Nov 2017

Interactive installations at trade shows and exhibitions

Multitouch table with object recognition at the booth of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development at the Green Week 2017 in Berlin

How interactive installations can support effective and efficient communication, and what aspects communication executives should consider.

At an event, have you ever been addressed by a table asking you for your business card? Anyone who spends a lot of time on trade shows these days cannot help but notice that companies increasingly use digital interactive installations in order to communicate with their target audiences. This article explains how these installations can support efficient and effective communication and the aspects that should be considered by the ones in charge of corporate communication.

What is an Interactive Installation?

By definition, an interactive installation typically is a digital, spatially extensive, stationary, and in many cases site‑ and situation‑related technical construction serving a communicative or artistic purpose. In the context of corporate communication that may be, for instance, a multi-touch table, an interactive display case, or an interactive projection. Unlike traditional PCs, these installations are not operated and controlled with a mouse and a keyboard, but through more intuitive modes of interaction, e. g. touch and gestures, by means of objects, or by the movement of people through space (i.e. in a room). Interactive in that case refers to the fact that here the user is not merely a passive beholder, but instead influences the installation directly through and by means of its sensor interface.

Interactive Tables with Multi-Touch Technology

For clarification, let’s take a look at a relatively simple and already very popular and common interactive installation: a multi-touch table. Its construction combines the traditional basic concept of utility furniture (namely a table) with novel modes of interaction – touch gestures – on its surface (“swiping”, “clicking”, “zooming”, etc.). By design, basically any multi-touch table at the same time is a multi-user installation, because it can process up to 80 parallel touch-inputs on its surface. Users can view content like images, text, videos, and 3D models, they can move digital content freely across the table’s surface, and they can activate, edit, or modify it. In many cases additional object-recognition modules even increase the table’s interactivity. Much to their users’ delight, a lot of these tables offer games or at least take a gamification approach in content presentation. Additional ambience elements such as lighting or sound effects address multiple senses and enhance the overall effect.

Multitouch-Tisch mit Objekterkennung am Stand des Bundesministeriums für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung auf der Grünen Woche 2017 in Berlin

Multi-touch table with object recognition features at the Federal Ministry for Economic Collaboration’s booth at the 2017 “Grüne Woche” Trade Show in Berlin.

Practical Use Cases

“But how do companies can make practical use of this multitude of possible options at trade shows and events?”, you might ask. For one thing, interactive installations typically are eye‑catchers that have a certain remote effect. Hence their mere presence already enhances a trade fair booth’s attractiveness and appeal for visitors. But the table can also take over the part of actively greeting and addressing interested onlookers – a task usually performed by booth personnel – by welcoming them (visually or with an audio message/sound) and offering them different topics or content to look at. For instance, when a user puts an item on the table, the latter’s object recognition module provides him with the according multimedia product information. An integration of the analog and the digital is thus achieved, which holds a certain surprise effect for visitors. The table can also ask a visitor to present his or her business card, which is then captured by the table’s camera unit and promptly digitized and displayed on the multi-touch surface. Now the user can use his or her digital business card to subscribe to a newsletter or enter a lottery. This accordingly leads to the accomplishment of typical trade fair objectives such as contact generation.

Interactive Installations in the Context of Communication Sciences

The multi-touch table is a good example of how it is possible to attract the attention of potential visitors, arouse their interest in particular content, and encourage their active engagement. Hence the communicative message not only reaches its receiver, but the latter associates it with an experience and thus internalizes it.

In comparison with more traditional trade show booth set-ups comprising only analog or “passive” media, by means of interactive installations an informative and communicative concept can be realized – one that at times does not even require booth personnel.

From the visitor’s self-determined choice of content and from the fact that he himself triggers and controls all interaction a higher receiver involvement emerges. A company thus enforces the communicative goals through the content available, through user guidance, and through the gamification of content. In the best‑case scenario, one end of the table is occupied by children playing with the company’s virtual products while at its other end an investor is obtaining information on the company’s production sites.

Practical Tips for Communication Executives

All the novel possibilities for trade shows and exhibitions arising from modern technologies outlined here of course have to be taken with a grain of salt, and a healthy amount of skepticism is in order. This involves being aware that no interactive installation whatsoever can fully replace face-to-face communication. It can, however, support it considerably and in an expedient way, for instance with a digital product presentation that serves as the backbone and thematic guideline for the booth personnel’s conversation with a potential client.

In addition, no technical set-up, no matter how sophisticated, can ever supplant good communication strategies and planning. Instead, the installation has to be integrated with the pre-existing communication concept, something that’s particularly difficult, especially for businesses with no or very little experience in novel forms of presentation and digital content.

Some of those in charge of corporate communication shy away from the comparatively high costs of an interactive installation. A closer look, however, reveals its superiority in terms of cost-effectiveness in the longer run, because the hardware can be used for several years, and only the digital content requires regular updating and adaptation to the purpose (event or trade show) at hand. In this task a CMS, which corporate communications executives themselves can maintain and adapt to different purposes and target audiences, offers maximum flexibility.

Conclusion: Sound communication planning and integration provided, an interactive installation constitutes a both effective and efficient means of communication, with the potential to turn visitors first into users and later into dedicated followers of a business company’s merchandise.

(The original German version of this article by Andreas Köster was first published in the magazine for corporate and economic communications “black box” in 2017)

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