The event and theme park industry has been particularly hard hit by COVID with Disney alone suffering a billion-dollar loss in operating income during Q2. As I write, businesses around the world are working hard to reopen their doors so that visitors can return safely – while at the same time attempting to keep people engaged remotely. Universal Studios, with its cry to keep the whoa going from home is a case is point, as is the online tours initiative from the Louvre Museum. Meanwhile, many of this year’s conferences are of course going wholly virtual.  

Shaping our response for an innovative post-pandemic world:

For industry events held in conference centers and large venues, the priority will be getting people back safely and, crucially, in a way that makes them feel safe. B2C events have the additional challenge of providing a pleasurable and desirable experience – it needs to be safe, but it must also still be fun!  If people don’t believe they’ll have a good time, then they just won’t go. Spanning all these situations is the need to ensure data privacy and data security. 

What technologies could be used to address these different challenges? There is a tactical need for off-the-shelf technology for immediate deployment to get events open, but there also is a medium to long-term consideration, as we ponder how large event gatherings may change forever. 

Sanitization and sustainability

A clear need for consumers will be enhanced sanitization. Many of us in shared spaces and offices have already experienced the demand for plentiful hand sanitizer and escalated cleaning schedules. But events, conferences, museums and theme parks also rely on shared hardware – such as headphones and ride carriages – which are much more difficult and costly to sanitize after every use. 

Manual scrubbing is a challenging task to automate, but there are other potential solutions. Short wavelength Ultraviolet-C (UV-C) light, which can kill microorganisms, is an existing technology that can support this. It is well positioned for automation, as can be seen with UVD Robots that sanitize hospital rooms in just 10 minutes.  

However, a compounding challenge of complex equipment or infrastructure is that the UV-C light cannot travel around corners, so ensuring that all surfaces get the required illumination is hard. Our experience here at Cambridge Consultants in combining advanced sensing with automation gives us confidence that this is a solvable problem. That said, a working implementation for difficult geometries would require sensing and mapping to define a path for the decontaminating light to take and ensure that all surfaces were clean. 

Improving cleanliness may clash with another pressing goal of large events – reducing waste and promoting sustainability. We will likely see increased amounts of packaging for food at events, not to mention the increase in disposable PPE. This will need to stimulate companies to look for alternative solutions to meet their sustainability goals. A survey conducted by research firm FMCG Gurus found that 40% of global consumers now feel more positively about packaging because of the virus, but 55% are still ‘more concerned’ about the environment than before the pandemic began.

For closed events with well controlled waste streams, such as festivals, switching to biodegradable plastics could be a solution. Compostable materials, such as PLA and starch-based ‘plastics’ could be used but would require some development effort to make them function for PPE. PHA is an exciting potential biodegradable material for the long-term that could be used for food packaging and PPE, but the commercial high-volume viability is not there for the near-term.  

For open events though, where waste streams are difficult to control effectively, the onus will be on adjusting attendee behavior. Perhaps the importance of proper disposal from a health perspective (many waste handling units are not well set up for disposal of ‘medical waste’) can have a side benefit of aligning waste streams for positive environmental impact. 

Low-contact engagement 

From theme parks to airports, pre-COVID, there were increasing examples of technology being used to engage consumers – to understand preferences and to provide more enjoyable immersive experiences. Interaction systems are often touch based… from getting feedback on security at airports, to navigating maps, to ordering food and providing preferences. 

To gain insight without touch, venues could employ facial recognition to understand consumer sentiment. For airports, understanding passenger mood from facial recognition could help retailers and management to deliver a better experience. This ‘Emotion AI’ capability – being developed by companies such as Affectiva – will allow for enhanced personalization of many future products and services. However, personal consent and data privacy considerations will need to advance alongside to provide a viable solution. 

Removing contact from consumer touchpoints (pardon the pun) will also be key for events where consumers come for interactive, immersive experiences. Perhaps these can be replaced with low-contact alternatives. 

