Main image: EACD's Pia Langmann tests the Microsoft HoloLens in Munich

As we increasingly delegate our decision-making to artificial intelligence, are we paying enough attention to the potential risks involved? And how will the emergence of virtual reality as the latest must-have tool in media and communications affect corporate communicators? These questions were at the heart of the second event in the EACD Debate series.

Over 120 participants joined the event at Microsoft Deutschland’s new headquarters in Munich to hear the invited speakers present case studies on the challenges and opportunities that new technology offers communicators and their audiences.

Before the presentations, the audience was given an insight into ways in which cutting edge technologies are changing the way we work: a tour of the Microsoft offices led by Benjamin Lampe, Microsoft’s director of communications for Europe and Kathleen Nolan, the company’s director of philanthropies and education communications for Europe, highlighted remote working, touchscreen booking outside each meeting room, adaptor hubs in the center of each table and surface hub screens.

Benjamin and Kathleen were also first to present to the audience. Arguing that the definition of artificial intelligence will change with time, Benjamin stressed that the purpose of AI is to augment reality rather than replace human capability, and phenomenon of “mixed reality” and algorithms are both examples of AI in use in business –he pointed to HoloLens, Microsoft’s virtual reality glasses, and case studies from ThyssenKrupp and Volvo as best cases. Kathleen, meanwhile, emphasised the importance for communicators of getting to grips with AI: armed with the right mix of enthusiasm and pragmatism, communicators must be part of the conversation about AI in business by learning how and where it is used in their business and keeping an eye on current debates in Brussels that will set the tone of how Europe approaches AI.

The next speaker, Axel Loeber, spoke about the role of virtual reality in transforming the brand of pharma company Merck, where he is head of branding, strategic projects and group communications. As part of the refresh of the 350-year old brand, playful and interactive virtual reality labs were created for use by employees and stakeholders. Axel also spoke about the challenges of virtual reality to Merck, including costs, the need to tailor content specifically for VR, and more importantly the fear that the workforce could be replaced. If algorithms take away individual accountability, is a virtual reality lab worth it once the initial ‘wow’ factor is gone?

Following Axel, Alexander Schröder presented findings from the report German Brands Report 2017 – Virtual & Augmented Reality, including the CEO perspective on how VR will influence their business model. According to Alexander, we are at the start of a technological revolution, similar to 1987 with the mobile phone. The generation of children entering primary school will end up doing jobs that currently don’t exist, and brands must develop roadmaps, be prepared for failure and take risks, and identify customer needs and new use cases as part of the development process.

Following the presentations, a panel discussion moderated by Marc Cloosterman, chief executive officer of VIM Group and EACD brand leadership working group coordinator, fielded questions from the audience and offered tips integrating VR in communications, including how to win executive board support and embody brand values.

Our special thanks to Anke Maibach, marketing manager Central Europe at Tata Consultancy services Germany and the EACD’s regional coordinator for Germany, who set the stage with her introduction, and to Benjamin Lampe, Kathleen Nolan and everyone at Microsoft for being such generous hosts.

For more insights on the discussion, watch this space for our interviews with the panelists and follow the @eacdonline Twitter feed.