I got sent to Coventry for two days last week.
No, I hadn't upset the other guys in the office! I was attending the Serious Virtual Worlds '07 conference, organised by the Serious Games Institute at the University of Coventry.
I listened to talks about the latest in games and virtual world technology development. I learned how such things are being used in areas as diverse as health, education, the military and business. I heard how virtual worlds can be used as catalysts for global change in areas such as children's welfare and financial aid and I chatted openly with other delegates about what was being said by the speakers, while they were speaking.
I did all of this without ever leaving my office.
Well, I discovered, almost by accident, that all the sessions from the conference were being streamed live onto the new Coventry Island in Second Life. This doesn't seem to have been well advertised in advance - I certainly hadn't heard about it - and, as a result, there were only a few other virtual delegates in-world with me. This is a shame, since all the sessions were very interesting.
Was the virtual side of the conference a complete success? No, of course not. Was it useful as an alternative way of attending the conference. Yes, definitely.
The main problem was that the organisers hadn't put anything in place to allow the virtual delegates to see the presentation slides being used by the speakers. In a lot of cases, this drastically reduced the impact and usefulness of the talks.
Nor did we have a way of communicating with the real-life delegates.
To give a feel for what it was like to be a virtual delegate at the conference, I've put a video of Roo Reynolds' presentation from the second day up on blip.tv (I had to use blip.tv rather than YouTube because this video is about 30 minutes long and YouTube seems to reject anything over 10 minutes).
The talk provides a nice overview of where virtual worlds, and Web 2.0 social tools more generally, have got to and how they are being used for collaboration in business, particularly from the perspective of IBM. It's a good summary.
To make it a more rounded presentation experience I've edited the slides back into the video - but if you watch it, remember that those of us that were there on the day didn't have the benefit of seeing the slides.
I've also added in the chat that went on between virtual delegates while the talk was being given. The in-world discussion isn't earth-shattering (one delegate even went as far as criticising Roo's dress sense!) but it gives a flavour of what is possible by streaming conference sessions in-world. Imagine the possibilities offered by having a shared chat space available to both real and virtual delegates for example.
Of course, as we found at our own symposium back in May, to fully integrate real and virtual delegates at the same conference is quite difficult. How, using Roo's words, do we make sure that virtual delegates are treated as "first class citizens"? This is a non-trivial question, and one that we are still learning the answers to. But at the very least we need to ensure that there is an open, two-way, dialogue between people in the real and virtual worlds.
The ALT-C conference organisers made an attempt at this for the keynotes during ALT-C 2007 this year, using the Elluminate software to allow virtual delegates to make comments and ask questions of the speakers. However, they, perhaps rightly, got cold feet about allowing a completely open public forum and assigned a moderator to approve comments before they went up live on the screen in the auditorium. Shame. Surely an educational audience can be trusted to behave?
My suspicion is that the ALT-C experiment worked quite well in terms of delivering the keynote sessions out to virtual delegates. But I suspect it failed in terms of making virtual delegates feel like they were part of something? Asking questions thru a moderator in a relatively bland chat-room is hardly an engaging experience?
The Serious Virtual Worlds '07 experiment also failed, but for different reasons. I felt very much part of an event thanks to the immersive nature of Second Life. But it was an event shared with the other virtual delegates - it wasn't the same event as the real-world delegates attended. Further, the delivery of the presentations to the virtual world was disappointing in its lack of slides to compliment the audio/video experience.
Note, this is not intended to be critical of either conference in any way. This is an ongoing learning experience for all of us. I share my thoughts here simply in the hope that they are useful in moving our understanding forwards.