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.
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.