. 8 Tech Innovations for 2019 | Northstar Meetings Group

8 Tech Innovations for 2019

These cutting-edge solutions will fit nicely into a planner's toolbox.

The pace of innovation hasn't slowed, but meetings technology is moving into a period of refinement, of tweaks and polishing, as the latest tools are prepped for a larger audience or broader applications. Clients are helping to drive progress, too, as they seek solutions to their own pain points. It's a practical kind of innovation.

M&C loves practical innovation. In this year's roundup, we turn our attention to creative developments around technology that aren't always brand-new -- and in some cases are pretty old. A few don't really involve technology at all. In the following cases, the developments represent progress and creativity -- and with that, endless possibilities.

The industry has big plans to harness the power of biometric data as an identifier -- the efficiency of facial recognition for check-in and renting cars, and the reliability of face or iris scanning for security purposes at airports and venues, as espoused by companies like Clear. As the popularity of those solutions gathers steam in the meetings world -- and the comfort level of the audience rises -- the opportunities to scan and measure emotional response and engagement based on attendee facial features become plentiful. Event organizers are forever looking for data that reveals more insight into on-site attendee activity and engagement.

One way this is becoming a reality is via Zenus, a Houston-based company helping to drive facial-recognition check-in. The firm has developed a "Face Analytics Sensor," a lightweight, mountable camera with facial-feature-analysis software baked in. Unlike facial-recognition check-in, this software doesn't identify the attendees -- it analyzes the demographics of groups of faces, as well as their engagement based on facial cues. In that sense, it's less invasive from a privacy standpoint than facial recognition.

Similar software already is at work in other on-site technologies. Consider the iWalker from U.K.-based Nomadix, an innovative, wearable video sandwich board of sorts that can be moved about an exhibit hall to deliver targeted messaging. The raised, high-definition LED screen has built-in stereo speakers and somehow manages to strap on to a staff member's shoulders in ergonomic fashion. It's a real attention grabber -- and also happens to be outfitted with facial-feature-detection software that defines and reports on the age ranges, emotional responses and gender of the audience watching the video. That's potentially powerful user data, both for event organizers and the sponsor whose video messaging is playing.

Even more impressive, the iWalker can actually play different loaded videos based on the demographic analysis of the audience before it. 

Headsets that broadcast live presentations via radio channels still can be a very effective way to deliver clear audio in a cacophonous exhibition environment. But mobile apps just might kill the radio star. 

A number of apps promise convenience -- with no need to rent proprietary headsets to hear broadcast sessions or simultaneous translation -- saving organizers thousands in rental fees. Attendees can listen on their own devices  with their own headphones or earbuds. And, crucially, app developers have made great strides in solving issues of latency (audio delay) or poor WiFi networks.

Interactio can be used for streaming and translation, incorporating only a PC and the Interactio Broadcaster app. Live audio is delivered in real time to the mobile app on attendees' devices using WiFi or a cellular network. If so desired, the livestream can be recorded and made available for on-demand listening later.

What's more, the mobile app is easily integrated into the general event app -- as it was for the IBTM World conference in Barcelona last November. Attendees could navigate via the app to the desired session and listen to crystal-clear audio -- whether they were in the room, elsewhere in the convention center or even off-site. Running late to the opening keynote? Simply listen while en route.

For live interpretation, the simultaneous-translation provider Ablio has similarly developed a mobile app to be released this year -- eliminating the need for any proprietary hardware, or even for the interpreter to be on-site. Event organizers set up the translation broadcast using standard PCs, while interpreters can operate either on-site or remotely via their own computers. Translation is delivered to attendee devices, broadcast in real time via dedicated WiFi networks to avoid overloading the venue's bandwidth.

Social media displays have become a common sight at events, whether on strategically placed digital signage, projected on a large wall of screens or simply as a feature on the event website. These tools grab posts from platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook that are tagged with the event hashtag. 

But the potentially haphazard nature of this crowdsourced content means the end result might not always be so aesthetically pleasing. Amondo, a platform with its roots in the music business, has broadened its scope to include business events as well. Given the "festivalization" trend we've noted over the past few years, this makes sense. With the polish of music-festival marketing, Amondo curates content from event organizers and around the web, combining the professionally produced and attendee-contributed information into a slick presentation that's worthy of the marketing reel for next year's event. Videos, animated GIFs and still photographs are combined with social media posts into a shareable web page, an "imprint," that can be shared by both organizers and attendees. Attendees can use the Amondo app to customize their own version of the event, too, adding photos and videos.

A platform that seamlessly combines crowdsourced material with professionally created content is an incredibly useful marketing tool, particularly if it can be easily shared and distributed. How many event organizers are paying for professional photographers and videographers, only to upload a gallery of images to a corner of the website and then forget about them? Expect to see a lot more demand for content curation and amplification platforms from organizers who want to get more bang for their content buck.

Virtual reality has been bandied about as a significant industry innovation for years now. What's changed? This year Facebook-owned Oculus released the Oculus Go, a stand-alone, cordless VR headset with WiFi that costs less than $200. You don't have to connect it to a computer or insert a smartphone. It's the most accessible piece of VR hardware released to date that isn't made of cardboard.

Whether or not planners have lined up to buy them yet isn't really the issue; the point is, they could. 

