Last week I attended my first virtual conference: Powering the Computational Ecosystem.  From a technological, gee-whiz aspect, it was very cool:  On24, an online event producer, created a virtual conference venue, complete with lobby, exhibit hall and auditorium.  Since many companies are considering alternatives to expensive user conferences, this post will cover the event: how it felt to be part of a digital "happening". A possible future post will cover conference content.

The central hub of the event is a typical convention center lobby. Banners hang from the ceiling and people stand around. Once the conference went live, a movie played in a "diamondvision"-like pane near the ceiling of the lobby, giving an overview of the auditorium sessions, exhibit hall and resource center as well as a quick commercial for Sun (the main sponsor).  Since I did not have a detailed timetable, I first went to the auditorium, where I saw people in seats and a screen with the presentation agenda.  This showed that there was time before the keynote, so checked out the other locations.

One can either go back to the hub/lobby or navigate from a nav bar at the bottom of the browser window. First stop: exhibits. The exhibit hall has a booth list to take me directly to a specific vendor, or I can browse/stroll the aisles.  Stopping at a booth, I can choose from presentations, white papers, chat with someone in the booth or ask a rep to contact me while I listen to a brief overview of the company and the material available.

Since my interest is in CAE, I headed to "HPC Solutions for Business-Ready MCAE".  During the audio intro, I see that there are "stands" within the booth from Clemson University, ANSYS and MSC Software.  I can again download presentations, data sheets and videos by clicking on the "stand.”  I had a private chat with an MSC person, looked at the material provided by the vendors and moved on.  At the Life Sciences booth, I was welcomed to the booth by a Sun person who offered to help find what I needed — almost like being there! He also reminded me that the keynote was about to start so …

I headed back to the auditorium (no need to get there early for a good seat ;-)).  Real Player popped up to show a presentation by Andreas Bechtolsheim, apparently being delivered in real-time. Live "stage" video appeared early on but the bulk of the video feed was of presentation slides. The screen included a box to type a question; no questions were taken as part of the presentation although Mr. Bechtolsheim did take questions after the presentation in a virtual cafe.

Definitely missing from the event was any feeling of "buzz":  how many people compared to last year, which booth has the most people, who’s giving away the best bags or tchochkes, where to grab a cup of coffee.  It’s also disconcerting that the site is silent when no video is playing — I buried the window under emails at one point, completely forgetting about the conference.  Too, it felt "empty" — there may have been hundreds or thousands of people online but it definitely didn’t feel like it.

Should a company looking for alternatives to tight travel budgets and worries about H1N1 consider a virtual conference?  Maybe.

This is likely quite attractive from a pricing perspective; although I don’t have any idea what On24 costs, it can’t be close to what companies typically spend on live events. After all, it’s cool and appeals to the techie in all of us.

But since people aren’t actually on-site, you’ll have no control over their distractions. The content must be compelling enough for them to ignore their emails, phones and officemates. Make the content available afterwards (I stil can’t figure out how to get at a presentation I couldn’t sit through live). Time the event to be accessible to a global audience (perhaps 10AM Eastern). Since you’ll know in advance who is attending; invite them to "meet" you at the exhibit hall; engaging with attendees is even more difficult for vendors at this type of event than in person, so plan out how to connect. Keep expectations low, commensurate with the investment.