A tale of two conferences

Over the course of the past week, I attended two very different technology conferences.

One was a virtual conference, last weekend’s OpenSimulator Community Conference 2013.

The other was a traditional conference, held in a hotel complex in the Chicago suburbs, the Unisys Universe conference.

Both included participants from around the world, both had keynote speeches and breakout technical and visionary sessions.

Both conferences were packed with content, and had technology pioneers as brand-name keynoters.

OSCC meeting June 12 2013

At a regular weekly planning meeting for OSCC track leaders.

Both conferences ran smoothly and on schedule, with minimal disruption or technical problems.

I had a moment of panic at one of my presentations when I couldn’t get slides to load, even though I’d practiced the night before — and wound up loading them twice, so had to advance slides two at a time for the whole presentation. Note to self: if I’m speaking first, and have slides, load the slides before the presentation is scheduled to start, to avoid these moments of panic.

And while I wasn’t privy to the behind-the-scenes planning of the Unisys conference, I can say for certain that the planning and organization of the OpenSim conference was exemplary. Since late spring, I attended weekly organizing meetings for the track leaders, where we discussed, among other things, how to arrange the conference schedule. The only disagreement I remember over all this time was a technical issue of how to balance the stream of incoming conference attendees so as not to over-burden any one region. Whatever decision the developers came to, it turned out fine.

A difference of commitment

The obvious difference between the two conferences was, of course, the cost. The Unisys conference required hotel rooms, plane trips, meals, airport shuttles, projectors, and brochure printing.

In addition, some of the speakers were probably paid for their presentations, but this was likely due to the fact that this was a business conference. The OSCC conference, by comparison, was a community event, run by volunteers, and speakers wouldn’t be expecting to get paid.

In addition to volunteer speakers, the OSCC also had volunteer builders, developers, organizers, greeters, and moderators.

If the OSCC has been a for-profit conference instead, then the organizers could have spent as much money on it as they could have wished, paying extra for fancy building or brand-name speakers. Maybe creating a custom avatar for each attendee based on their photo.

No, the big difference was the level of commitment required to attend each conference.

Going to the Unisys conference required a plane trip to Chicago, so ducking out of the conference to go home wasn’t practical unless you lived in the immediate area.

This meant that attendees were forced to hang around between sessions. They had to see the vendor booths whether they wanted to or not, because the vendor booths were right there outside the main meeting areas, and next to the snack tables. And attendees were forced to mingle and gt to know each other — at the dining tables during breakfast, lunch and dinner, during breaks between events, at the hotel bar in the evening, on the hotel’s golf course, at the pool, or at the hotel gym, on the shuttles to and from the airport and the field trip to the Field Museum, even on the elevators to and from the hotel rooms.

By comparison, leaving the OSCC conference was as simple as taking off a headset, if you were wearing one. And you were home. It was easy to skip the socializing, the vendor expo, the after-hours parties.

I don’t know whether this was an advantage or disadvantage.

Both conferences, for example, had two days worth of panels and events, but when travel is added in, the Unisys conference can easily take up four days for an attendee.

A virtual conference doesn’t require any additional time for travel.

And if people do want to socialize, the OSCC offered plenty of opportunities, including after-hours parties and field trips on both days of the conference.

My suggestion, to folks organizing similar virtual events, is to give attendees extra reasons to hang around and mingle. After all, if you’re just watching the presentations, you can do that later online. The main benefit of attending a conference — whether virtual or traditional — is to meet people.

Here are some possible encouragements for hanging out:

  • An award banquet at the end of the conference. You never know if you’re going to be the one who wins something!
  • A silent charity auction. People can mill around and chat with each other while they look at the items being auctioned off — and then they’ll have to hang around to see if they won.
  • Raffles and prizes. For example, expo vendors could give out tokens to people who visit their booths, with each token being another opportunity to win a prize. And the prizes themselves could be an opportunity for vendors or creators to promote their services.
  • Or the conference can hold a scavenger hunt, with people being assigned to different teams based on the tracks they’re attending. The feeling of being on the same team can help create bonds between people, and the spirit of fun competition can inspire people to get more involved in events.
  • Walk-ways between sessions. I teleported around to get from place to place, which was most efficient for me, and probably also for the technology infrastructure. And forcing people to walk through crowds in an unfamiliar virtual environment can be difficult, especially if some folks are completely new to the interface. Is there a way to fix this? Say, with something like moving sidewalks? So you’d get a chance to mingle with people, see some virtual art on walls, see some banner ads and event announcements, and get a feel for the conference space as a real place.

I look forward to attending many OSCC and other virtual conference events in the future, and I believe that the level of engagement, immersion, and interactivity will just keep rising.

Maybe next year, I’ll come wearing an Oculus Rift.

 

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Lani Global

    Thanks for your comparison and insight on OSCC, Maria.

    I have attended hundreds of trade shows and conferences over my professional career. They can often be informative and rewarding. But, they are often an inefficient expensive burden on time and energy.

    I especially enjoyed attending OSCC13. It was by far the most painless conference I’ve ever been to. It was above average for its information content and very good for the people-networking it provided.

    By the way, I viewed many of the videos of breakout presentation tracks. I also attended several of your awesome and well-prepared presentations. Thank you for all you did to make OSCC13 a wonderful experience!

    A thousand thanks go out to the developers, presenters, hosts, speakers, volunteers, and support people who put on OSCC.

    Here are a few of the photos I took at the OpenSim Community Conference 2013.

  • Ai Austin

    Excellent comparative notes Maria, and I very much like your suggestions to improve the “hang around” opportunities to meet and chat to others and bump into interesting folks. The encouragement to travel around and see the displays and exhibits via team based hunts and collecting with a final plenary get together and prize giving also gives a nice structure to the social side of the event. I also suggested jogging or workout sessions together to encourage some (real) physical activity during long virtual events.

  • Very good article, and interesting. A small group I am involved with, my primary role being the frontline promoter, of sorts, is teased here:

    http://www.kitely.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=601

    I only got involved as I know the primary person from other places [and others will know Sarge Misfit also].

    But my point being that this will be an interactive type of event, such as you suggest, in some regards, in your last set of bullet points.

    I cannot speak to the entire thing, fully, yet, as our concept is one of more in the line of teasers in order to pique interest for those who find it so, but it will involve solving of mysteries, using various scripting processes, following clues, with an awards presentation followed by a concert by someone well known in the Meta.

    The concept, if it works out well [since it is still in the planning stages in most regards, is to get interest, give rewards, and then give an additional reward of the Concert/performance.

    The added benefits are to Kitely by way of exposure in several regards. Since we in our group are avid HG enthusiasts we wish to get interest in that, we wish to get interest in other features of Kitely, and we wish to give people who are interested something interesting to do.

    As there is not much community stuff going on there yet [tho another I spoke to is thinking of working on another concert] we hope to help in that regard as well.

    This is not a commercial event that is for our group, tho of course the bleed-off will find some small regards in that matter, but our primary focus is on giving people something interesting. We think it will be fun-)) and entertaining-))

    As Kitely has said up to 100 avatars can be on a region, we are thankful this aspect of OS should not be an issue….though we are realistic in that we do not expect anywhere near that level of participation.

    More will be coming out over the next couple of weeks and if anyone finds it of enough interest, they may consider making accounts in Kitely and consider joining us. As the Kitely folks promise to enable HG by the end of the year, it will be cool in that regard also. Our first event, however, will occur in early October, as it is being planned atm.