Brandt Krueger

TECHNICAL PRODUCER, EDUCATOR, SPEAKER, AND CONSULTANT FOR THE MEETING AND EVENTS INDUSTRY. GEEK DAD, HUSBAND

Consultant, Meeting and Event Technology
Owner, Event Technology Consulting
Instructor, Event Leadership Institute
Cohost, #EventIcons - Where the icons of the event industry meet

Filtering by Category: Event Technology

Are Chatbots Really the Next Big Thing in Events?

(An edited version of this article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Summer 2018. Updated January, 2019)

If you were following the Silicon Valley tech blogs, you would have guessed that by now we’d be living in a world filled with chatbots. But as the years came and went, they just didn’t quite seem to catch on in the way that many pundits were expecting, and headlines such as “The 200 Billion Dollar Chatbot Disruption” also came, and ultimately, went.

The meeting and events industry, on the other hand, seems to have a continued interest in chatbots, with more and more articles being written on the subject, and high-profile events providing the service to their attendees. Could it be that an industry that’s all about connecting people might actually be one of the best suited for the next wave of digital disruption?

So what the heck are they?

First, let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we say “chatbot”. One of the easiest ways to think about chatbots is as a form of digital assistant, like Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa. While these assistants can do quite a bit more than your average chatbot (including home automation control, shopping, games, and more), one of the most common uses is to simply answer our everyday questions. “Hey Google, what’s the weather today?” is a question I hear almost daily in my household as the people get ready in the morning, deciding what to wear. “What’s the drive time to Pizza Luce?”, “How tall is Mount Rushmore?”, and “How do you spell Dubrovnik?” were other questions I’ve heard in just the last week. Where these assistants shine is their ability to hear us ask questions in our normal tone, using our normal language, and (hopefully) give us the right answer.

This ability is called “natural language processing” and is a very narrow subset of (buzzword alert!) Artificial Intelligence. It’s what allow us to interact with our digital assistants in a much more “natural” and conversational manner, and what allows them to interpret what information we’re actually looking for and respond with it. Chatbots use the same technology to interact with us, but instead of talking to our event chatbot, we’re interacting with it using text. This could be through an app like Facebook Messenger or Telegram, through a chat box on a web page, embedded within an event mobile app, or even just texting to a specific number set up for the event.

Ugh, who wants to talk to a robot?

Apparently, millions of people. Over the course of 2017 the number of people using voice-activated assistants grew 128.9% to over 35 Million people in the United States alone, according to a report by Juniper Research. The same report estimates that by 2022, over half of US households will have a voice-enabled smart speaker in them. When it comes specifically to chatbots, another report found that 60% of millennials have used them at some point. Of those that tried them, over 70% reported they had a positive experience, and of those that hadn’t tried them, over half said they’d be interested in trying them.

I think a lot of the resistance to digital assistants and chatbots comes from the horrible customer service experience most of us have had with “phone trees”, another form of automation that was supposed to make our lives easier. Who hasn’t wanted to push their phone through a wall at the 9 different options being presented to you, with none of them being the reason you’re actually calling? Usually that frustration stems from the fact that you just want a simple question answered, and you want it answered quickly. That, folks, is where chatbots shine.

Actually Making Life Easier

That’s really what it boils down to: people just want their question answered in the fastest, easiest way possible, and if that means texting with a chatbot, well… then… great. If they want to know where the reception is that evening, they don’t want to open the event app, wait for it to update, click into the agenda, then into the reception entry, and finally get their answer. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to type in:

“Where is the reception tonight?” 

And get the answer:
“The reception is in the Crowne Ballroom, on the 23rd floor. Just follow the signs in the lobby to the west elevators. Don’t forget, it’s a Hawaiian theme, so be sure to wear your best floral print and flip flops!”

Notice how there’s even more information there than was actually requested, potentially saving time having to ask follow-up questions? The bot might even attach a map to the event in the next message, just in case. How convenient is that? Plus, let’s be honest. No matter how many emails you sent out providing that information, you know a significant percentage will have forgotten the information, or even worse, never read them in the first place!

But what if it doesn’t know the answer?

