Everyone in the meetings and events industry can attest to the unique benefits gained when people physically gather in one place to share information and perspectives. While the debate between meeting industry members and outsiders about whether technology could effectively replace in-person meetings will press on for years, something else of note is happening right now with technology related to in-person events.

Applications that bring speakers and presenters into an event from a remote location have become so robust that attendees can be made to forget that a featured person isn’t physically in the room. Specifically, immersive telepresence and even holographic representation are feasible for use in front of large audiences.

Granted, the former is still fairly expensive while the latter is even more costly. But if an event is able to deliver a significant impact upon attendees by having a high-profile executive, scientist, government official, musician or other VIP whose in-person availability or appearance fee is prohibitive, then a meeting host can make the calculation of cost versus potential return for using telepresence or hologram technology.

How They Work

Immersive telepresence—where remote guests are placed in a setting identical to the in-person audience in order to blend seamlessly and appear to be there in person—has been used by large corporations for several years. But it’s been used mostly in boardroom settings, so that small groups of people seem to be physically seated across the table from one another.

For a keynote or other large session, however, immersive telepresence that uses high-definition cameras, 4K projectors and monitors, and a strong internet (or even 4G) connection can make a deep impression on attendees, akin to having the speaker physically present. Charlie Ward, director of operations for the PSAV office located in Sheraton Grand Chicago, says that while he has seen only one or two instances of large-session telepresence use in the past year, costs could drop in the next few years to where many more groups could consider it. Even at the moment, “it’s not out of everyone’s price range. We would be able to secure all the equipment if a group wanted that,” he notes.

“A lot of vendors can do this now,” adds Corbin Ball, a leading consultant who runs Meetings Technology Headquarters at corbinball.com. “But rather than the equipment itself, I believe it’s more a matter of the stagecraft that will determine the effectiveness of telepresence.” The key elements Ball cites are scaling the remote presenter to appear at the correct size for the event stage, and matching the remote and in-person backgrounds to complete the perception that the presenter is physically on stage.

Multiple session formats work with telepresence. First, a presenter can simply stand before an audience, but is able to move a few feet to either side in the identical remote setting. Or a program host could sit on a couch on stage and interact with a remote guest seated on an identical couch that is seen by attendees across two 70-inch 4K LCD monitors, providing some visual depth. Those monitors are positioned on stage such that the remote guest appears to be sitting on the same couch as the host. The guest is also able to see and interact with onsite attendees through a camera at the event site and a monitor at the remote site. Other formats are possible, as well.

As for holographic imaging, it gained wide attention a few years back when a previously recorded performance by the late Michael Jackson was beamed in three-dimensional depth onto a stage in front of an audience. Within the past two years, however, live presentations via hologram have become feasible for large meetings and events.

Ball attended a demonstration in early 2015 at the EventTech conference in London, where technology firm Musion projected a live presenter in three dimensions whose image could roam the stage by several feet in any direction. “It requires a special set-up,” Ball says. “You need high-end HD projectors and special lighting banks, and Mylar sheaths to surround the area where the speaker will appear.”

When the application went live at EventTech, Ball was pleasantly surprised. “I was 20 feet away, and I could not tell that it was an image rather than a real person. It was stunning,” he says. “If you wanted to do this in a big city in the United States right now, you could find the equipment.”

Practical Considerations

Naturally, telepresence and holographic imaging will be used only when an event host needs to make maximum impact on attendees. But considering that these technologies allow planners to bring the most relevant and interesting presenters to life even when they can’t be in the same room as the audience, it might be worthwhile, especially as the cost drops over time.

Consider this: A meeting host could greatly expand the universe of potential high-profile speakers because the related factors—scheduling, travel time and cost, and appearance fee—are now less daunting. For example, getting a high-profile person for even 20 minutes via these presence-enhancing technologies could make a real difference in attendee satisfaction, with technology costs offset by reduced costs for securing the speaker.