Participatory Conferences in VR,
How is a conference in VR different from a conference in the other world?
It is worth considering this question since traditional, convention-center-style conferences will become increasingly difficult to conduct in the world of pandemics and high-cost travel .
It is possible to reproduce the environment attendees are accustomed to, including long waits in the cab line if so desired, But why?
The purpose of a conference is to gather lots of people interested in a particular topic together for an extended experience. While an event can be integrated into normal routines, a conference means departing from normal routines for a longer period for a deeper and/or wider exploration of a topic.
That is the ostensible purpose anyway.
The real purpose of modern conferences is marketing and relationship building, which have a substantial overlap. The only way to justify the enormous expense is is the possibility of generating Revenue. This applies to academic conferences as well as commercial extravaganzas since the academic gatherings are a marketing opportunity for third parties, and an opportunity for academic programs to market themselves.
Suppose there was no enormous expense? No travel, no hotels and hospitality suites. No bar tabs. Then maybe the real purpose could be exploring the topic and relationship building, which also have a substantial overlap. The environment could be designed for active learning and satisfying talk, not just trading contact information for a brochure or listening to one-way presentations by experts.
Taking the travel and expense out of conferences could shift the power from the funding sources to the participants.
I know the world will not tilt on its axis suddenly and dramatically, but I know a new type of conference is emerging. It is possible to have a worldwide real time get-together without finding sponsors to foot the considerable bill. Not needing sponsors creates a unique kind of freedom.
But as we hear over and over, freedom brings responsibility. A participant-driven conference means participants need to do more than just show up. All the work that marketing people and other staff do now has to be done by participants , work some people get paid for now because it’s their job.
People will do a lot on a volunteer basis if they are passionate about the project and feel good about how it is unfolding. For things to unfold well, there has to be some organization.
The best example we can learn about organization from, that I am aware of, is the Educators in VR 2020 International Summit, February 17–22, 2020. There have been other early conference trials during this restricted travel year, such as the IEEE and others, but I have not been able to find feedback on the experience. The Educators in VR Summit, on the other hand, is very well described and discussed by one of the organizers in an extremely valuable Lessons Learned article.
The Summit was groundbreaking and described by the organizers as a proof of concept that proved the concept. Now they did it, they don’t want to do it that way again. As I think about organizing my first Conference in VR, I know I don’t want to either.
I’m beginning to think that any participatory conference that is not fundamentally a marketing event will actually require two conferences — the planning conference and the conference conference.
The Planning Conference
There is a finite list of important planning areas applicable to any participatory conference: Where, What, and Who for starters. I think these aspects of a conference would be fun to discuss because they can’t help but draw people into the topic itself.
I guarantee there will be conferences in VR held in spaces that feel like a generic modern convention center, with rows and rows of booths and breakout rooms for prepared presentations. Maybe there are topics that would benefit from a World like that but probably not the ones I want to take part in.
In VR, we can build Any World. Would physicists like to discuss gluons from inside an atomic nucleus? Would archeologists like to discuss Stonehenge from, um, Stonehenge? Would marine biologists like to hang out together underwater for a few days?
As the opening image suggests, classical history buffs might want to book The Coliseum as their coliseum.
Let’s not think we need to have one sprawling facility that serves all the needs. There can be different Worlds for every component of the conference, depending on the level of creative support available.
We need to think of a Universe for the conference and the Worlds within it to optimize a range of experiences. In the world we usually inhabit, traveling between Worlds in the Universe is no small matter and this can also be the case at a traditional modern mega-conference. The issues in getting from place to place can be the determining factor in the experience.
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Unfortunately, the consensus world has not developed Portal technologies the way VR has. This might seem like a trivial or even frivolous matter, until you go from an event in the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings to an event on the Moon quicker than you can get through an intersection at rush hour in any major city on the planet.
Worlds for events, Worlds for unstructured hanging out, Worlds for meditation and reflection — and the Portal system that connects them. These need to be brainstormed and planned and built, perhaps in stages of ambitiousness as the amount of creative energy available becomes clear.
Really, planning a conference this way is just another approach to discussing whatever the topic is that brings people together. Discussing the Worlds for adding to the sense of immersion and presence means discussing the topic.
What Topics, Who Presents?
