Yesterday, I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Tech Test Zone conference sponsored by the Tech Museum. The conference assembled a diverse group of technology developers, museum professionals and other interested folks like me at the Tech Museum's site in downtown San Jose. For those that weren't able to attend in person, the proceedings were also live streamed to the web and the virtual world of Second Life. In addition, ReactionGrid hosted a chat room in their virtual space for people to hang out and chat as they watched the video feed.
I was tasked with monitoring and moderating the different virtual venues and helping the virtual participants interface with the real life conference. I love working at mixed reality events like these, despite all of the difficulties in trying to keep track of multiple streams of input from the conference room, the web, and two virtual worlds. I feel like I am getting a more multi-dimensional experience by tracking all of these different conversations and threads going on in these different, but intersecting venues.
I spent the most time toggling between the uStream chat room and the Tech Museum's virtual venue, trying to stay on top of the different conversations going on there, at the same time also listening to the current speaker. While there were many more people apparently monitoring the conference on the uStream page , there were only a handful of people actually engaging with the content in the chat area. In contrast, in the Second Life space, virtually all of the participants were interacting with each other and the subject matter in some way.
For example, here's a snippet from the Second Life chat log where we are watching a presentation about different educational augmented reality applications:
Bjorlyn Loon: I like the auras one. What was that called, RIk?
Rik Panganiban : not sure
Valerie Evanier: i like the virtual historical experience
Alizarin Goldflake: Rik can you give a list in chat of the different ARs she discussed?
Bjorlyn Loon: together they would be valuable
Rik Panganiban : Valerie, me too! I can ask her to provide her slides?
Valerie Evanier: i think the potential of this stuff in education is awesome
Alizarin Goldflake: yes please
Rik Panganiban : the ones I remember: CrowdOptic, TagWhat, StreetMuseum and Augmented Reality Cinema.
Bjorlyn Loon: for example, Nany, on the Trail of Tears, one could leave messages for ones family, and also pull up historical data, could connect through geneology
Second Life users are used to being able to interact with each other over public chat while also attending to a video or audio stream. In a real life event, this would be considered rude behavior, but in this virtual space it's the norm. That's one of the reasons why the virtual audience experience is in some cases superior to the real life experience.
Another fun example of this was during the "ice cream social" part of the conference in the afternoon. I apologied to the virtual participants, telling them that the real world audience was getting up to get ice cream at the back of the room. Within a few minutes, Second Life attendees starting passing each other virtual ice cream cones, and soon several our avatars were walking around with giant treats, compared to the mini-servings that were handed out to the real life participants.
While often entertaining and fun, watching an eight-hour conference from your home or work computer is exhausting, so people tend to dip in and out of virtual conferences depending on the subject matter and whatever other life responsibilities they have. Ironically, for many people, it might be easier to get your supervisor to allow you to spend the entire workday traveling to a professional conference rather than the cheaper and more environmentally conscious method of virtually attending a conference.
It's great that institutions like the Tech Museum are able to offer the public access to fairly exclusive gatherings like the Tech Test Zone through the web and virtual worlds. For students and career-changers looking to explore the field, this is a great way to get a quick and free taste of what the latest trends and tools are out there.
At the same time, you don't get the added benefit of the informal networking and exchanges that happen during the real world conference. There was one virtual participant from the UK who seemed very keen on finding a job in interactive technology, and was frustrated that he didn't have the means to informally connect with the participants in San Jose.
In general, it's great when you have a choice between different forms of attendance and participation. If you are really just interested in hearing the talk by a particular speaker for 45 minutes, a one-way video feed is probably sufficient. If you want to chat with others who are interested in the same subject but don't want to spend the money for travel and registration, a virtual space like Second Life might be best. And if you want to form new collaborations, partnerships, and projects, engage directly with the speakers afterwards, or give a presentation yourself, going there in person is probably the best route.
Were you at the Tech Test Zone in person, on the web or virtually? What was your experience like?