Robot+Questions.jpg

While most people see this as a negative, it’s actually one of the more powerful benefits of chatbots. If it doesn’t know the answer, most chatbots will kick the question up to a real, live person for the answer. Why is that a benefit? Because it can help you identify the questions you didn’t anticipate. After all, a chatbot is only as good as the information it’s given, and can only answer the questions to which you’ve given it the answers. If more and more people start asking a question it wasn’t pre-programmed with, you can simply add the answer to the bot’s program on the fly.

It can also help you react to unforeseen issues with your event in real time. If attendees are asking your chatbot, “How do I get to the ballroom from the hotel?” you may have a signage or staffing issue. If quite a few are asking “Where are the Mothers’ Rooms?” and you don’t have any, you can react quickly and get some arranged- an actual example from an event that utilized chatbots.

The Future Bots

Natural language processing technology is only getting better, and event bots have a bright future. Already, providers are able to get a bot up and running in less than 20 minutes by having the planner fill out an online survey. As AI and machine learning get applied, you’ll be able to offer up your current website and printed materials to be analyzed by the service, and then auto-generating the most likely questions and answers based on that information.

The “event app” went from “Why do I need that?” to almost every major event having one in less than five years, and event chatbots could well be on the same trajectory. So what do you think? Have you tried a chatbot at your event? How did it go? If you haven’t, what’s the likelihood you’ll try a chatbot in one of your events this year?

Incorporating Immersive Technology in Live Events

(This article was originally published in MeetingMentor Magazine in Spring 2017)

Augmented reality and virtual reality have been on the event technology buzzword list for a while now, with one or both making a lot of people’s “Hot Technology to Watch” lists as far back as 2015. The subject has always been a little twitchy for event people because a lot of what we do is about in-person experiences. We’re people-people, so the idea of a hundred attendees in a room strapping some device to the top of their heads is going to give a lot of us a severe case of spine shivers. Nonetheless, after years of talking about VR and AR, practical uses are starting to make their way into the meeting and events industry.

edited.jpg

Let’s take a moment to get our definitions straight because a lot of people have started to use the term virtual reality a little loosely. Augmented reality is the process of layering something over reality. An example would be the much-maligned Google Glass, in which the user could still see the world, but had text information in the corner of their vision. Whether it’s your smartphone, smart glasses, or full-on cyborgesque headgear, the user can still see and hear the world around them. Whatever information or image that’s being presented to them is being layered over the real world. It is literally reality, augmented.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, is meant to be an immersive experience. It transports us out of the real world - and into a virtual one. These are the headsets that have come on strong in the last year, including offerings from Google, Oculus Rift (which is owned by Facebook), Sony, LG, and other major manufacturers, and are quickly being followed by a host of knock-off, no-name brands. In addition to fully virtual worlds being presented to the wearer of a VR headset, an important subcategory has emerged: immersive video. While not technically virtual reality, filmmakers, documentarians, and extreme sports enthusiasts have begun creating amazingly compelling 360° video, putting the viewer in the middle of the action. The viewer can turn their head and body in any direction to view what’s going on in the scene, but cannot interact with it in any meaningful way.

Much has already been written about the uses of virtual reality as a marketing tool, either by venues or destinations. Immersive video and VR are perfect as in-booth experiences, or even giveaways as low-end VR devices can be as inexpensive as $10 in bulk and can give the viewer a dramatic and powerful view of your product or hotel. But how can event organizers start to take advantage of these emerging technologies, and overcome the healthy skepticism of what is inherently a solitary experience?

While VR headsets intentionally drop the viewer into their own personal world, don’t discount the group experience. Audi and Samsung have worked together to create group virtual reality experiences for their events. Upon arriving, guests were guided to a room of almost 100 Gear VR headsets and seated on space-age spinning chairs. From there they watched, simultaneously, a virtual presentation of amazing graphics and sound, including being seated in their new model vehicle while it rolled through a virtual thrill ride of twists and turns.

