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In a thorough reimaging of the HPA Tech Retreat, the new format for the Innovation Zone was not taken lightly.  Attendees will be able to visit an engaging and informative space, designed for exploration and interaction, where companies and experts demonstrate the absolute latest in entertainment technology with one on one conversation and visual engagement.

While chatting with friends and colleagues in person over a glass of wine may not be on the docket this year, the high caliber companies and experts – many drawn from another groundbreaking Supersession and HPA Award winners in engineering excellence – are on tap as always. The 2021 Innovation Zone has been reimagined into an immersive experience on a virtual platform with easy engagement and demonstrations, this year led by Microsoft business and technology strategist for media and entertainment, Eliot Sakhartov and SIM vice president of engineering Paul Chapman.

Sakhartov, who began working on Innovation Zone planning in November, said he felt the most important approach was to identify both the themes and the right technologies to showcase. “We asked ourselves what is the technology that we need now because of COVID? What is it that’s allowing people to work remotely and continue to be productive and effective?”

Technology aimed at handling the new reality of working during COVID-19 became the first of four pillars that Sakhartov and Chapman devised to build out the Innovation Zone.. The next pillar is something that has never before been seen in the Innovation Zone. “We’re interested in anything that was old but now has a new life because of COVID,” says Sakhartov. “Some technologies in the 1980s had no use case and now are suddenly super relevant today.” He added that a Microsoft R&D group is in fact reexamining older technologies for potential usefulness in today’s world. The third pillar focuses on what is typically shown in the Innovation Zone: technology invented in the last two years in the media & entertainment industry.

The fourth pillar is also new for the Innovation Zone. “The reality is that not everybody is working,” he says. “Productions have shut down and grips, editors, sound guys are at home. This is an opportunity to re-educate people – to take broadcast engineers and turn them into cloud broadcast engineers.” Sakhartov and Chapman are still working on finding the ideal partners for this educational effort in the Innovation Zone. In all cases, every spot in the Innovation Zone is carefully evaluated to create a valuable experience for all involved.

Sakhartov said he and Chapman have been looking at ways that other large and small organizations and conferences have created virtual environments, including the recent SMPTE and CES Tech Shows as well as MESA (Media and Entertainment Services Alliance) events. “We’re building on the shoulders of giants, having seen many other events,” says Chapman. Sakhartov adds that they want to “replicate the sense of being able to drop into a booth at any time to have a conversation and translate that to a virtual environment.”

The co chairs are also working on “creating additional unique events inside the Innovation Zone.” Curated talks, virtual cocktails, presentations are all in the mix of discussion to take place inside the Innovation Zone. “We are building a connection between main stage presentations and vendors in the Innovation Zone.  At end of their presentations on the main stage, the speakers will have a slide listing the technology they used,” he explains, “to translate to who is in the Innovation Zone so attendees can have immediate access to more information about the technology.”

Chapman adds that one of the upsides of creating a virtual Innovation Zone, and event in general, is that geographic boundaries have been lifted. “Anyone can contribute from any part of the world,” he says. “This is now a completely open forum, and people who were previously unable to travel to Palm Springs can be with us.”

In terms of how the event will unfold, Chapman noted, the goal is to have an interactive experience enabling those company experts to demonstrate what they’ve been working on in the most effective way possible. The social aspect, he adds, is very important. “Recreating the spontaneity of walking into an exhibit hall is challenging, but we are on track to do it,” he says. Sakhartov and Chapman are focused on creating a scenario where attendees and the exhibitors can greet old friends and meet new ones and have a lively exchange.  “We’re on track to do something very close to that,” promises Chapman.

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