people would be reliant on their cell phones to call for a car and a stranger comes and picks you up or has food delivered to your house. We don’t know what’s gonna come out of this next generation. You’re going to hear a lot in 2020 and we were at up until all this happened. 

What I’m trying to tell people is that it’s not going to come to your local convention center anytime soon because it’s incredibly expensive infrastructure. I’m telling folks to slow your roll. It’s not a big deal. 

HOW DO LARGE VENUES PLAN TO USE NETWORK SLICING? WILL IT CHANGE INFRASTRUCTURE BUDGETING AND DECISION MAKING?

It’ll be fascinating to watch. I still think that for the vast majority of venues, things aren’t going to change, because you are still investing in someone else’s network. The sub-carriers on the mobile networks, maybe there’s something along those lines that combine. It’ll come down to how big of a difference in cost of implementing the infrastructure and how big of a difference in the perceived benefit to the customer. If hotels and venues can just upgrade their systems to WiFi six and get the benefits of the increased capacity, a little bit of a bump in bandwidth speeds, in speeds of the other network and people are satisfied with that. I think that’s the direction over because then they’ll own the whole thing, just like they do now. And enough venues, hotels use that as a profit center or a carrot that they can dangle. I think it’s possible for large venues because large venues already are just doing it as a benefit to their attendees. So those larger facilities potentially could go down that road. But for the vast majority of conference and events centers, it’s just gonna be kind of business as usual. But again, maybe I’m just a cynic.

On my non cynical side, I personally believe that the venues that start to treat it as a benefit that they provide, people will start to take notice of that. And people will start to send business to those venues. I’ve met a couple of them that were starting to experiment with that. And of course now, with everything being canceled for the next 2 quarters, it’s gonna be awhile before we can find out the results of those experiments. But I’m really curious to know if that does wind up paying off in the long run. I think the money will follow.

CAN 5G CONTRIBUTE TO THE DIGITAL DISPLAYS AT THE VENUES?

I think it’s definitely gonna help. It’s just a question of whether or not it’s five years, 10 years or 15 years down the way. It’s gonna be flowing like water. It’s gonna be just like we don’t think about the electricity that’s in our walls or about the water pipes. It’s in our walls you know, until unless something goes wrong. Similarly data is going to be everywhere and 5G is definitely going to be facilitating that out in the world because of its increased capacity. So even though a lot of the speeds in those lower and medium bends aren’t going to be tremendously faster than what we’ve got now, the increased capacity is gonna make it feel faster. And the decreased latency is gonna make it feel faster. It’s happening in events and has a bright future. We’ll have to see when we come out of this on the other end, if it still does. But, doing more with attendee tracking or with attendee personalization, you bring up the fantastic point of how do we know that’s where the traffic is? How do we know where that’s where the people are? And so using active tracking technologies, using RFID and Bluetooth, low energy etc were already starting to be used in our in-person events to track people as they move throughout the event. And so you would be able to see in real time, “we spent all this money and all this time setting up a digital display or the golf simulator or the vodka luge over in the corner that we think are going to be popular, and now you start to be able to quantify it. We were just starting to play around with these technologies as far as being able to quantify and really show that the ROI of the portions of our events being able to do that in real time is going to be fantastic. People seem to be stuck as they’re coming in the door because the bar’s right there, we need to open up more doors. People are backed up in real time. So that’s where we’re going to see the most immediate fund as this starts. As this technology starts to roll out and we get to increase capacity and reduce latency that’s what’s gonna be able to do all this in real time ROI tracking plus a lot of fun stuff too like Polygram.

CAN TECHNOLOGY PLAY A ROLE IN MAKING THINGS AUTONOMIC FOR YOUR INDUSTRY?

There are services that are doing that. Basically wireless little chromecast dongles that you can stick into an HDMI port, and then you can route whatever information you want to route to whatever display. So if that display has to move, you can change that. Display technology is like my pet a thing that I’m really into. See the thing that Delta did, where multiple people could look at the same display and see different things. That was one of the last big events that happened before all of this hit. They’re actually using almost like a lenticular display where, it’s like forming the photon beams at different people in different directions based on who they are. They were combining facial recognition to know who you were combined with cameras to know where you were standing in the room. And then the display, no matter where you stood in the room, was only showing you the information that was for you. And so this idea of personalizing the displays for each individual attendee as they’re walking by, it’s fascinating and so that it’s not changing as different people walk by literally, you only see the display that’s destined for you. And so all of this type of you’re going to need incredibly fast lightning fast data transfers in order to be able to start pulling this off in any meaningful way.

CAN COMPUTER VISION AND MECH COMPUTING ACTUALLY MAKE THIS HAPPEN IN A BROADWAY?

You’re gonna see that as a trend and a theme over the next decade. It’s not going to be about any ‘one’ technology that just blows your mind. It’s going to be these fusing and combinations of technology that are going to be incredible. Because in order to pull off a display like that, there are so many different moving pieces in order to make that go. 5G is going to enable something that we haven’t even thought of.

HAVE YOU COME ACROSS 5G ‘BROADCAST’ AT ALL IN EVENTS?

I haven’t, but I’m not surprised. If not audio but definitely video is bandwidth intensive, so being able to get stuff from point to point quickly and effectively, I would not be surprised at all. There’s a whole section of video production that is completely done. I would imagine a similar idea. I haven’t heard enough about it, but I would imagine it’s something similar where you’re just trying to transfer these files and video streams very, very quickly with very low latency over short distances.

If you are one of the lucky folks out there that still has a job and aren’t sick, please do what you can out there to help other folks and think about giving blood to American Red Cross, think about giving money; a lot of kids out there are of a school that still need school lunches and things like that in the past were provided for free by the government. And so some cities and states are still doing that some are not. So be sure to take a moment to be thankful for what you have and help out folks, if you can.

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Natasha Puri

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