Meanwhile, back in “reality”, the room was pumped with smoke and one of the walls was removed. At the conclusion of the virtual presentation, the guests removed their goggles to reveal the actual vehicle to be inspected in person. The photos and videos are incredible, with people laughing, holding hands, and spinning in their chairs. The guests appear to have an amazing time... together.

This kind of scale is probably out of the budget for a lot of events, but it does show that creative event designers are finding ways to turn VR into a group experience. For the short term, most events might need to content themselves with some kind of station with two or three headsets where guests can have a little fun going into a virtual world or playing a game, but as costs come down and technology gets faster, it’s easy to envision group VR presentations becoming more cost-effective.

Things get even more interesting on the augmented reality side. Because these devices are layering information over reality, the experience doesn’t take you out of reality. We will again see the most obvious possibilities for venues, including being able to stand in the middle of an empty ballroom, put on a pair of AR goggles and have important information overlaid on to what the viewer sees. This could include various room setups, decor options, room features, and more - all rendered three-dimensionally and moving as the viewer walks through the environment. The goggles could highlight even more technical items such as ceiling heights, power drops, and rigging points.

Another application is to combine AR technology with other hot-topic technologies. Beacon technology allows for precise device location where GPS might not be available. Now, combine that with information contained within the typical event mobile app. Imagine being an attendee at a busy trade show. While visiting a booth, you receive a notification in your AR-enabled glasses, letting you know it’s time for your appointment at another stand. Your path to your next appointment is highlighted, and (just like Google Maps) it shows you the fastest route.

This technology is coming faster than you might think, with several companies working actively on augmented reality goggles and headsets, and while a little behind their virtual reality cousins, commercial versions should be available soon from the likes of Microsoft and Google. In the meantime, compelling AR experiences can still be achieved using tablets and smartphones, and these will likely continue to be popular and less expensive options for the near future.

The 2018 Trends in Event Technology According to Basically Everyone

I read a lot of trends posts when it comes to the event industry. A lot of trends posts. As a result, I've always tried to stand out a little bit by doing something unusual. In the past, I've done anti-trends posts, including the "Top 5 things you won't have to think about this year", among others.

This year I decided to try something a little different. As I came across the various "Here's What You HAVE to Know About Event Technology in 2018!" posts, I cataloged them and pasted them into a text document. After I felt I had the majority of them, I ran it all through a word cloud generator, and whammo! The trends post of all the trends posts.

Here's where we landed:

"Experiential" sure seemed to be quite the buzzword in 2017, so no big shock that the number one word or phrase was "Experience", and was used almost 200 times across all articles. "Artificial Intelligence" and "Data" were right up there though, with "Marketing" being a bit of a surprise. In retrospect, though, it shouldn't have been, as "Event Marketing" has been on the tips of a lot of big brand's tongues these days.

I was a little surprised to see that "Augmented Reality" and "Virtual Reality" were lower in the list than I would have thought, just because they seemed to be mentioned in almost every article I read, but maybe the words just weren't used as frequently. "Chatbots" also seemed kind of low, given the buzz they seem to be generating.

Methodology: Before you ask, yes- I combined "AI" with Artificial Intelligence, "VR" with Virtual Reality, and "AR" with "Augmented Reality". When something looked like a partial phrase, I went back to my master text file and searched for the possible variations and did my best to combine them. I eliminated all words with less than 25 instances, as well as common words such as "if", "and", "the", etc. I also pulled a lot of super-obvious industry words like "attendee".

That's about it! Does it fit with your reading of all the 2018 trends articles? Any surprises?

Google Chrome Update Could Boost Web-Based Event Apps

 

Native meeting and event app providers may have to start updating their marketing materials.

Native apps (the kind you download from the Apple App Store or Google Play) have always touted among their list of benefits their ability to send push notifications, access the camera, and the ease of adding the app to the home screen of a device.  Web-enabled apps, sometimes called web-only apps, exist only in a device’s Internet browser, and therefore have been unable to access the camera or send push notifications.  They also can be somewhat confusing as to how to add a shortcut icon to the home screen.  

Google is starting to change all that.