Traditional conference presenters are vetted to ensure that sponsors are protected and orthodoxy reigns. In addition, well-known people are chosen for Keynotes to lend prestige to the event.
The events that now take place every day on several social VR platforms are largely celebrity-free. There are workshops, presentations and gatherings on every topic imaginable — not led by famous people. How are we supposed to know if the presenters are qualified? What is qualified?
There is a middle ground between highly vetted and wide open. Anyone who plans, sets up and runs an event on any social VR platform has by definition shown a level of discipline, care, and maturity that filters out some random craziness. If someone sustains an event over time, it is probably because people are coming and it is meeting a need.
Conference topics can work something like the way events work now. The Planning Conference is really an Unconference, where the topics are not yet determined and are established on the fly as individuals or small teams raise the ones they will take primary responsibility for. The topics emerge.
But how will the topics by treated? Powerpoints in Salon B? I hope not.
There is a role for media, for visual support in exploring a topic together at a conference. Death by Powerpoint isn’t about media, it’s about the misuse of media.
PechaKucha is one example of a presentation style that would work well in a participatory VR conference. In this format, presenters are allowed twenty slides and twenty seconds per slide of commentary. About seven minutes. The structure forces speakers to focus on their essential points. Producing a PechaKucha presentation is an exercise in discipline and brevity.
Combining the Unconference method of topic selection and the PechaKucha approach to presenting produces a form of vetting. To initiate a topic in a social situation and to then create a tightly defined media product shows seriousness of intent and a willingness to interact cooperatively with others.
What if multiple people want to present on the same topic? Great problem — they’d work together or produce separate presentations.
Getting the Work Done
Topic and presentations are fun. So is worldbuilding.
Other crucial aspects like scheduling, logistics, publicity, and anything having to do with money are often not as fun. Still, if the overall effort feels reasonably well managed, volunteers will do most if not all of the not-fun work.
Developing an overall conference management team and jump starting the volunteer outreach has to be the third leg of the Planning Conference. People or small groups of people who self-organize around a topic would lead the discussion of a topic-world and also reach out to personal networks of others interested in the topic to bring in volunteers.
I hope I will be trying out these steps soon. February, 2021 is my current timeframe for a planning conference, as a step toward a participatory conference in VR on the overall themes of Death, Mortality, Eternal Life, and Immortality.
I am still wondering about one significant consideration not yet mentioned.
Is no money at all better than a little bit? Is raising a decent amount worth the effort?
The amazing Educators in VR: Lessons Learned article states a total cost of $330. Metrics are difficult to establish and can be misleading but the article gives 5,449 as the number of attendees, but some were the same attendee at multiple events, so we would state six cents as the unit cost per person per event.
Of course volunteers and presenters and organizers incurred expenses that they simply handled out of pocket.
My current plan is to approach the 2021 first effort as a < $500 undertaking, like the Educators in VR, but to begin asking for donations once at the outset and again at the conclusion. The conference will be free, but it will be set up as a ticketed event. The online event management layer, I have used Eventbrite in the past, provides an economic framework for the conference and a perfect ‘donation’ opportunity.
Donors at the outset will be asked buy tickets to a free conference, even if they aren’t into VR yet, if they think our conference is a good thing to be happening.
Donors at the conclusion would be offered merch.
Merch might not make the world go round, but it helps.
Merch makes participation into an artifact and if so desired, into a political statement.
A participatory conference in VR is a political statement.
It is a statement against travel and all the wasteful consumption associated with conferences as currently conducted. It is also a statement against experts transmitting information one-way, in favor of openness — not against expertise, but a shift in the way expertise is selected and deployed.
Many active participants as well as people who support those values would donate at the end and receive merch, which would then serve to promote the spirit of the conference for as long as the merch is used and seen in the world.
Any donations from the 2021 first edition would be available for the 2022 conference, where budget proposals would be made at the Unconference and finalized on the spot.
Hundreds of other writers will share millions more words of VR conferences. I hope lots of them see it my way but I’m not counting on it. Anything that is not the culturally defined experience currently driving what is at least a 15 billion dollar industry will have a hard time breaking in.
The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying says that the best chance for starting something new is right at the moment of death. To me, that translates as — the best chance to deeply influence conferences going forward is right now.
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Participatory Conferences in VR was originally published in AR/VR Journey: Augmented & Virtual Reality Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Author: Tom Nickel