There can’t be many conferences where delegates spontaneously generate, sit on your head, arrive stark naked, or drop out of the sky into their seats but, at yesterday’s Virtual Worlds twenty-four hour global event, that was pretty much the norm. Hosted in the UK by the Open University, renowned specialists in technology, health care, and social applications in education & learning had begun presenting in Hong Kong at 1 a.m. UK time, handed over to us at 9 a.m. and concluded with the US timezone from 5 p.m. It is almost more difficult to imagine bringing speakers of such calibre across such distances to a real world conference as it is to be sitting next to a crow while watching a video about holography coming from somewhere else in Europe.
Rough calculations, allowing two-thirds of delegates to be one-third of the planet away from the conference home in Milton Keynes, suggest 500,000 miles will be travelled virtually on 15 September. This reduces the environmental footprint of the conference, and saves on the time and cost of being out of the office for days either side of the main event, and the conference fees needed to fund physical facilities. Even better, for one small delegate fee, colleagues can share a single avatar, or project the conference on to a large screen for group viewing.
The down-side is still the technology and, for many (myself included), the lack of support for SL in organisations. For me, this translated into having to present from home so that, when my sound failed, I had no-one to hand to assist. It was remedied but not without an interruption to a key part of the presentation. That this happened also to other speakers made me feel less of a twerp but we could all have done without that. On the other hand, these kinds of glitches had the effect of establishing an informality and accessibility that other major conferences cannot easily replicate. Standing mouthing in silence while wearing spikey blue hair and with your shoes missing militates somewhat against the inflated ego and so a relaxed attitude is pretty much guaranteed.
Sessions ranged from the very technical discussion of holographic and augmented reality developments through studies of the social impact of virtual worlds, including a ‘back channel’ discussion of the Proteus Effect and transformational (two-way) qualities of avatar identification and empathy. Dave Taylor and I were there to present the more applied clinical and medical training work being done through Imperial College, Sussex Partnership, and Brighton University and, sound problems notwithstanding, showed an international audience something of the potential SL has for developing important learning and research scenarios for the NHS.
A unique feature of a conference held in SL and one I had not anticipated, was the ability all of us had to converse by text throughout presentations without interrupting the speaker. This meant that a response or comment by a delegate across the room became available to anyone who wanted to respond and could be picked up by the chair of the session to be included in questions for the speaker at the end. By this means, a genuine sense of conference was achieved as ideas sprang into view above the heads of avatars, and links and contacts were exchanged as discussions ran parallel to the presentation. I found this enormously liberating and exhilarating; a very far cry from the sometimes stifling experience of being trapped in the middle of a row, balancing coffee in one hand, notepad, glasses and bag in the other, and knowing I will have more chance of winning the lottery than asking a question.
There are plans to repeat the event next year and I will certainly be attending. I hope by then I will have been able to persuade my organisation to invest in the technology to support SL and a number of other key users so that I can bring colleagues with me. I hope too that I will have been able to discuss the introduction of more clinical research to the conference and to have a number of Sussex Partnership presentations on this or a separate programme. I hope also that, when I re-rezz after a crash, I will be fully dressed instead of stark naked, that I will not be on stage at the time, and that when I finally get seated (and decent) another naked person does not sit for several minutes on my head before moving off to a seat of his own. I’m betting the next BPS get-together in Glasgow won’t be able to offer challenges of that calibre!