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Why Aren’t Virtual Conferences Cool?

Making Virtual Conferences Cool

I’m calling Shenanigans on Virtual Conferences.

Virtual events seem to be all the rage these days. This year, in my industry, a number of long-running events are now “going virtual”.  Sponsors, event creators, and attendees are all dizzy with excitement about their transition to the 21st Century.  I’ve even “attended” a few myself to see what all the buzz was about.

Now, I’m certainly no luddite.  Obviously, since I run a company whose sole purpose is delivering technical content through new mediums, I’m no late adopter, either.  I always want to be among the first to try out a new thing in new media.  Hey, I even beta-tested Google Wave.  I went into the virtual conference idea with an open mind, and I thought they were kinda’ cool in a way, but honestly I just don’t get it.  

Here’s what I see.

Each of the virtual events I attended worked a bit like a video game – sort of a “first-person businessman meet-em-up”.  You navigate around in a virtual environment amongst fake virtual people to find virtual conference rooms, virtual trade show booths, and a nice big virtual reception hall.  The virtual trade-show booths let you attend presentations and demonstrations, and include chat rooms where you can converse with representatives from the sponsoring companies.  The virtual conference rooms have live streaming presentations as well.  All-in-all, the effect is a medium-quality simulation of the experience of attending a professional conference – at first glance, at least.

If you look at virtual conferences as a substitute for real conferences, it’s easy to find yourself gulping down a nice large carafe of the Kool-Aid.  “Hey, this experience seems a lot like the conferences I’ve been to – but it costs a lot less.”

If you look at them from another perspective, however, all the wheels seem to fall off.  This is where I’d love some helpful explanations from those of you who “get it.”  Let’s break the virtual conference experience down into its component parts:

Content

For the virtual conferences I attended, the content amounted to: streaming presentations with audio, videos, downloadable collateral (pdfs and so forth), and interaction with sponsors, presenters, and other attendees via text-based chat.  Except for the chat, all of these are pretty good approximations of the things you’d see at a real conference.  On the other hand, all these types of content are also staples of just about every website in the universe, so there’s no special reason they need to be available and consumed only within the confines of a conference.  For example, if my company has a cool online demo of our software, I can’t imagine why we wouldn’t want it available and being watched 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – not just during the 1-3 days (with limited hours) of a typical virtual conference. 

Navigation
The virtual reality navigation, while fun and slick at first, really wasn’t very good for locating the content I wanted.  In fact, it would have been a lot easier to navigate a plain-text list of topics to choose the webcasts, demos, and presentations I wanted to view.  This is why real conferences have guides and maps – because a physical building isn’t a very good way to navigate to find information.  Navigation is where the virtual conference concept really begins to break down for me.  If I started with the content available in a typical virtual conference and wanted to organize it for easiest navigation, I’d create something a lot like a typical website rather than a virtual 3D environment that looks like a conference center.  

Let’s look at the navigation picture with an analogy.  What if a big retail company, Best Buy for example, replaced their current website with a 3D virtual Best Buy store?  As a customer, you could create your electronics shopping avatar, dress them in suitable virtual attire, walk them in the door, and start navigating around the environment looking for the product you need – brushing elbows with virtual helpful salespeople along the way.  Forward- forward- forward- left turn down that aisle- forward- pan right- what are those on the shelf? No, not RAID cards, those are MP3 players. Which way is the section with computer peripherals? “Hi, I’m your Best Buy virtual sales associate.  We don’t work on commission.  Can I help you with something today?”  “Yes, I’m trying to find a RAID card.  Which section has the computer peripherals?”  “Ah, computer is down there to the right, then up two aisles, then on your left.”  OK, great.  Down- down- right- wait… up?  left- pan right- dang, no those are refrigerators… There are some other virtual customers browsing – “Hi there, I’m looking for RAID cards, have you seen any?”  “UR DUM, BUZZ OFF!!!”  Hmm.. OK, so much for the other virtual customers…

I wonder why Best Buy hasn’t jumped on that?

Presentation

In trying to preserve the virtual reality experience, the virtual conferences I attended spent the vast majority of the screen real-estate with fake attendees and the architecture of the virtual meeting room.  The presentations themselves were limited to very small areas of the screen – usually an imitation drop-down projection screen or flat-screen monitor.  Granted, most of them had an option to make the content full-screen – but why have the virtual room mode in the first place?  The things I learn from the “room” in a real conference are – how well attended is this session?  Are there a lot of empty chairs?  Do the other attendees look interested or bored? Are most of the people here likely engineering, marketing, sales, or management?  Are my competitors here?  Are my co-workers here?  None of this information is available in the fake environs of the virtual conference. In fact, I can’t think of any use for the fake presentation rooms at all – at least in the form I’ve seen them implemented.  Same goes for the virtual trade show booths – no hint of which company spent the big bucks to put on a real show for me and which one is two guys behind a card table.  

Content Quality
I found the content quality in the virtual trade shows I attended inferior to both live and typical web-based content.  The virtual conference idiom seems to bring out the worst of both worlds.  Since the presentations were often live – the speakers were nervous, the synchronization with visual aids was clunky, and lots of time was wasted with Ums and Uhs and big pauses.  However, I had none of the usual advantages of a live presentation – I couldn’t see, hear, and feel the reactions of the other attendees.  For an online presentation – I’d really prefer it to be cleaner, edited and polished so the information is conveyed clearly.  For a live presentation – I’d like to be in the room.  In the cases where the virtual conference content was pre-produced, why was it only available at a particular scheduled time?  It seems that the virtual conference gives up a major advantage of the medium by trying to imitate the schedule constraints of a live conference.

