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Breaking down traditional conference barriers

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Siân Harris finds out about some of the latest moves to bring more of the benefits of research meetings online

Traditionally, attending a conference has meant travelling to another part of the world and then spending several days listening to presentations and socialising with other researchers in the same field. This is very different from the traditional approach to gathering information from scientific literature. Now, however, the boundaries are becoming blurred as conferences begin to add more online and virtual components to their schedules.

Conferences are one of the key ways that researchers find out about other research in their field and network with other researchers. However, attending conferences can be a costly and time-consuming activity, as well as having environmental implications. A recent survey by Elsevier found that its researcher customers would like to go to twice as many conferences as they can actually attend.

Conference organisers and publishers have taken note of this and have begun to offer new ways for researchers to get the conference experience. Online slides and webinars have been around for quite a while but recent developments have taken the idea of an online conference to a new level.

Late last year, for example, Imperial College in the UK held an international climate change conference in Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) conference suite in Second Life. Dubbed Elucian Island, this conference facility is available for researchers to hire for their conferences, either for the whole event or as a way to open up a few key presentations to a wider audience.

The climate change event included live speakers from Imperial and Stanford University in the USA and was ‘attended’ by researchers and students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wyoming as well as Imperial, Stanford and other institutions around the world.

Elucian Island has many of the things people might expect at a conference – a main conference room with comfortable chairs and multimedia presentations, poster displays, private meeting rooms and even a coffee area (although the drinks are only virtual). There are also plenty of conference organisers around to help you – in the form of avatars (computer versions of people that move about as directed by their real counterparts) dressed in NPG clothing. There are a few differences though: for example, delegates can fly in and out of sessions and change their clothes or hairstyles whenever they fancy.

Information-gathering benefits

More useful in terms of informationgathering, delegates can also leave their bodies and move to a different position to get a better view of the screen and the person giving the presentation. It is also possible to discuss the presentations with the rest of the audience, those nearby or just one other person via instant messaging. This is a sort of ‘virtual whispering’ but, unlike in a physical conference, the person giving the presentation can chose not to be distracted by it by simply closing the messaging tool.

This sort of communication can also help in question-and-answer sessions, according to Kristen French, head of community business development at NPG. The use of avatars, different names and instant messaging helps to break down the traditional barriers, she explained.

Nigel Clear, commercial director at Elsevier, agrees with this benefit of virtual meetings: ‘It takes away the boundaries. PhD students can ask questions to Nobel prize winners.’

Elsevier has begun offering online conferences as accompaniments to its own conferences. The first such meeting, the Vaccine Virtual Congress, was held as a virtual companion to the Vaccine Global Congress that took place in Boston in December and had 1,300 pre-registered virtual users.

‘We surveyed our users to find out what the main drivers were for people to attend conferences. We found that the first was high-quality content, which is an easy thing for us to deliver online, and the second was the chance to network,’ said Nigel Clear.

Elsevier partnered with a technology firm called ON24 to produce its conference platform. Unlike NPG, Elsevier’s conference did not take place in Second Life. ‘Once the technology is more important than the content, you’ve lost the point,’ commented Clear. However, the technology in Elsevier’s conference platform offers many of the same functions, including live presentations using video and audio facilities, instant messaging and other networking tools, question-and-answer tools and archiving. ‘It is much more dynamic than accessing slides,’ he said. ‘It creates a community around a conference, and people can continue to network and access content after the conference has finished.’ Elsevier plans to keep content up for at least three months after a conference has finished.

Clear does see differences in the way that physical and virtual meetings are used. ‘It is very easy to log out of a virtual conference. Nobody will sit for three and a half days in front of a computer,’ he said. ‘However, you could access the presentations at your leisure after the event. What’s more, when people go to a virtual exhibition we know that they are going there for information rather than for a free mouse mat or pen.’

In contrast, NPG’s French has noticed that behaviour on Elucian Island is quite similar to that in the physical world. Of the 50 to 60 in-world delegates at the climate change conference, around 80 to 85 per cent stayed for the whole duration of the meeting. ‘There seems to be etiquette in terms of coming in and leaving just like in the real world. You are virtually physically there so people can see if you walk or fly out of a session,’ she explained.

Educating users

This is still a very new way of doing conferences and there is plenty of education required. ‘People are aware of virtual worlds in varying degrees,’ said French. Because of this, NPG invites delegates, especially new users of Second Life, to visit its orientation island at least a day before an event starts to ensure that they have set up their avatars successfully and know how to navigate around the conference. ‘This means that at the point when the conference starts it is about what’s going on, not about the technology,’ she explained.

Another way to educate users about virtual conferences is to include virtual users in whatever is going on in the physical conference. For example, the virtual conference can be broadcast on a big screen and virtual users’ questions can be posed to the speakers in the same way as those of people physically attending the meeting. ‘People in the real world really like this. It gives a sense of connectivity,’ said French.

So what has been the response to the latest generation of conferences? According to a blog post from Robert Stanford, an IT professional and former research biologist who attended the climate-change conference on Elucian Island, ‘It really felt like I was in a room with others.’