by Michael Shapiro | November 17, 2016

Michael J. Shapiro, senior editor, Meetings & ConventionsEditor's note: This series of articles about the future of event technology was underwritten by the Singapore Exhibition and Convention Bureau as part of Northstar Meetings Group’s Technology Innovation and the Future of Meetings resource. M&C retains editorial and creative control over the content.

Oliver Tian, president of the Singapore Industrial Automation Association, took the stage to kick off the inaugural Singapore International Robo Expo earlier this month. A robot from South Korea introduced him as he stepped to the podium.

Granted, this wasn't the kind of entrance that's appropriate for just anyone at an event. The robot, it must be said, did not project very well, nor did she say her lines with a great deal of enthusiasm. But of course here she was playing to the crowd, and there undoubtedly exists a "surprise-and-delight" effect when using robots at just about any event. The attendees of this expo, who one might expect to be fairly jaded with their robotics expertise, nevertheless clearly appreciated the introduction and later gathered en masse whenever a robot demo began among the cluster of exhibitor booths. Whether the robot in question was demoing virtual concierge expertise, delivering room service amenities or dancing to "Gangnam Style," people gathered to watch. Even the robotic carp, swimming in a surprisingly lifelike manner in their small aquarium, drew a crowd.

The Robo Expo, organized by the Singapore Industrial Automation Association and Experia Events, brought together representatives from government, the private sector and academia to address best practices and discuss future strategies in the robotics field. There was a lot of thoughtful discussion about the potential acceptance and safety issues in various robotics fields, and the most responsible ways to introduce robotics and other technology to an industry or the populace at large. Most important were questions of where this technology makes the most sense and how it meets a need.

Take, for example, the hospitality field. Singapore is a unique test case, because the country actually has a shortage of employees in its thriving workforce. As Ng Yu Lik, a principal lecturer at the Republic Polytechnic School of Hospitality, explained to me, there is a real need in the local hotel industry for automated help. A robot that can deliver requested amenities to guest rooms leaves more employees to greet guests at the front desk and provide concierge services. (Check out my video interview with Yu Lik, and get a glimpse of the M Social hotel's robot in action.)

We've begun to see similar robots in action at a few cutting-edge hotels stateside. At this point, they primarily serve the same surprise-and-delight role for guests as the aforementioned robots provide on a trade-show floor. They might be able to deliver water bottles to the guest room, but they also are novelties and Instagrammable subject matter. Such factors may be important to building brand loyalty, but would they have the same effect if U.S. guests perceived the robots as reducing hotel labor by taking human jobs? These are the sorts of questions technology developers need to consider, regardless of the field in which they're working.

Public perception is paramount. During a co-located event at the Robo Expo -- France Singapore Innovation Days -- a panel convened to discuss Smart Cities. These are cities -- or, in Singapore's case, a nation -- in which networked technology is used to manage a city's infrastructure. Driving that management is what's known as the Internet of Things, in which all kinds of appliances, sensors, cameras and more are connected to the Internet and able to share information. The panel participants set out to further define Smart Cities, and to address the constraints and limitations of implementing such visions.

"A Smart City is a city that knows," said panelist Loo Cheng Chan, vice president of business development at Singtel Group/Digital Life and an Internet of Things pioneer. Whether there's just been a terrorist attack or there is trash that needs to be cleared, he added, everyone becomes more in the know.

On the flip side, a city that knows -- via RFID sensors, cameras, etc. -- requires that some privacy be sacrificed. In Loo's opinion, Singapore is an excellent testing ground because its citizens aren't especially concerned about privacy; overall, the government has provided a very safe, prosperous and efficient environment in exchange for that privacy, and as such has fostered trust.

While it's hard to imagine such a scenario on a grand scale in a larger country (Singapore is a 278-square-mile island with a population of less than 5.5 million), the lessons they are learning there might well be applied to large event populations. As Loo pointed out, the key to a successful implementation of such Smart technology is "meaningful collaboration and understanding your demographic."

No one knows an attendee base better than the leaders of an association or the organizers of a regular event. How can you introduce such technology in a gradual way that builds trust in the community? What collaborative benefits can you deliver via Smart technology, like sensors that pinpoint location, for example? Where is the line between delighting and threatening when it comes to new automation? These are the questions that tech developers and event organizers need to ask together, today, to successfully implement tomorrow's event technology.