Interaction

The virtual conference people have obviously tried to give us some social interaction capabilities, but in practice – for me at least, this was the very worst part.  In a real conference, I’m walking down the aisle from vendor A’s booth to vendor X’s booth, and I pass a familiar face – “Hey, I know that guy.  I need to ask him how he’s coming with that multi-processor array project….”  Or, “Uh, oh – I lost a bet to that guy and I still owe him twenty bucks.  I’d better turn left…”

The chat-room interface in virtual conferences doesn’t even come close to that.  The people on the screen are not real people, or even the avatars of real people.  Sometimes, you can see a list of people who happen to be in the same virtual place as you at the same virtual time, but your opportunity and motivation to interact with them is completely different than in real life.  Also, with only the name or a handle, your ability to recognize and place people is severely limited.  As a result, in the virtual events I attended, there was just about zero interaction with other attendees.  The only successful interactions were between attendees and sponsors or attendees and presenters.  These were typical chat-room scenarios – nothing remotely approaching the efficacy of a real-world meeting, and nothing special about the virtual conference that doesn’t exist every day on every news group, social media site, and discussion board in the world.

Swag
In a real trade show, most of the energy really centers around swag.  The theme of just about every booth is connected to the give-away that they’re offering me in return for sitting through a demo I wouldn’t normally take the time to watch.  Chances are, this demo or presentation will be available on this vendor’s website where I could view it any time during the next year at my convenience.  I will not do that, of course, because this vendor has not captured my attention.  At a real trade show, however, a scantily-clad “temporary technical representative” (as Bryon Moyer calls them) will tiptoe to the edge of the booth carpet line, make eye contact, smile, and reach out a hand blocking my path and ushering me into a seat where, after a brief demo, I’m almost certain to walk away with a new netbook.  Ten tortured minutes later, another person wins the “random” drawing (Hey, what a coincidence, that guy works for one of their biggest customers). But, there actually was a cool thing I noticed in that demo that I might want to write an article about.  Oh, and I now have another T-shirt for the gym.

In a virtual trade show – the swag score is a big fat zero.

Travel, Parties, Food and Sightseeing
If we’re very honest with ourselves and each other – one of the main motives for attending real events is the travel.  This is why conferences tend to be located in popular tourist destinations.  This is also why conference sponsors spend huge amounts on lavish parties.  Of course, when we take the travel approval voucher to our boss, we grumble about how we hate to travel, how airline security makes us nervous, and how much of a pain the rental car busses are.  We then balance that with the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be enlightened in person by some of our industry’s greatest luminaries.  Once approved, we go home to our spouse with the news “Hey honey, I get to spend 4 days in Vegas! – for Free!! Wanna come?”

In a virtual event – the travel, party, food, and sightseeing score is also zero.

My Suggestions
Are you listening virtual event people?  If so, here is my modest proposal for improving the experience and creating something truly new and innovative.  

One word – Weapons.

See, the best reason for creating a virtual version of a real-world experience is to enable us to do things that wouldn’t be possible, safe, or acceptable in the real world.  That’s why video games are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Let’s start with the platform.  I want to attend virtual events using my X-box or Playstation-3 (with an optional iPhone or Android app, of course).  A virtual conference should basically be a MMORPG (That’s “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game” for those of you who now have to be demoted one level in the nerd hierarchy.)  We need to ditch most of these NPCs. (Sigh, those are “Non-Player Characters” – characters in the virtual environment that are computer controlled and not operated by real people. In a virtual conference, they’re all those fake people standing around – now give up another nerd stripe).  The only characters in the virtual environment should be operated by real attendees and/or real sponsors or presenters.  

We should be able to create our virtual event avatar and dress him or her in a way we feel is appropriate.  When you go to a real conference, you worry about what you wear and how you look.  Why should we accept the generic “woman in a business suit with a briefcase” or “guy in a polo shirt with a PDA” look if that’s not how we want to be perceived by our colleagues?  Also, remember that the virtual world should allow us to do things we can’t do at a real event.  My avatar will probably need armor.  Did I mention weapons?

Also, in the absence of swag, we need incentives to entice attendees to consume the information we’re offering at the event.  There is no reason to re-invent the wheel here.  Video game people paved the way for us decades ago.  Watch a demo of Company X’s new server technology, get 10 experience points.  Later, if you’re challenged by another attendee in a PvP, (uh, that’s “Player-versus-Player” – as we strip off another nerd merit badge,) you can list off three of the differentiators of Company Y’s new whizzbang product in order to defeat them in a show-floor showdown.  

Did I mention weapons?  Sponsors may want to spend extra to fortify their booths.  Otherwise, rogue gangs of attendees unhappy with the marketing content of their conference paper presentation, or crack assault teams from competitive companies may raid their booths, shut down their demo power stations, and kidnap their potential customers.  

As we attend more events, our characters should level up.  We all secretly want to walk into the virtual lobby of the 2013  World-of Embedded-Systems-Craft Virtual Conference as a level 56 marketing mage and immediately throw down an Information Vortex – pulling all the attendees at once into our presentation session where they’ll be forced to either watch our 15 PowerPoint slides or pay a steep exit fee in in-game currency.  People who only attend one or two professional events each year won’t have a chance.  Sponsoring companies whose representatives aren’t up to speed in the virtual event world will lose real-world business… 

I still haven’t figured out what to do about the parties.

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