Twas the facepalm heard ’round the science blogging community when news traveled that Dave Munger, who was slated to present at Science Online London, neglected to renew his passport and would not be attending the conference. But while this may be a high-ranking fail for Dave, it should be documented as a notable win in Science Online history.
I’ve been to more than a few scientific conferences in my day, and at almost every one there’s some kind of technological mishaps that stalls the flow of events. I always notice because, though scientists are typically highly intelligent, they can still make some pretty novice errors with whatever new technology is supposed to enhance their presentation — the kind of errors that leave me wiggling in my seat debating whether I should get up and help or mind social norms. Technology provides remarkable opportunities for enhanced communication in conference settings, but often times these opportunities are not explored for fear of something malfunctioning at crunch time.
But from what I’ve witnessed, technological experimentation is rampant at Science Online conferences (which is one of the many reasons I enjoy them so much). At Science Online London, while the conference was underway, a virtual conference was being held simultaneously in Second Life so that anyone around the world with an internet connection and the Second Life software installed could virtually attend by visiting the Elucian Islands, Nature Publishing Group’s archipelago of scientific wonder in Second Life.
I’ve never really gotten into Second Life, though I have attempted to explore it on two occasions. The first, my old laptop didn’t have enough space on the hard drive to run it; the second, I successfully installed the software and built an avatar, but within the first five minutes of gameplay she got stuck in some kind of vortex. Based on my failures, I will admit I was a bit skeptical that the plan to broadcast in real-time could be executed.
Multiply that by roughly 20 and that’s how skeptical I was when I heard that the new plan for the session on Blogging for Impact was for Dave Munger to beam himself into the conference via his Second Life avatar and actually conduct his presentation through Second Life. It’s not that I have ever doubted Dave or his abilities, or those of the very competent individuals who were in charge of the SL control panel. I guess I’ve just been jaded by my experiences of witnessing technological mishaps.
BUT IT WORKED!! After a few minutes of suspense while the SL techies tinkered around with settings and relayed instructions, Dave’s audio came in loud and clear and everyone in the conference hall — as well as in Second Life — was able to listen to Dave give his part of the presentation. It was like the conference audience was NASA when the Apollo 13 spacecraft came back online after all that dead air time (right around 8:35 in the video). Yep, pretty much exactly the same situation.
I think this was actually the coolest part of the conference for me, because I got to watch technological evolution in action. If it wasn’t for Dave’s passport fail, it wouldn’t yet be demonstrated at a Science Online conference that it is not only possible, put potentially just as entertaining and effective, for someone across the Atlantic to present in an auditorium full of people. It would still be just a theory waiting to be tested by a brave individual willing to risk technological malfunction.
Now that we know if can be done, the sky is the limit, really. Why keep conference presenters limited to individuals who can physically attend the conference when you could have anyone in the world beam themselves in for 15 minutes? Money and time have ceased to be limiting factors, so at Science Online 2010 this January, why not beam in the big names? (/crosses fingers for Nick Denton)