January 6, 2014

Orange County Register

When conferences go virtual

By Crista Lopes

I’ve seen the future of conferences. And it runs my code!

I had an amazing experience recently. I went to the first OpenSimulator Community Conference, which I helped organize. “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 conference I’ve ever attended. I was an organizer, a speaker and a participant, and I felt myself in those roles just as strongly as I did in other conferences I helped organize. I stressed out over technical and organizational glitches, focused intensely when giving my talks, and I gained inspiration from others’ talks. 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.

My family respected attendance at 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 realized I was really hungry.

I was shocked by my strong positive reaction to the experience, even though I’ve 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.

This experience helped me define 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 shared 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!

I have been deconstructing 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; it was a combination of factors that made it work. Here’s a list, in no particular order:

Engaged participants. I have a feeling this is the most important element of any conference, physical or virtual. When people don’t really want to be there, the conference experience is flat. You see that in conferences when people bury their heads in their computers during the sessions, don’t ask questions of the speakers and don’t interact much with each other during the breaks. The Open-Simulator Community Conference volunteers took on their task with a gusto that put many real-life 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; a lively bunch of participants chatted and engaged with the presenters. Engagement is contagious, so even participants who weren’t sure what to expect found themselves caught up in the energy.

A lively environment. 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, cubelike trees and blue grid-like terrain are completely out of this world, and ported everyone into a video game. The open-space plenary room, with its bright green and blue chairs at the same level as the speakers, gave a refreshing feeling of accessibility to the speakers.

Attention to detail in the interaction design. One of my pet peeves about most user-generated environments in Second Life and OpenSim is the lack of detail in interaction design. Most modelers focus on producing beautiful environments assuming that users are experts and know how to interact with the environment, specifically the camera, which determines the participant’s line of sight to the program. This is simply not true. Even people who have a lot of experience sometimes have trouble understanding where they should focus 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 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 where they should look. I’m not sure anyone noticed this detail, but the accumulation of unnoticeable details like this produces a positive user experience.

An experienced team. Organizing a conference is a lot of work. The conference management for OSCC13 (OpenSimulator Community Conference in September 2013) 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. They have done these events before, so the whole conference ran really smoothly.

Not possible in real life. OSCC13 had a few plenary sessions and several sessions with parallel tracks. In real-life conferences, we must choose one among the menu of parallel tracks. In this conference, I often found myself in more than one track. 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. Very intense!

Socials. Web conferencing systems don’t have this concept, but this Second Life-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 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 chitchatted the hour away (that’s what I did). Not sure if they are dancing at home or 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 percent of attendees came with their own accounts in other virtual environments. This gave everyone the good feeling that there is no central authority. They can set up their virtual identities and pixelated appearances independent of the conference, but get together nevertheless.

Many people reading this may think I drank some old Kool-Aid from 2008, when the hype surrounding virtual worlds was at its peak. Actually, the fact that the hype bubble burst is a relief: it feels bad to work on something that is hyped way beyond its potential. It’s much better 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 prehistoric 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 and there’s much to be done to inject our physical bodies into 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.
When conferences go virtual