STYLE

Can my avatar meet your avatar for a virtual beer after our digital conference?

07/18/2012 03:44 EDT | Updated 09/17/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - Would you like to get together for drinks in the cyberworld after our virtual convention ends?

It's not a typical invitation for drinks, but Vancouver's Utherverse Inc., doesn't deal in regular feet-on-the-ground conferences either.

Utherverse puts on 3D virtual conventions, allowing keynote speakers and participants to take part from their homes, offices or from anywhere in the world via personalized avatars in a virtual world.

The result is similar to being in a video game but it's still like being at a real convention, said CEO and company founder Brian Shuster.

"For example, you can overhear conversations," he said, referring to avatars strolling through virtual convention halls and visiting virtual booths. "You can run into people and have random encounters."

Participants communicate at a virtual convention through text messaging and audio, said Shuster.

As for the entertainment and parties that are usually part of a convention, there's plenty of that.

"There's beer," Shuster said, though you can't actually drink it. "Your avatar can drink beer and sit there and socialize with people."

And if you find the keynote speaker a bit dull, you can just tune out and have an online chat.

"You can have a whole conversation back and forth, which would be considered rude at a real convention."

Never mind sore feet, because you can visit virtual booths to see products you're interested in.

The software development company has put on conventions for the online video game "World of Warcraft" and the adult entertainment industry, Shuster said, adding conventions are in the works for a racing group and a bloggers group.

The company will hold its second annual convention for the virtual world industry next week from July 26-28.

But Shuster noted that conventions featuring hands-on products like food shows may need to stay in the real world.

"That's a perfect example of one that probably doesn't work in the virtual world."

Utherverse has competitors such as cyberconventions.com and virtualtradeshowhosting.com, but Shuster believes the "real time, 3D environment" gives his company an edge.

Technology analyst Duncan Stewart said virtual conventions would be environmentally friendly and provide more access and more diversity.

"Somebody really cool who happens to have an Internet access from Namibia or Jakarta could dial in and really offer an amazing perspective who wouldn't otherwise maybe be able to fly there," said Stewart, director of research in technology, media and telecom at Deloitte Canada.

"It should be a more diverse audience."

But there's already a digital presence at real-life conventions with social networking, live video streaming and Internet participation, he added.

Despite travel costs and the time required for conventions, Stewart said people still prefer the real thing.

"Every conference I go to has more people than last year," he said, noting he travels regularly to conferences worldwide.

"As human beings, we are engineered to be better at making small talk that way than in a virtual convention."

Virtual drinks also don't hold much appeal.

"Nothing replaces the face-to-face and going out for beers."

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