With a recent update to Chrome for Android, Google is now allowing web partners to push notifications to users, even when Chrome isn’t actively open. The early adopters include Beyond the Rack, eBay, FanSided, Pinterest, Product Hunt, VICE News, and believe it or not, Facebook.  That last one interests me the most, as I’ve detested Facebook’s native app for Android for some time. The ability to get basic notifications, though, might actually get me to check in more than every couple of weeks.

The request for notification access is pretty straightforward, and once you’ve granted a site access, you can revoke it at any time through the app’s settings.  Also, “Block” means “go away forever, and don’t ask me again,” so you won’t have to worry about a site asking every time you visit.

To make the websites you access regularly easy to get to, they've also baked in the ability to have an “Add to Homescreen” button on mobile sites to easily add an icon to the user’s home screen with just one click.  This will allow mobile event app developers to get their apps easily and seamlessly onto the coveted front page of users phones and devices.

Source: Google

Source: Google

And finally, the “holy grail” of mobile app development: access to the camera. With just a few simple lines of code, developers can ask for, and be granted, access to a device camera, allowing web-enabled apps to grab snapshots for use in social media, photo feeds, or other event purposes.

Clearly Google is trying to reduce number of differences between mobile web sites and native apps, and in a post released on the Google Chromium Blog, they attempted tell us why:

“Unfortunately, once users discover [a mobile web] experience they love, it is hard for them to build a meaningful relationship since websites lack the engaging capabilities developers have come to expect from mobile such as push notifications and home screen icons. As a result, developers have needed to decide between the engagement potential of a native app and the reach potential of a mobile website.”

And that’s the same decision that event organizers have had to make as well- deciding between the engagement opportunities that come from using native apps with full access to push notifications and the phone’s hardware (camera, microphone, etc.) or the easy to change/update on the fly benefits of mobile web development, not the least of which is not having to get approved, or rejected, by the Almighty Apple in a reasonable amount of time.

The update, which has already begun to roll out, is currently only available for Android.  Knowing how locked down Apple is, I fear that it may stay that way for the short term.  Nonetheless, this is a big step in achieving parity between native and web-enabled meeting and event applications, one that Google is willing to support and promote with all it’s Googley might.

More Info:
http://blog.chromium.org/2015/04/reaching-and-re-engaging-users-on.html
http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2015/04/google-wants-to-power-up-the-web-with-push-notifications-and-home-icons/
Thanks to Eric Bidelman for calling camera access the Holy Grail in his blog post:
http://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/getusermedia/intro/
 

Serious Vulnerability Discovered in Popular Hotel/Venue WiFi Router

It doesn't have a sexy name like HeartBleed, RowHammer, or even POODLE, but security company Cylance announced last week that it had discovered an incredibly serious vulnerability in the ANTLabs InnGate Internet gateway device. If you’re a frequent traveler, as many event professionals are, chances are you’ve been connected to one of these devices. They’re popular with hotels, convention centers, and other places where temporary internet access is offered, chiefly because they offer the ability to tie the billing for that access to a specific room number or account. Some of the other features of the device includes express checkout and viewing of guest folio charges.

Photo: ANTLabs

Photo: ANTLabs

The vulnerability, which offers a “complete compromise of the vulnerable system” is apparently trivial to exploit, allowing relatively unsophisticated attackers to gather any and all plain text communication sent through the device, including unencrypted websites (no locky-lock on the web address, no https), and virtually all email sent through email applications such as Outlook. More advanced attackers would have “seemingly no limit to what they could do” including potentially intercepting even HTTPS encrypted web pages (like banks or Gmail), stealing usernames and passwords, adding malware to software downloads, or much, much worse.

Put simply, when we’re connected to a hotel or venue WiFi, literally every bit of information we send and receive is going through their infrastructure. What happens when that infrastructure can be compromised at it’s very basic levels? Anything an attacker wants.

More than just sniffing your Internet

This particular exploit isn’t just limited to hotel guests Internet browsing, however. One of the selling points of the InnGate is that it can connect to a location’s PMS (Property Management System). A PMS can contain a tremendous amount of data including guest bookings and information, on-property sales, sales and marketing information- even HR and payroll, depending on the system. What’s even scarier, is that a PMS can in turn connect to other systems, such as “central reservation systems and revenue or yield management systems, front office, back office, point of sale, door-locking, housekeeping optimization, pay-TV, energy management, payment card authorization and channel management systems.” (Source:Wikipedia) Likewise, according to Cylance, if that PMS controls multiple locations, the attackers “could potentially leverage that access to infect the other branches of an organization.”

