by Michael Shapiro | December 15, 2016

Editor'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.

For years, we've been hearing that virtual reality was going to transform the travel and events industries. The details about just how that was going to happen often were vague, and, to be honest, it didn't really seem all that compatible with face-to-face meetings, what with one attendee heading off into his or her own reality while everyone else just watched. But matters have changed significantly over the past year or two; VR is gradually becoming a very useful, even practical, tool for planners.

Driving this utility is the drop in cost for VR equipment. Powerful VR visors now cost as little as several hundred dollars, making them a hot, if still pricey, addition to many holiday gift lists. These visors are of the tethered variety, meaning they're attached to PCs or gaming systems (and if you're buying them for home use, you're probably buying them to play games).

But even more economical are the sub-$100 mobile VR headsets, like Samsung VR Gear and Google's Cardboard and Daydream, all of which have a slot to hold a smartphone. These don't need to be attached to anything because they're powered entirely by an app on the phone -- and the cheapest ones (less than $20) can literally be made of cardboard. So the investment to run a simple VR experience in a trade show booth, for instance, comes way down from past iterations. Likewise, planners don't need fancy equipment to view VR and 360-degree video in their offices or homes.

The more accessible, affordable technology means that even a high-end, attendee-attention-grabbing experience at an event is more feasible than it was a couple of years ago. It's also more social, because it's possible to have more equipment on-site and therefore more attendees experiencing a different reality together.

In every case, the goal of using VR is to allow participants to explore a different place than the one they're currently in. That really opens an enormous range of possibilities:

• On the high-end, awe-inspiring side, creative/production agency The Uprising Creative raised the bar for such experiences at last year's SXSW conference, with its Budweiser 4D Immersive Brewery Tour and Beer Garage. The Beer Garage itself packed attendees in because, well, free beer mixed with high-tech is a pretty solid formula. But the VR brewery experience took things to the next level, allowing multiple attendees to simultaneously experience a VR tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, complete with the sounds (they had headphones) and smells of the tour (assistants were dispersing the scent of hops throughout the room at appropriate points).

• For educational purposes, the American Society of Landscape Architects created a VR video of Toronto's Underpass Park, and how that park was created. In addition to highlighting the creativity behind the park's design itself, the ASLA demonstrated to its members the benefits of VR, and how it can make a compelling case for the work they do every day.

• Virtual reality and 360-degree video are becoming wildly popular at tourism trade shows, to showcase destinations. For example, attendees at Mexico's Tianguis Turístico last spring could virtually experience a wide range of locales on the trade show floor, from rafting down a river in the state of Chiapas to swimming in cenotes in the Yucatán.

• VR technology likewise is bringing the travel experience directly to our smartphones wherever we may be. Thanks to the work of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, to cite just one example, would-be travelers can download an app to get 360-degree tours of a variety of Las Vegas attractions, restaurants, hotels and more.

For planners, these tools are on the verge of being not just cool, but a whole lot more useful for their jobs. The cutting-edge Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre is one of the venues leading that charge: Suntec, which offers more than 420,000 square feet of meeting and event space, is currently mapping its entire building in 360-degree VR, aiming to be one of the first convention centers to debut such tours when it launches in the first quarter of 2017.

The VR tours are just the first step, however: In the following months, the venue will be developing associated live floor plan models, wherein planners can make adjustments to rooms in 2D and then see the results, instantly, in 3D. The live system will be linked to the venue's inventory, so that once a layout is approved, the venue staff knows exactly what is needed for room setup.

It's precisely that kind of functionality that demonstrates just how useful VR can be in planning actual travel and face-to-face meetings. And it's a good reason to keep both eyes on VR in the coming year.