When Intel launches a major new chip, Gregory Bryant, executive vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group, is accustomed to hitting his mark on a tech industry event stage in Europe, Asia or the U.S. and looking out over a sea of faces. At key moments, hundreds of smartphones pop up to photograph, live blog or tweet the proceedings.
But for his recent keynote address in San Rafael, California, the scene was utterly different.
When Bryant pulled an 11th Gen Intel® Core™ processor from his pocket to launch Intel’s newest and highest-performing laptop chip, there were precisely 12 people silently facing him in a darkened room. As he held the chip aloft, Bryant smiled broadly. There was no applause.
The Sept. 2 keynote was “unlike any other I’ve been part of,” said Bryant, who called the event “risky yet rewarding.”
‘Extended Reality’ Now a Reality
Intel’s launch of its “Tiger Lake” processor was by far the company’s biggest virtual event since the global COVID-19 pandemic halted large in-person gatherings and added social distancing measures. And it was the industry’s first to be produced on a sophisticated extended reality — or xR — stage.
At Intrepid Studios, a production firm north of San Francisco, Bryant and his executive teammates relied neither on traditional PowerPoint slides nor on old-style “green screens” of the kind local TV weather people often use. Instead, they stood on an LED stage floor surrounded by more than 60 feet of 4K wrap-around LED-video walls that — combined with Hollywood-caliber cameras and lighting — created the highest-resolution xR environment in the world.
As Bryant and other Intel leaders Karen Walker, Chris Walker and Boyd Phelps presented on the stage – alongside display tables, laptops or other physical objects – they melded seamlessly into the virtual backgrounds, rendered in real time by the Unreal content engine. Disney has used similar xR tech recently to produce “The Mandalorian,” as have singers Katy Perry and Alicia Keyes.
Large Virtual Crowd, Positive Feedback
For the Intel launch, there were a dozen producers and camera, light and sound people in the room for the pre-recording. But when Intel released the 11th Gen Intel Core virtual event online less than a week later, the audience numbered more than 20,000, with press, analysts, customers, partners and company employees from around the globe.
The cost of the event was roughly on par with an in-person one.
Feedback from attendees, said Jill Leithner, Intel’s Executive Event Productions manager, was “overwhelmingly positive … everyone is looking for online events to be even more engaging and interactive, which challenges our traditional ways of production. This is why we’re exploring innovations in production technology such as the xR stage.”
Leithner said the pandemic has given Intel events leaders the chance to fundamentally rethink what presentations are, and what they can be. Working virtually, she said, “forces us to think, decide and plan earlier. We are literally making a mini-movie. This requires more time for testing, shooting, editing and quality control.”
In the pre-pandemic old days – just nine months ago – executive keynotes could come together nail-bitingly late, with final PowerPoint tweaks sometimes skidding in mere minutes before an exec stepped on stage.
No more. Deadlines are critical.
Approximately eight separate extended reality scenes in the Intel presentation – one example: Bryant seeming to stand in a bustling city park with people walking by in the background — took an estimated 500 hours of computer rendering time. Last-minute diving-catch changes were not an option.
But the upsides are huge, writes Mark Pederson, the founder of Intrepid: “We were able to place execs in a series of realistic scenes — from living rooms to tech labs, innovation centers, apartments, redwood forests and a San Francisco park, to a special ‘spark universe’ where Intel’s CMO introduced the company’s new brand.” Peterson calls xR “the future of digital storytelling.”
Bryant said: “We broke new ground with this approach. We showcased our products and technology leadership in a way that was immersive and captivating, allowing us to clearly articulate our story.”
Leithner cites numerous additional less-obvious advantages to virtual events that Intel and others are discovering: All presenters need to be figuratively on the same page and tell a coherent “story” for the virtual event to work. And virtual events must be shorter and more concise than in-person ones, which forces presenters to winnow content to what matters most.
Intel’s 11th Gen Core virtual event ran just 34 minutes, a relative finger-snap compared to traditional in-person tech events.
Once the pandemic passes, will virtual events supplant in-person ones?
It’s unlikely. An industry survey by Bizzabo Event Outlook Report shows that while 60% of event marketers have switched to virtual presentations, 96% of those surveyed believe that in-person events are “irreplaceable.”
The future world will most likely be a mix of both in-person and virtual events.
“It’s time to pioneer new experiences,” said Victor Torregroza, Intel Events program manager. “I believe digital events should be brief, on-demand (pre-recorded), with moments of delight. At home, we’re all one click away from a child needing attention, a spouse popping into the office or a pet who needs to go outside. Events need to be concise with a dynamic pace, essential technical information, bold graphics and purposeful experiences.”
Increasingly, said Torregroza, “hybrid experiences” will be the new normal – but with the virtual element the ripest for creativity.
“Delivering the digital experience in chapters or episodes of compelling content is important. Digital experiences should follow the Hollywood rule of leaving the audiences wanting more … the experiences should be brief and snackable, and the content should be able to be sliced and diced to be shared across several platforms. Episodic. Engaging. Immersive. Snackable,” Torregroza told ExhibitorOnline.
In the meantime, presenting virtually – staring into a camera lens with no in-person crowd to clap, laugh or groan – is a skill that Intel’s leaders continue to polish.
“The greatest challenge,” said Bryant, “was maintaining the energy throughout the presentation, given the lack of a live audience.”
It’s a point that other presenters echo. Not seeing the whites of your audience’s eyes takes a bit of mental re-adjustment.
Boyd Phelps, Intel Devices Development Group corporate vice president, said he appreciated the chance to redo minor presentation hiccups, though he missed “being able to read and connect real time with the audience.”
However, Chris Walker, vice president and Mobile Client Platforms Group leader, said the virtual event “forced a more concise message and deepened the focus on imagery and meaning in every piece.”
Regardless, the train is leaving the station on purely in-person events. Leithner, the Intel Exec Events manager, is excited about the future. When event attendees see what’s possible virtually, she says “they don’t want to go backwards.”