Scared the bejeebers out of you? It probably should. This one was pretty bad. Over 270 instances of this particular device were publicly accessible, and exploitable, via the Internet. The hotels and venues involved ran the gamut, and were not restricted to any brand, star rating, or price, and were spread out all over the world. They also ranged from “places we’ve never heard of to places that cost more per night than most apartments cost to rent for a month”, according to Cylance.

One can’t read about this exploit and not think back to a few months ago when Kaspersky revealed that high-end business travelers had been targeted for years by a group that it dubbed DarkHotel. There was plenty of evidence that the group had state-level tools at their disposal, but this new exploit has some wondering if perhaps it’s been much easier to target and attack hotel guests than anyone previously thought.

The good news is that ANTLabs immediately leapt into action as soon as the vulnerability was reported to them, getting a patch ready and releasing it in just over a month. Cylance noted that it’s “not often that vulnerability reporting goes smoothly and ultimately resulted in a timely patch from the vendor.” Cylance is also working to notify the hotels and venues that it identified as being vulnerable.

So what do we do?

I’ve been telling people for some time now that the vast majority of hotel WiFi networks are not secured properly, referring to the fact that the network itself doesn’t have a password. Sadly, I had no idea that this level of attack was even possible. When you can infiltrate a gateway device this deeply, it’s pretty scary. There are a few things we can all do to help make the bad guy’s jobs more difficult, though:

Hotels and Venues:

  • Make sure your network devices are checked regularly to see if there are any updates available, and if you use ANTLabs InnGates, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD GO MAKE SURE THEY GET UPDATED RIGHT FLIPPING NOW.
  • Secure your WiFi routers with a password. Yes it wouldn’t have helped in this case, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. And you should.
  • Of course, you could also make WiFI free, in which case a lot of this integration with PMSs would no longer be necessary, and things would be, more or less, just as secure as our personal and business WiFi routers. Or at least less of a target. Just sayin'.

Individual guests:

  • Don’t do anything on public/hotel/venue WiFi that you wouldn’t want the ENTIRE WORLD to know. While HTTPS connections to banks, Gmail, and other encrypted sites should be safe, this exploit shows that might not necessarily be the case. While we all have to use these networks from time to time, try to restrict your traffic to as few sites as possible, and to avoid anything relating to financial data, company secrets, or other, er… sites… that you might not… er… want folks to find out you visit.
  • If at all possible, when on these networks, use a VPN. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, and it acts like a secure, encrypted tunnel for your Internet access. The reason this type of vulnerability works is because it’s intercepting your traffic right there in the hotel as you surf around the net. With a VPN, your data goes through the encrypted data tunnel to your office, or other location, before it goes out onto the Internet- so all the venue WiFi sees is noise.

Stay safe out there people…

References:
Cylance - http://blog.cylance.com/spear-team-cve-2015-0932
DarkHotel - http://www.wired.com/2014/11/darkhotel-malware/
WikiPedia PMS - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Property_management_system
ANTLabs InnGate - http://www.antlabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=69&Itemid=88
ANTLabs InnGate Patch - http://www.antlabs.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:rsync-remote-file-system-access-vulnerability-cve-2015-0932&catid=54:advisories&Itemid=133

Special thanks to Steve Gibson for reporting on this on his Security Now netcast:
http://twit.tv/show/security-now/501

The Marriott WiFi Kerfuffle: A Deep Dive

Marriott International has been in the news a lot in the last few months, specifically in regards to whether or not it has the right to block personal Wi-Fi devices on its properties.  Many think the matter has been resolved, with Marriott “caving in” to consumer backlash and criticism from the likes of Microsoft and Google.  But this story is far from over if you go a little deeper, and isn’t nearly as cut and dry as some sensationalist headlines and Tweets may have led you to believe.

