For the past two months I have been involved in a fascinating team effort to plan a one-day conference that will be held in a virtual world environment on Saturday, March 8th. The official name of the conference is "Virtual Worlds: Libraries, Education, and Museums" -- VW LEM for short. Although the conference will be held in Second Life, the speakers will be discussing other virtual worlds as well. As the name implies, the participants in this conference will explore how similar but distinct "public good" institutions -- libraries, educational institutions, and museums -- are using virtual world environments to pursue their missions.
Over the years I have been involved in planning real-world conferences, too. As we all think about the future of conferences, it's interesting to compare how real-world and virtual world conferences differ fundamentally.
First, let's contemplate how a virtual world conference avoids some of the planning challenges of a real-world conference:
- No travel time, expenses, and headaches: This is a boon for the conference organizers, presenters, and attendees.
- No need to reserve blocks of hotel rooms: Everyone has an opportunity to sleep in their own beds.
- Weather has diminished importance: Although rain is no problem, local weather and seismic events (thunderstorms, earthquakes, etc.) can affect the ability of some individuals to participate fully in a virtual world conference.
- BYO food and drink: Just say no to rubber chicken and cold rice pilaf. Everyone gets to eat and drink what they like at a time that is convenient to them.
- Room temperature becomes a local issue with local control: Whenever you assemble a group of carbon-based critters in a room, some of them are going to be too cold or too warm. A dispersed virtual world conference sidesteps that issue.
- Lighting becomes a personal decision: The outside conference center of the New Media Consortium in Second Life is the venue for this virtual world conference. In Second Life each avatar can control how the ambient light appears to them -- sunrise, noon, sunset, or midnight.
- No long walks between presentation and exhibit locations: Avatars in Second Life can teleport and fly. My proposal to have vendor-sponsored shuttle buses got waylaid by the conference planning committee.
- No lines at the restrooms: nuff said.
Lest you think that planning and holding a conference in a virtual world must be a piece of cake, let me list a few of the unique challenges the planning team is facing:
- Sim Overload: If we have too many avatars and other stuff loaded on the server that makes the virtual NMC Conference Center possible, the entire experience for everyone may become "laggy" (slow, choppy movements) or, worse yet, the entire server may crash. As a result, we need to keep this a small conference of less than 100 people. Second Life isn't ready to host a large professional conference yet, such as an ALA Annual Conference.
- Newbies: Some presenters and attendees will be new to Second Life. Imagine holding a real-world conference where some attendees didn't know how to move about. They will need to learn the general etiquette and rules of deportment in Second Life quickly. The conference planning team is offering orientation and practice sessions this week.
- Time Zones: Not having to travel is great, but it means that everyone gets to hunker down in their own time zone, which creates major planning challenges. We will have presenters from North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and other geographic locations. Although fewer than 100 people will attend this conference, every continent except Antarctica will be represented. The list of countries is impressive: Albania, Australia, Chile, China, Ethiopia, Israel, etc. We plan to hold the conference during two four-hour time blocks: morning and evening in Second Life Time (Pacific Time). The "morning" session will be evening for the Europeans and Africans attending. The "evening" session will be Sunday morning in East Asia and Australia.
- Voice: Second Life supports both voice communication and text chat, but, for voice communication to work effectively, each presenter and participant will need to have a headset and have their personal preferences configured properly. I can almost guarantee that some attendees will report that they cannot hear the speakers.
- Slides: If you think presenting slides at a real-world conference is difficult, try presenting them effectively in a virtual world environment. This may be a blessing in disguise, because many people are taking an increasingly dim view of the usual presentation slide format.
- Recording and archiving the conference: Text chat is easy to save and archive. Digital photographs are easy to take in Second Life, too. Recording the voice is proving to be a challenge for the conference planners -- much more difficult the first time around than recording voice at real-world and online conferences. We hope to have some machinima made based on this conference, too.
Regardless of how the logistics play out, this should be a memorable conference and a learning experience. Of the members of the conference planning team, I personally have met less than half of them face-to-face in the real world, yet the level of teamwork is amazing. I feel like I know every member of the planning group well.
The future of conferences is anyone's guess, but, during this time of flux and experimentation, I suspect we will see an interesting mix of real-world, online, and virtual world conferences for the next decade or so.