The Future of Conferences
I’ve seen the future of conferences. And it runs my code!
This past weekend I had an amazing experience. I went to the 1st OpenSimulator Community Conference, which I helped organize (besides helping write the server that made it possible, too). The term “went” is not quite right, but it’s not wrong either. Physically, I didn’t go anywhere other than my home office: the conference was held in a virtual environment. Mentally, however, I went to this conference, almost as intensely as any other conference that I’ve been before. I was an organizer, a speaker and an attendee, and I felt myself in those roles just as strongly as I did in other conferences I helped organize. I stressed with technical and organizational glitches, focused when giving my talks, and was inspired by some of the talks I attended. I enjoyed visiting the sponsor displays and finding out more about them. I “came back” from the conference tired, but energized, feeling that the people who develop and use OpenSimulator have just gone through a transformational shift — from a bunch of unrelated individuals to an actual community. Of the dozens of conferences and workshops I have attended in my life, I had this feeling exactly once before, at a workshop we held at PARC back in 1996.
My family respected my time to attend the conference by not interrupting me [very often]. At the end of each day, I instantly teleported to my real world home, specifically the kitchen, as I suddenly realized I was starving.
The strong positive experience came as a shock even to me, who have been working in these environments for several years, including experiences with events in Second Life. This event was really something else, and it left a strong impression not just on me but on the 360 people who attended.
After this experience, I made up my mind about what a conference really is, and it’s this:
A conference is a large group of people coming together at the same time, in real-time, to share experiences formally and informally.
In order to have a conference feel, same time-ness is important; same physical place is not important, and it will become less so as the technology for remote presence improves. The experience we all shared this past weekend was the fuzzy image of what’s to come. As we start exploring alternatives to the mouse and the flat screen — things like the leap motion and the Oculus Rift — things will get a lot more interesting in online real-time interaction!
Over the past day, I have been trying to deconstruct the experience in order to understand why this conference made such a strong impression on me and everyone who was there. It wasn’t just one thing, I think, it was a combination of things that made it work. So here’s a list of those things in no particular order:
Engagement on the part of the participants. The people who participated were truly engaged in making the most out of the experience. I have a feeling this is perhaps the most important element of any conference, physical or virtual. When people don’t really want to be there, the conference experience is sort of flat. You see that sometimes in RL conferences when people bury their heads in their computers during the sessions, don’t ask questions to the speakers and don’t interact much with each other during the breaks either. The OSCC13 volunteers took on their task with a gusto that put many RL conference volunteers to shame; the students in the Air Force Lab poster session were full of enthusiasm when prompted about their summer projects; the speakers showed care and commitment in their talks, slides and performances; the participants were a lively bunch, constantly chatting and engaging with what was being said by the presenters. Engagement is contagious, so even participants who weren’t really sure what they were going to find ended up being caught in the energy.
The liveliness of the environment. OK, so the students who built the virtual conference center based on the Universal Campus went a bit crazy with glow, but it really worked! Visually, the environment was fun and playful. It was a strange mixture of familiar and unfamiliar elements: things like screens, chairs, podiums and banners are to be found in any conference center, but crazy-glowing, cube-like trees and blue grid-like terrain are completely out of this world, and ported everyone into a video game. The open-space plenary room (which ended up happening serendipitously), with its bright green and blue chairs at the same level as the speakers’, gave a feeling of accessibility to the speakers that was quite refreshing.
Attention to detail in the interaction design. This is one of my pet peeves. One of the things I hate in most user-generated environments in SL and OpenSim is the lack of attention to detail in interaction design. Most modelers focus on producing beautiful environments assuming that the users are experts and know how to interact with the environment, specifically the camera. This is simply not true. Even people who have a lot of experience sometimes have trouble understanding what is it they should be focusing on in a 3D space. (This is also true, to a lesser extent, in physical spaces) Besides the presentation system itself, which came directly from my my vLab, my other contribution to the build were scripts for placing the cameras in exactly the right spots for everyone, as they sat down. Expert users could then move their cameras at will, but that very first position of the camera was a strong signal for what their role was and what they should be looking at. I’m not sure anyone noticed this detail (I know at least one person did), but it’s the accumulation of unnoticeable details like this that produce a positive user experience.
An experienced team. Organizing a conference is A LOT OF WORK! The last time I did it, I swore I would never do it again, because it’s a time sink. The conference management for OSCC13 was entirely taken by AvaCon, in close collaboration with some of us developers of OpenSim. AvaCon did the bulk of the organizational, managerial and execution work; Justin, Nebadon and I focused on making sure OpenSim would perform. AvaCon rocks! Really! I have worked with other professional conference management people before, so I can compare. It’s impressive that Chris (aka Fleep) and Joyce (aka Rhiannon) did this whole thing without charging a single cent! For the other conferences I’ve been involved with, including non-profit, conference management is usually a non-trivial chunk of the budget…
Not possible in real life. OSCC13 had a few plenary sessions and several sessions with parallel tracks, just like many RL conferences. In RL conferences, when there are parallel tracks, we must choose which track to attend. In this conference, I often found myself in more than 1 track at the same time. While my brain still can’t process more than one audio stream at a time, I could see the slides of the others, and toggle the audio stream every so often. It was like having my own mixing table over the live event. Crazy and very intense!
Socials. Web conferencing systems don’t have this concept, but this SL-like environment does. Besides the sessions, the conference included several social events, some of them with live music. That’s right, live. That means that someone (in the case of the picture, a guy somewhere in Denmark) was spinning records, interacting with the crowd and streaming the audio into everyone’s computers at home. People usually put their avatars in a dance animation and chitchat the hour away (that’s what I did). Not sure if they are dancing at home or not, probably not. A time will come when our dance moves at home will be directly represented in the virtual space, and we will all be dancing together for real, while chitchatting.
No central authority. The importance of this point may be difficult to understand for people outside the OpenSimulator community, but this conference was the first large virtual event that separated the authority of the venue from the authority of the attendees. Let me try to make a parallel: it was like a Google hangout where people could show up with their Yahoo! and university identities. About 40% of attendees came with their own accounts in other virtual environments. This gave everyone the good feeling that there is no central authority, that they can set up their virtual identities and pixelated appearances independent of the conference, but that we can all get together nevertheless.
Many people reading this blog post may think I’m crazy and that I drank some old kool-aid from 2008, when the hype surrounding virtual worlds was at its peak. Well, I am crazy, thank God, but I’m not the only one. The fact that the hype bubble was busted is a relief for me: it’s a really bad feeling to work on something that is hyped way beyond what it can do. I’m much happier now that the technology has entered the slope of enlightenment.
Real-time virtual reality opens up connections that are not possible in physical space but that feel natural to our prehistorical brains. Attending a conference is much less a physical act than a mental one, so we can make those connections in virtual space. And while today’s VR is still clunky as hell, and there’s much to be done to inject our physical bodies in it, there’s an unstoppable train coming our way, because what drives technology is the ideal of transcending physical limitations.
P.S. I hate traveling. After this experience, I’m not sure I will ever want to attend a physical conference ever again.