Read More

Interactive Polling: Reading the Minds of Your Audience

Audience feedback is one of the most important ways you can improve you meetings and events.  Comment cards or surveys can help guide you when it comes to crafting your next event, but why not take advantage of the group while you have them and get real-time feedback?   When you’re looking for a rough idea of how an audience is feeling, just having a show of hands might be sufficient.  When it comes time for an exact vote count, or if you just want to add a splash of technology to your meeting, you may want to consider many of the great interactive polling options available.

Interactive polling technology goes by many names and comes in many packages.  The most common of the options is still, by far, the wireless keypad.  These are handheld devices with a number keypad on them and perhaps an LED display to let the voter know their vote has been counted.

Different people refer to these keypads in different ways.  Here’s just a few of them:

  • APT (Audience Polling Technology)
  • ART (Audience Response Technology)
  • Voting Keypads
  • Reply System (A brand name of voting keypad)
  • Audience Clickers
  • Voting Doohickies (I have a client that won’t call them anything else)

There are scores of different makes and models of these keypad devices, but they all pretty much run the same way.  The presenter will ask a question and usually display a slide with the answer options.  An example might be “Which of our products do you think has the highest profit margin?  1) Wrenches, 2) Hammers, or 3) Screwdrivers.”  Sometimes this slide is displayed via specially designed software.  In other systems the options might be embedded in a PowerPoint deck.

Note: Many of the dedicated software systems for APT haven’t been updated in a long time, so they can look a little dated.  However, with a few modern exceptions, I haven’t found embedding the polling in PowerPoint to be very stable, and can cause crashes.  I’ll take a little dated and stable over pretty and likely to blow up, any day.

Once the question has been posed, the audience members take their keypads and enter in the number that corresponds to their answer.  If the keypad has a display, the number they entered will display to indicate that their vote has been registered.  The keypads operate on a closed wireless network, and send their signals to a base station located backstage or at the tech table.  This base station is hooked up to a laptop where the data is crunched and the results can be displayed- again via dedicated software or embedded in PowerPoint.

The speaker is now able to address the results in real time.  If the audience chose screwdrivers as being the most profitable, but in actuality hammers are, it can serve as an educational moment for both the speaker and the audience.  It’s not difficult to imagine that this kind of real time information can be extremely valuable to C and D level executive wanting to know if their corporate messaging and education are actually sinking in with the rank and file.

The biggest advantage to this type of interactive polling is that is is a closed network, compared to some of the options we’re about to look at.  It should come as no surprise then that these types of hardware solutions are popular with financial and medical groups, where security and confidentiality are extremely important.  We recently provided polling keypads for a group that was so secure that the techs had to leave the room during deliberations, and only allowed back in to run the equipment during the “Is the motion adopted? Yes or No” phase.

Many of the handheld solutions have been around a while, and as such can look a little dated in the era of smartphones.  There are a few high end models, however, that offer their users a whole new level of interactivity.  These new models feature full  QWERTY keyboards, color display screens, and even built in microphone and wireless audio support.  If the voting needs to be tracked, attendees can insert a special encoded badge into the keypad, identifying them.  To return to anonymous polling, they simply need to remove the badge.  This kind of tracking allows this hardware to do more than just polling and relaying audience questions.  It allows them to manage other portions of your event, such as silent auction bidding.

While they can be quite a bit more expensive when compared to the old standby keypads, they can replace many other expensive systems at an event, such as wireless translation headsets, and audience QnA microphones.  When used to their full potential they can be worth every penny and provide a rich, fully interactive experience.

Just as conference and trade show brochures are being phased out in favor of mobile phone applications, so to are the old polling keypads.  With the majority of meeting and conference goers walking around with a wireless supercomputer in their pocket, more and more planners are exploring the world of mobile and web-based polling technology.  There are many services out there, and they’re all a little different, so it’s extremely important to know your audience and know at what level of interaction they’re mostly likely to participate.  Some Internet-based services even allow users to vote through multiple options, increasing the response rate dramatically.  These options include voting via text message, a mobile web site, or even via Twitter.