Diagramming and collaborative-planning platform AllSeated has designed a VR product for venues that allows for cutting-edge collaboration in a VR environment. While it will be available for multiple platforms, it's the mass-market appeal of the Oculus hardware that could give this technology the boost to make it far more commonplace in the meetings industry.

"We see this as the next evolution of meetings technology," says Sandy Hammer, co-founder and CMO of AllSeated. "What is the one thing we've been missing? The way to tell our stories in a more visual environment. This new hardware allows for collaboration inside the Oculus environment, in addition to giving planners a platform to experience many venues at once without the expense and time of traveling to see the actual space."

The portable, affordable yet completely immersive VR experience really could be a game changer. The fact that VR headsets are generally associated with gamers shouldn't be a deterrent; it wasn't so long ago that game developers, in particular, were most excited about the imminent release of a portable, high-resolution "gaming device" called the iPad.

When it comes to mixed reality, mass-market appeal has thus far eluded the Microsoft HoloLens, a self-contained, glasses-style headset that lets the wearer interact with holograms. At $3,000 and up, it hasn't been priced for the mass market, but rumor has it that a lower-priced version is set to hit the shelves sometime this year. MGM Resorts is planning to launch a sales tool later in 2019 that will make use of the headset for both its global and local sales reps.

A team collaboration and communication platform can be absolutely key for keeping all parties on the same page when planning an event. The latest meeting-room tech takes that one step further, combining a virtual communication platform with a face-to-face gathering space.

Cisco Webex Boards and Webex Teams -- both of which recently debuted in Park MGM's new Ideation Studio in Las Vegas -- bridge that gap between face-to-face and digital collaboration. The Board is the hub of the operation, a large touch-sensitive display that wirelessly connects to the computers and mobile devices of all meeting/work-group invitees -- whether they're in the room or not. They can use the Webex Board for presentations, as a digital whiteboard, or for video- or audioconferences. It's completely interactive, too, which means team members can "draw" directly on the board to annotate presentations or shared documents -- or draw via the apps on their own devices and have the results show up in real time on-screen.

Webex Teams is the infrastructure that makes the continued collaboration possible, providing a virtual meeting space where all meeting content is stored, along with instant messaging, file sharing, whiteboards and video calling among team members at the touch of a button.

The platforms serve a dual purpose, facilitating face-to-face and remote interaction and collaboration, while also digitizing the meeting content: Whiteboard notes, diagrams and anything created on the board during the meeting are saved for future reference, while all conferences -- video, audio, in-person -- can be recorded and referred to later. That's particularly helpful in ensuring the work continues between and after the face-to-face meetings take place.

"We are no longer selling just space and services," noted Peter King, chief executive of the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Center, at IMEX Frankfurt in Germany last year. "We are now selling experiences." As that's become a commonly voiced perspective from hotel and venue execs, it's no surprise that some, King among them, are turning to creative-experience gurus C2 for insight.

C2 International, founded by Cirque du Soleil and global creative agency Sid Lee, is developing immersive and interactive experiences for business-event clients, bringing the creative energy of the C2 Montreal gathering to other events and venues around the world. At IMEX Frankfurt 2018, where the Melbourne-C2 partnership was announced, C2 showcased two meeting experiences for attendees: Sky Lab, in which participants were suspended in midair, carnival-ride style, in a session designed to boost creativity and innovation; and Dark Lab, a pitch-black meeting experience in a light-tight tent that prompted attendees to concentrate on listening to the discussion.

Last year also saw the debut of the Espace C2, a modular meetings facility on the top floor of the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in downtown Montreal. The 7,000-square-foot venue can accommodate as many as 220 people, and the main room, the Forum, can be quickly converted from a tiered-seating meeting area to an experiential brainstorming lab with large pools of balls in which attendees can immerse themselves -- an atypical meeting experience for any venue that isn't Chuck E. Cheese.

For broadcasting livestreaming video, you can't outdo the quality delivered by a professional production company. But given the rising demand for livestreams and the rarity of an ample budget, there's a compromise -- an automated camera setup that saves on labor and production costs. 

The extent to which the process can be automated is surprising. The French company RoCamRoll offers a portable kit that includes three wireless tracking cameras with tripods and requires minimal setup. For keynotes and sessions, the live camera and perspective automatically change depending on who's speaking, to focus on the correct subject. The system automatically detects when a slide is changed in the presentation or a video is played, and those visuals are automatically inserted into the live feed; no interaction is required on the part of the event organizer. Costs are kept in check via a long-term subscription for the hardware and service. 

When in doubt, go back to basics. Some of the most innovative solutions work because they use modern technology to spotlight the tried-and-true. 

Kubify's Learning Toolbox solution, an e-poster platform that took home the People's Choice Award for the IBTM World 2018 Tech Watch, can serve up multimedia presentations and connect presenters and attendees at scientific conferences. But it wouldn't be nearly as successful if it didn't rely on small cardboard cards that can be posted and distributed at the conferences. The technology builds on the poster concept without replacing it.

Or consider Inkpact -- a marketing solution that builds brand loyalty and expands reach via handwritten letters. Technology connects marketers and conference organizers with the scribes who can write the letters -- but it's the handwritten envelopes and letters that the end customer opens and reads. One Inkpact case study revealed a 33 percent response rate from clients who received handwritten letters, vs. just 10 percent from those who received an email. Sometimes it pays to go retro.