by Michael Shapiro | August 1, 2011

Recently, I participated in a call and online demo for virtual event platform provider INXPO's new VX platform. The driving forces behind the reworked platform are to increase ease of use and to lower cost for clients. INXPO accomplishes this, explained product marketing director Dennis Shiao, by making the platform more "self-serve"; the interface is far more straightforward, putting more power in the hands of the event-planner customer. So, while INXPO still offers more highly customized solutions for those who want them, the basic VX platform requires less work for their programmers. Whereas the entry-level pricing for an INXPO virtual event used to be in the $25k to $40k range, the more self-service option now begins at just $15k to $20k.
That's quite a difference -- and an important selling point for companies looking to add a virtual element to their events. They get more hands-on control of the logistics for the show and can budget much less to do so. And, based on the configuration screens that I saw in the demo, at least, setup really did appear to be pretty straightforward. INXPO modeled the configuration screens after blogging software.
The platform's simplicity is indicative of the evolution of virtual events, and how the suppliers now sell them. With the experience they've accumulated, INXPO and its competitors can now more easily categorize the types of events customers want to create, and offer more readily available guidance. In that vein, INXPO now offers event "packages," based on the event type, as well as "blueprints" for making those events successful.
What's also interesting is how we, as attendees, have adjusted to the idea of meeting virtually. For INXPO changed the look of the user interface as well; several years ago, the idea was to make virtual events resemble a physical trade show floor as much as possible. Three-dimensional graphics were designed to make us feel like we were walking through the convention center, visiting physical booths. "What that did was to create a feeling in the attendees that they were immersed," said Shiao. "It created somewhat of an emotional connection." (Remember Second Life? I found it a bit clunky to navigate, but I confess that when attending an event in the Virtualis Convention Center, I did feel more like I was at a physical trade show -- I even had my avatar sit down on a bench in the lobby to rest between sessions.)
Now, however, the VX platform's main screen is more of a media dashboard, allowing an attendee to navigate directly to the content they want. Sponsors purchase "spaces" rather than "booths." It seemed to me that this wasn't just a matter of streamlining production costs, but also an evolution in the way we interact online. Are we past the point that we need to think of our virtual interactions in physical-world terms?
"Now there's a greater incentive to engage with content," Shiao said. "It's incumbent upon the event host to use the available tools to get attendees to engage with each other." Such tools include the option to license online games, as well as integration with social media platforms. VX also runs on the iPad, meaning remote attendees needn't be stuck at their desks to participate. I think in large part we have accepted the idea that the information presented in sessions and keynotes can be successfully delivered and absorbed via the Internet. Will attendee engagement suffer for lack of convention center graphics onscreen? I'd guess not, but I'd love to see more research into that.