The current circumstances also forced conferences (those gatherings with really large audiences) completely into cyberspace. Some sticked with traditional approaches to stream talks via off-the-shelf videoconferencing applications and built upon the integrated very limited interaction features offered by these poor proprietary tools. Others have gone complete new ways and brought fascinating and well working concepts on how to still successfully connect the crowds to enable lively conversations and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and experiences in a distant environment.
Let’s start with rc3 and its virtual conference venue in form of rc3 world, implemented with Work Adventure. In a pixel-2D-adventure-style you could walk around the area and as soon as you are approaching other characters, a live audio and video stream with those humans or other live forms controlling the character would open. Limited to 4-5 persons at a time, it allowed you to talk directly with each other – face to face. Due to the limitation of participants you were still able to have a working conversation.
Somehow you needed to get used to having an unexpected and sudden interaction with one and another – on live video, but still it brought back the heavily missed opportunity to get in personal touch with other participants who are sharing possibly similar interests.
The FOSDEM 2021, the worlds biggest conference on Free and Open Source Software usually taking place in Bruxelles, had for me a very convincing overall concept. The organizers and infrastructure artists have done a tremendous job that allowed for the most impressive conference experience so far and for long. Naturally and purely based on Free Software, at its core matrix, element, and Jitsi.
How did it work and what was so great about it?
Presentations of specific areas of interest had been summarized in virtual rooms with a fixed agenda, like in most physical conferences. Participants logged into a chat infrastructure which represented the rooms by group conversations. You would simply join the room(s) that you are interested in and could start texting with each other and the speakers like on IRC. Talks had been recorded beforehand and where automatically started – by the computer (systemd) – at their scheduled time. Its audio and video were streamed right above your chat window. When the talk ended, the Q&As were streamed live for a fixed amount of time within that room until the next talk started auto-playing according to schedule. During that first part of the Q&A session of a talk, moderators where clarifying upvoted questions and comments from the chat and interacting realtime with the presenters. Those interested could then continue discussing with the speakers and further extend their conversation by switching to a separate room. So per talk you had a dedicated room for the second part of the Q&A that would open shortly after and even allowed anyone there to interact live via audio and video.
In sum that meant that you could check the schedule for topics you are interested in, connect at the announced time and be sure to really listen to that talk instead of watching tech staff doing mic checks or heavily delayed earlier talks whilst being unsure about if and when the one you came for would actually start.
In addition the highly valued Q&A and following backstage (and off the record) conversations could still take place without interrupting or being interrupted by the subsequent talk.
Just impressive and so useful! Thanks a lot to all who made this happen and work that well! These concepts are now here to stay, even when conferences will hopefully resume soon back in the physical world.
2021/02/15 – Updated link of [matrix] to point at the now available summary of their efforts for FOSDEM 2021.