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I am keen proponent of using virtual worlds like Second Life for virtual meetings.  The benefits of being able to quickly meet up, use spatial VoIP speech chat with people all over the world will eventually mean that many events take place solely “in-world”.  My personal view is that in when viewed through the lens of ROI, many real conferences will die within the next 10-15 years.  The normal argument, that real events are so much better because you can look people in the eye, and the coffee is better are OK, but in-reality I think some of this is motivated by wanting a day out of the office, and yes the coffee IS better.

So, whilst the social factors and the technology catch-up, there is still going to be the need for real meetings and conferences in the meantime. Unless of course they’re all cancelled by the credit crunch accountants 😉

Like others though (David Burden of Daden for example has a great post  on this:), I and our team have been exploring ways of adding value to conferences and meetings using virtual worlds and web2.0 technologies.  Things like using Twitter as a backchannel, and using social networking tools to allow delegates to network before, during and after the conference, so they use their time more effectively are great ways to improve the event experience.

David also mentions simultaneously running a virtual track where sessions take place in a virtual environment too.  This can be further improved by streaming audio or video one or both ways.  In practice though, it’s quite a lot of effort to do this and you are frequently at the mercy of the wireless or wired network at your conference venue, as I found to my cost recently.  For “new media” type of conferences, where folk are familiar with the technology and fault tolerant when things go wrong, this is fine, but for many others, the risks are too high.  Even using Twitter is a new concept still to many never mind a virtual world!

At the event

So… how DO you use virtual worlds to add value to mainstream conferences and events? First rule, as ever, is keep it simple.  At a few conferences that IBM has hosted or attended, I have manned a pedestal, showcasing our Virtual Business Center and Virtual Green Data Center.  I also have a high-resolution video tour of these on hand in case of network issues.  At the very least these add some nice eye-candy and a conversation starter, which is half the battle on a trade stand, and seeing as pretty much every man and his dog in IBM has tried some kind of virtual worlds project, we can demo something relating to whatever topic the conference might be about, at least loosely.  Used well, these can start real business discussions.  I was pleasantly suprised that at the Green IT Expo this week, I had many conversations with people

At the Rational Developers conference I also facilitated a virtual Grady Booch to be able to present to the real audience in the auditorium, with mixed results (i.e. it started well and then was scotched by the venue LAN!  😦 – i.e. it wasn’t actually a Second Life problem per se, more a problem of running a live virtual anything – see risk comments above).  I was aware that this might happen, and had tried to de-riske the possibility by having a backup video of the presentation that was running in parrallel that we could switch to, although in the event one of the other speakers picked up the baton and carried on.  Having the backup video also meant that I didn’t need to try and record the talk live (i.e. lower risk) and I could simply make the pre-recorded talk available to the AV company for editing into the highlights video.

Post Event (and possibly Pre)

One area I think virtual worlds CAN really add value is in followup virtual events.  Having met everyone physically at the event or conference, participants now have a shared experience of a real event, which gives them something in common, and also have a memory of the people they met.  These two factors can be used to try and continue to gel these people into a community using subsequent virtual events – e.g. “meet the expert” type Q&A events.  People have a memory of the people they met, which anecdotally tends to improve the quality of subsequent virtual meetings – as Roo Reynolds recently noted:

“we may build relationships online but it’s hard to start them that way. “

These kind of smaller, more frequent virtual events can allow an extension of an event in a very cost effective way that would’ve been more or less impossible before.

Add to this the option of steaming the virtual event on-line for the high proportion of people that will not yet be ready to dip their toes into virtuality, and it means that everyone can take part.

This is also potentially a great way to qualify people’s interest for an invitation to a real event.  I have heard stories recently of expensive, poorly attended events.  By running cheap pre-events, possibly using virtual worlds or even just a conference call or web-ex, you should be able to get some sense of who might come to a real event.

At the recent Virtual Worlds Forum event, the organisers hit a major problem where the planned venue was closed due to an unrelated shooting the night before.  I quickly setup a virtual “refugee camp” for displaced avatars, which, given the available time, was quite successful, demonstrating how quick and easy it can be to run fully virtual events, when your participants are up on the technology.

Why are virtual worlds conferences held in the real world?

This is the frequently repeated and obvious joke.  Ironically however, the virtual worlds industry is probably going to be the last one to hold it’s conferences in a virtual world as choosing a virtual world to hold it in, is a highly political decision as many potential attendees run their own platforms!

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