The JET Event Blog
Graham Parkins

Graham Parkins

Where Next for Event Tech?

Date:

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Tags:

Expertise
Where Next for Event Tech?

If you ask people about Artificial Intelligence, or AI, they may well talk about their favourite movie. Is it '2001: A Space Odyssey' or 'I, Robot'?  There’s lots out there exploring all sorts of themes from Asimov’s 3 famous laws to free will. It's exciting stuff, you can decide later if it’s going to be a dystopia or utopia!

This type of AI is known as strong AI. It very quickly becomes a philosophical discussion that occupies some very brilliant minds; you may recall Stephen Hawking warning in his later years... 
"The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race".
Fortunately that’s a problem for the future, but perhaps we should be a little concerned about it!

The Current State of AI

Anyway, where is AI now, and what relevance does it have to the exhibitions industry? Let’s wind back a bit and look at the types of AI we already live with that once seemed a distant promise or worked so badly that you could say they didn’t work at all.

AI can reliably identify people, objects and even faces in a crowd in real time. The technology can listen to those people and accurately (for the most part) transcribe what they say. The machines can assimilate large sets of data and spot patterns and draw conclusions that otherwise lay unseen to traditional analysis.

What is remarkable is that these things aren’t the preserve of rich companies or niche markets. In fact, due to the simplicity and power of APIs we can leverage massive computing power from the likes of IBM, Amazon, Google and others to do these things on mobile devices which in themselves already have very powerful computing capability.

AI and Events

It's easy to fall into the trap of seeing event registration and marketing as processes and forget the person at the centre of it all. We might be tempted to augment registration with facial recognition for example, but what real gain does that really give? So how can we avoid that type of narrow thinking?

I’d like to put the person back in the centre. Exhibitions are and always will be an opportunity for people to meet, inspire and learn. The technology, and therefore AI, should always be on removing friction from this process and being as invisible as possible. AI more than any recent technology potentially enables us to make its presence almost imperceptible and as natural as we humans would expect.

Automation at Events

Automation and Event Technology

Let’s just park it there and let that sink in and come at this from another angle – automation. What does a smart exhibition look like from the point of view of a visitor. I think of smart as being proactive. Let’s say if this one thing happens I want to see useful action or actions off the back of that. You may have come across the term IFTTT which means 'If This Then That'.  What often drives IFTTT is APIs and a technology called webhooks. Webhooks are a popular mechanism that enables one computer system to be asked to be notified by another system in response to some action.  Here in lies a powerful concept of enabling our systems to ‘talk’ to each other using a proactive or ‘push’ method.

A few examples might help here: 

  • Suppose a VIP visitor arrives at an event – we can notify key people to come and meet up with them. 
  • Perhaps a visitor has not checked into a seminar and needs a prompt to attend. 
  • Or an exhibitor records a new lead at their stand and the system notifies their CRM in real-time enabling delivery of relevant product literature or scheduling a following up. 

The key here is we don’t have to worry about the communication mechanism for the VIP or the CRM the exhibitor is using. An IFTTT system using webhooks enables each organisation or actor to play their respective parts.

AI Going Forwards

So back to AI then. Think of the AI more as an intelligent actor and feed them with inputs from other parts of the system. This is where things can get interesting.  No longer are we constrained by the dry logic of 'If This Then That', but more a conversation driven by a clear goal.

What are the goals then? Well they are surprisingly familiar I would say. Again, to give a couple of examples: Making sure a visitor knows when and where the event is happening.  Or, ensuring we collect enough information about visitors to enable exhibitors to properly target their efforts. We can all see how these could be accomplished using a traditional registration form process and e-mail system. It gets more interesting when you add in an additional example: Is this the right sort of person to be attending this event. Again traditional approve/deny systems are a blunt instrument and often backed up by a person vetting registrations.

Giving AI a Persona

AI and Event Technology

So with AI and related technology we can take a fresh look at our goals and start to imagine a different environment. Let’s give the AI a persona. I’m going to call them the 'Concierge'. It makes talking about it so much easier. Let’s use the Concierge to analyse our data set from last year. It’s going to be given the goal of identifying the most effective way to reach these people and invite them to the exhibition. This could be social media, e-mail or phone. Now we can use AI to create the most appropriate message for them based on their interests. AI speech tech might be used to call them up and ask them if they want to attend. It’s the start of a conversation. Good AI will then get that information and further prompt to verify information already held or request further details. At any point the visitor could choose to end the conversation or defer it. Personally I don’t think it matters about getting all the information at once as a typical registration form aims. We can break down the iceberg and reconnect with the visitor at multiple points to complete the transaction.

At some point we need to say you're invited. Again AI can be used to track the movements of people. We still might need a badge, after all, people still need to identify other people, but gaining that badge could be print at home – Concierge says, ‘I see you're going to the exhibition today, would you like me to print your badge’ or maybe at the event we can use speech recognition (or facial recognition) to identify the visitor and print the badge. Gone are the banks of machines and in with the Concierge both human and artificial with an aim to facilitating the next step in the visitors journey, but mostly trying to be unobtrusive. We can use cameras and tracking to give the AI eyes – this isn’t Orwellian, but an attempt to facilitate the next meaningful interaction. The Concierge needs to know where you are if it is to help direct you to the seminar theatre or highlight your favourite exhibitors.

Augmented reality (AR) might be the tech that comes into play here. Ultimately the AI will seek to continue the conversation after the event – it already knows your preferred communication style and enquiries about your ‘experience’. Good or bad we need to know and AI is more likely to capture a visitors mood be it angry, confused, satisfied or disengaged far better than any dry survey form ever could regardless of how well or how many questions have been cunningly crafted.

AI is Coming (if it's not already here)

We have seen a number of new technologies come and go over the year in the events industry. They vary in terms of the impact they have had, however to really make a difference it’s often the things under the hood that count, the brain if you will. AI is coming, it’s going to be here to stay and it will underpin everything we now do.  It will do things in a radically different way to the systems we currently use, but our hope is that it will work in a more natural, unobtrusive and dare I say friendlier, humane way.

We’ve given our AI a brain – fed it with lots of data, given it eyes and ears and a way to speak and show.  The only unnerving part is you don’t have an actual persona, the Concierge, by your side. Jeeves is everywhere, but hopefully, given the positive help and facilitation, is seen as a positive useful force in the visitors journey. Strong AI might be a long way off still, but useful, practical AI, once the preserve of science fiction, is today’s reality. As time passes we can embrace and use AI as a new experience for visitors and exhibitors with people at the heart.

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