Thoughts on Web Conferences

Yesterday I attended the L3 AI online conference on digital assistants organized by RASA. I am still working on the notes from that conference that I’ll share here at some point but I was really pleasantly surprised by the format of the conference. While the current pandemic has forced a lot of conferences to go online, most have just become Zoom calls and honestly are exhausting for more than an hour. I actually attended the conference for the whole day yesterday and it was the best online conference format I have seen so far.

The conference was powered by Accelevents, so good job folks, though I am sure they have competition in that space. I have also heard of good things for Run the World (actually, I haven’t. The only thing I have heard of them is on their investment with a16z 😁. But the features listed on their site look interesting).

So here are some thoughts on my experience with L3

Pre-Conference

Both Accelevents and Run the World allow users to create a profile ahead of time. This lets users reach out to others who may share the same interests during the event or when they are algorithmically paired (see below). RTW lets you create video profiles as well, which is cool

Socializing

Connecting to others is probably the most important part of a conference (most session videos end up online anyway). The Zoom experience is to just have as many videos of people as possible. That doesn’t really work since only one person can talk at the same time and a number of people are either multi-tasking or feel otherwise hesitant to share their video

The L3 conference page had a link to socialize which would randomly pair you with another attendee. I didn’t use it but mostly because there wasn’t much between sessions during the day. Instead of one-on-ones, I would have liked small groups that I could be joined with which would have felt a little less intense.

Prerecorded Scheduled Sessions

Most of the talks were just prerecorded sessions with the speaker and other attendees discussing the talks in a chat window next to the video player. The sessions unlocked at different times, so it did feel a bit like a conference track.

The advantage of the prerecordings was that

  1. You could pause and rewind the sessions right there if you missed something
  2. The video-audio quality of the sessions was good (none of the “can you hear me now” moments).
  3. Some presenters had even done some post-production work on their videos which was nice

The event page included a video page and a side panel that included tabs for chat, polls, attendees and questions. As with a lot of tabbed interfaces, the out-of-sight / out-of-mind thing happened and I never looked at the non-default (chat) tabs.

Unlike video, chat allows for many people to talk to each other at the same time which is better I think. So I was able to see some interesting discussions between the attendees on various topics.

Expo

An interesting aspect of the conference was a virtual expo tab where every company that was sharing their products could have people available for a Zoom video chat (yeah, they were using Zoom which I didn’t know could be embedded in a webpage). That was neat.

Final thoughts

I really got a lot out of this conference and enjoyed the format. With a lot of conversations going on right now on how virtual conferences could be more like real ones, I think we should also think about how they could be better than the real thing. For one thing, your audience can be a lot bigger, more diverse and inclusive.

There is also a lot of innovation going on right now in the chat experience in general (emojis, virtual gifts, etc) that could make text chat more lively as well.

There needs to be a new middle ground between video and text chats (maybe digital avatars?). I like looking at people’s faces but I also understand the multi-tasking thing when in front of a laptop. VR chat rooms get across a lot of feeling of presence by just using eyes for example.

I enjoyed the timed sessions, though I struggled to attend any of them totally in sync with their start times as there was a lot of stuff happening at home (work emails, etc).

I am really curious where the virtual conference ideas go from here. At the Philly GDG which I help run, we have transitioned our events to Zoom events and were planning to do the same thing for future “conferences” (like DevFest etc), but this has given me a lot to think about.

If you have other ideas about the opportunities here, drop in a comment below πŸ™‚

Author: Arpit Mathur

Arpit Mathur is a Principal Engineer at Comcast Labs where he is currently working on a variety of topics including Conversational Technologies, Affective Computing and Blockchains and decentralized services. Arpit has also worked extensively on Android and iOS applications, Virtual Reality apps as well as with web technologies like JavaScript, HTML and Ruby on Rails. He also spent a couple of years in the User Experience team as a Creative Technologist.

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