For brands, a new technology is always viewed with one big question in mind: how can it make customers engage with us more? Whether it’s been Twitter, touchscreens or QR codes, these latest innovations have spearheaded marketing campaigns all over the world – sometimes to the extent that the actual product takes a backseat.

But through this constant churn, some things remain constant. Go to any launch event or brand showcase and you’re likely to see impressive sets or activations, usually utilising whatever the hottest technology is to give guests a fun, memorable experience. Custom built by expert companies, these physical structures work with the technology to immerse consumers in the brand.

However, this symbiotic relationship could be threatened by the heralded rise of virtual reality (VR), which Dustin Magill, CEO of the set building company Trinity Set & Stage, warns may have a very different impact to previous technology, and force his industry to evolve or die.

“The fundamental goal of set building hasn’t changed much over the years: we want to help people to connect with a build through an immersive experience,” Mr Magill notes. “But VR offers the opportunity for those same people to do this without ever actually setting foot in the activation. For all of the technology we use in our builds, the actual set building industry can be a little traditional – although we’re trying our best to combat that! Otherwise, something like VR won’t be something we can use – it’ll be something that replaces us.”

There is certainly the potential for VR to shake things up. In an increasingly busy world, the ability to experience a brand’s experience from the comfort of your own desk could prove tempting, while a digital world will be able to show us things the physical world never could. But Mr Magill says that as long as builds continue to keep pace with technology, the physicality is what gives them the edge over VR.

“Builds can give users an experience that VR – as it stands – simply can’t match. Tangibility. Being part of a crowd. Sharing an experience. People want something that can be filmed and put on YouTube. And clients and agencies want something that can be shown on social media or blogged about. You can’t share the experience you have on VR – it’s something you have to use to appreciate.”

Nonetheless, Mr Magill admits that the events industry faces a constant battle to compete with market innovations to remain cutting edge – even when it comes down to pragmatic, day-to-day operations.

“The speed at which technology is advancing is a challenge in itself,” he says. “Some things are becoming outdated almost as soon as they arrive – now it can even be a struggle to find something that still accepts a USB stick! But at the same time, it throws up all sorts of opportunities. VR could also be a boon for our industry too. Imagine being able to visualise a build in its entirety before the materials have even left the truck!”

In addition, VR is not the only technology on the horizon that could change how events and builds operate. Augmented reality, drones, 3D printing: all of these have exciting potential and could change the game in ways we haven’t even begun to anticipate. How can set building companies prepare for this seismic shift? For Mr Magill, the simplest way is through training and a network of experts that can be called upon to get the job done:

“We’ve worked on events involving everything from livestreaming to apps, and to do that you need both in-house expertise and a little black book of people you know can crack any technological problem. We make sure that everyone at Trinity has an understanding of build, from concept to delivery, and that means training, whether it’s in CAD or design. We keep our expertise constantly topped up!”

So will high-tech innovations spell the end for traditional set-building? Or will things like VR fail to live up to the hype, leaving the physical experience to continue unhindered? In the end, the reality will probably come somewhere between the two – the physical and digital worlds continuing to intertwine and enhance each other. Brands want the latest tools to show off their relevancy, and consumers want an experience they can feel as well as see. For the set building industry, technology is the means rather than the end, and no amount of virtual will change that reality.

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