Many mobile event apps are building in the ability to push polling to their users in an attempt to be the “One App to Rule Them All”.  Others use stand alone polling apps, and still others use mobile web pages.  Whichever route you go, be sure to take into account how that data will be gathered and displayed.  Almost all of these services are going to require internet access of some kind in order for the attendees to send their responses, so there either needs to be quality cellular data services or WiFi available.  This is where text message polling can come in handy, as the cellular connectivity level for sending texts is much lower than data.  In other words, you can send a text message with “only one bar” of signal much easier than you can access a mobile web page on the data network.

Much like the keypad network, the responses are sent to a central location, only instead of a wireless base station, the responses are sent to a server provided by the service.  Results can then be accessed via the web, so once again you’ll need to make sure whatever machine needs to display the results has a solid internet connection in order to retrieve the data.

Note: Be sure to get an idea of what the results display will look like, too.  Many of the mobile apps that have built in polling don’t have an effective way of displaying that data live in the room, and are designed more to replace comment cards than to be truly interactive polling.  Even in full screen mode they might have scrollbars, links, and logos  (other than yours) on the results page.

These services are growing in popularity exponentially with our customers.  We find that once they dip their toes in the interactive polling pool, they become addicted (in a good way) to that instant feedback.  Everything from educational quizzes and game shows, to voting on what to name their internal network, customers are finding more and more creative uses for live interactive polling.

On Why You Should Consider Skipping the “Augmented Reality” and Just Buy More Bacon

By any other name...

This post was originally going to be titled On Why Your App is NOT Augmented Reality.  I was all set to go on an epic rant about how several high profile event apps were being touted as “augmented reality”, when in fact they weren't AR at all.  They were just ordinary apps, pretending to be augmented reality, as part of the seemingly never-ending feature war that the mobile conference and meeting app market has become.

But... after discussing the topic with some other industry folks (thanks @kristicasey!), that’s not entirely fair.  I’m still not 100% convinced the examples I’m about to give are AR, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that they’re a tiny fraction, of a small percentage, of the potential for the AR apps of the future.

The definition of augmented reality:

335623-tonystark

So what is an augmented reality app?  Before I can even think about accusing someone of not being AR when they say they are, I should probably define that, eh?

I define an augmented reality app as something that displays a live view of the world (i.e. “reality”) and then takes information, graphics, animation, sound, or other data and adds it as a layer over or alongside that reality (i.e. “augments it”).  So the definition of an Augmented Reality App, is any app that - wait for it - augments reality.  Weird.

Surprisingly, if you look around the web that’s pretty close to the definition everywhere, much like looking up the word “recursion” on Google (Did you mean: recursion).

The first key part of that definition is the word “live”.  If I take your picture with my cell phone and then use an app to draw on squiggly hair and Snidely Whiplash mustache, I can’t think of anyone other than an argumentative philosopher that would say that app is somehow an augmented reality app.  It would, however, be hilarious.

The second key part of the definition is “layer over”, as in- you see (or hear, or smell) reality, but information about that reality is also being given to you by whatever device or app you’re using.

Like what?

My perfect example of what an augmented reality app could be: Imagine you’re at a trade show and want to get to a specific vendor.  You hold up your phone (or look through your Google Glass) and you see what you see in real life- booths, displays, people, carpet (double padded... oooooh...)  However, when you input the name of a vendor you want to find, a large arrow appears in the image, hovering over where you want to go.  On the carpet below you appears a line with arrows on it, showing you the quickest way to the booth.  Along the way, you see the names of each vendor hovering over their booth, with a button to favorite or remind you to look at later.  You don’t bump into anyone, because you’re seeing all this through your device, layered over reality.  As you approach your destination, the arrow gets larger and larger, until you’re standing right under it, in all it’s 3D glory!  This kind of AR is called “geotagged” as it’s information based on specific locations in your environment.

Another example: You point your device at a conference brochure, and a beautiful animated version of the conference logo on the page appears and dazzles you.  You open the booklet to the speaker bios page.  Each one of the photos now has a highlight box around it.  You select a speaker and their photo comes to life, and the speaker gives you, in their own words, a 30 second description of their session.  Again you can tag the speaker as a session you’d like to learn more on, and move on to the next.  This kind of AR is known as “marker based”, as its animations and information is keyed off certain markers contained in the printed brochure, showing your device where to layer over the data.