Zero UI was a hot area pre-pandemic that now takes on a new impetus as we look to minimize human interaction and the touching of displays and buttons. Voice and gesture interaction, plus extracting contextual insight from the situation/person, can make an interaction feel exciting, and it is also safer. Perhaps, instead of tapping a touchscreen map or asking a voice assistant ‘how do I get to the third floor?’ attendees could point at a map, asking ‘how do I get here?’ This technology could use a combination of machine vision and doppler radar-based gesture recognition with voice recognition to intuit the appropriate input signals from the user. 

At Cambridge Consultants, we recently considered gesture recognition as a way of adding context to a home assistant system. The same approach could be applied to events. Edge AI could also be a useful tool to deliver this solution and process the input data, allowing individuals voice and visual data to be processed locally in the device, enhancing data privacy and reducing latency. The quality of Human Machine Interaction in general will become more important following the pandemic, to enable interactive automation to coexist in populated spaces. Important examples of this technology can be found in robots for working alongside manufacturers in crowded factories. 

Controlling crowds 

Social distancing has been an effective measure for reducing transmission, with national lockdowns all over the world helping to flatten the curve and curb the spread of the virus. Now, as measures are eased, and businesses and public spaces begin to reopen, it is important that appropriate measures are deployed to ensure the safety of consumers and the general public. From airports and shopping centers to museums and conferences, business leaders must take the necessary precautions to ensure social distancing measures can be adhered to and the risk of transmission is minimized. 

Image recognition now delivers commercial impact across several sectors, from helping identify and filter harmful content online, to enabling autonomous vehicles to navigate complex and dynamic environments. These techniques can help monitor social distancing by analyzing real-time video streams from cameras, as demonstrated by Landing AI’s social distancing detection tool. Additionally, Nvidia’s DeepStream offers a scalable framework for deploying Intelligent Video Analytics across multiple edge devices, enabling real-time insights from multimodal sensor data at the edge.  

These technologies could help not only monitor crowd density and proximity, but also feed a live map of this information directly to consumer devices or wearables, so that attendees get a visual representation of where is busy and where is not. When combined with optimized route mapping and prediction algorithms, customers could navigate through busy areas whilst maintaining social distancing. 

Standing in line has always a frustrating reality at many events and has now been brought to the fore with the added complexity of social distancing. Cambridge Consultants has already helped to develop relevant solutions, such as Prism for Accesso, a simple-to-use waterproof wearable that enables virtual queuing at theme parks. Another development of ours is Saloon, an interactive bar experience that allows consumers to order drinks from their table, reducing congestion and delays at the bar and elevating the ordering experience. The system uses machine vision and NFC to observe the orientation of the consumer’s phone and projects an interactive stream of bubbles to interact with the various bar-top objects.  

Another major concern of organizers is contact tracing. When someone at the event presents with symptoms within the next week, what then? Current location solutions (particularly for indoor events) do not have the precision to discern proximity at the sub-meter level. 

A parallel use of such devices exists in manufacturing, where Ultra-Wideband sensors made by Ubisense measure both Time Distance of Arrival and Angle of Arrival to enable product and person tracking at a centimeter-level of precision. This type of tech could be applied to conferences of the future to give a clear log of someone’s interactions, providing fast alerts in the unfortunate case of viral transmission. 

What next? 

These solutions, underpinned by advanced sensing and AI, can not only help businesses and public spaces reopen safely, but when combined with mobile-enabled services can be used to deliver a personalized experience, enhancing the user journey. 

Of course, privacy and security will be really important, particularly when processing sensitive data. We expect edge computing will become an integral part of the intelligent systems of the future, helping to preserve privacy while maximizing the potential of AI for businesses across all sectors. 

There are still many questions to answer. How will the atmosphere be generated in bars, pubs and at sports events? How can attendee behavior be nudged with tech to help people stay safe, supported by advances in event infrastructure and process? 

Interested to learn more?

None of us has a crystal ball to know what is coming next, but I know that smart integration of technology is going to be a core part of making the future of large events safer and more enjoyable. I’d love to chat to understand your views and ideas on this so get in-touch!   

Ruth Thomson
SVP, Global Consumer Business

Ruth works with consumer brands across multiple market sectors including beverages, beauty, consumer healthcare and entertainment. Her focus is creating consumer delight and engagement through the integration of innovative technology, bringing significant business transformation for her clients.

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