Now, for those who don’t happen to have these magical devices, you can still wander the trade show floor with a paper map, trying to find booth 702 in Aisle G, or you can just look at the speaker bios and the two sentence descriptions of the sessions in the conference brochure.  Those who have downloaded the app and have the right hardware?  They will experience an immersive world of extra content, all subtly branded and sponsored.

Where it falls apart

A book is not augmented reality.  A book is something that takes you out of reality.  It can be very informative, even about your current surroundings or situation, but it exists outside of that situation, and would still exist if you were in a completely different place, doing completely different things.  A map is not augmented reality.  You have to look at the map, interpret it, then look up and try and apply that information to the world.

Likewise, a traditional conference app is not augmented reality.  You open it, you read it, it informs your decisions, and you apply it to reality.  While you’re looking at it, though, you are almost completely disconnected from reality.

So what about the apps that spawned this article?  One, from a high end hotel chain, claims to make them the “First North American Luxury Hotel Brand to Feature Augmented Realty” in its ads.  The other is from a music festival sponsored by a large U.S. (but no longer American owned) beer brewery.  In both cases you had to open a pre-downloaded app, the app would engage the camera in the device, and then you point it at some printed materials.  Once the app recognized the materials, the page “came to life” in the display with a colorful, approximately 3 second animation.

Aaaaaaaaand done.  That was the end, as far as I’m concerned, of the augmented reality portion of the evening.  After that three second animation layered over the printed page, you were taken to a menu, in the case of the music festival.  The hotel? A full screen video with a couple of buttons, one of which would let you skip the content.  From that point on, the apps looked and behaved just like any other event or conference app, with links to schedules, bios, bands, special offers, and other normal old “exclusive” content.

augmented-reality-ikea-appWell, who’s fault is that?

So are these apps “Augmented Reality Apps”?  I would say no.  Three seconds of AR does not make it an augmented reality app.  But look closely at the hotel’s claim- they “Feature Augmented Reality”.  It’s not an augmented reality app, it’s an app that features augmented reality.  Likewise with the festival app.  Despite the headlines for the articles written about it “bringing augmented reality to events”, the actual app makers themselves hold no such illusions:

“When you hold your phone up to an image or product, it takes just seconds to get that experience on your phone," <redacted> said. "Once you get that experience, that’s when people really start engaging, whether playing a game or doing polling or whatever”

So the idea is to hook them with a few seconds of something interesting, then get them to do something else- play a game, polling, whatever.  Fair enough.

So are these apps using AR?  Technically, yes.  Are they using AR for anything other than just a quick, flashy gimmick?  No.  What you’re looking at through the display is almost irrelevant- it’s just a cute animation based on the printed material that triggered it.  The difference between that and scanning a QR code is minimal, at best.

The future's so bright, I gotta eat bacon

Think I’m being too harsh? Do yourself a favor and watch this demonstration:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NKT6eUGJDE&w=560&h=315]

That video is from 2007.  TWO THOUSAND FREAKING SEVEN.  Think about that.  That’s a full three years before the iPad.  Here we are six years later, and the computing power in our mobile devices is bordering on the obscene.  My earlier two examples might have seemed a little far fetched, but are they really?  After watching that video, I can't help but feel that we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.  I know there's people out there right now, pushing the the technology to the limit, and what's coming around the corner is going to blow your freakin' mind.

In the meantime,  you’re telling me that the best we can do is a three second animation over your conference brochure cover or print ad?  C’mon, son.  I want my giant floating arrows and talking speaker pages.

So if that's it- that’s all you’re going to do with AR, you should save yourself the money and buy all your attendees an extra slice of bacon for breakfast.  They’ll be happier for it.  For the money the hotel chain spent on the app, plus the giveaways and discounts the app provided, they could have become the "First Luxury Hotel Brand to Feature Complimentary WiFi.  Because You Deserve It."  The copy would have written itself...